chapter  3
17 Pages

On the Language of Physical Science

The term ‘scientific English’ is a useful label for a generalized functional variety, or register, of the modern English language. To label it in this way is not to imply that it is either stationary or homogeneous. The term can be taken to denote a semiotic space within which there is a great deal of variability at any one time, as well as continuing diachronic evolution. The diatypic variation can be summarized in terms of field, tenor and mode: in field, extending, transmitting or exploring knowledge in the physical, biological or social sciences; in tenor, addressed to specialists, to learners or to laymen, from within the same group (e.g., specialist to specialist) or across groups (e.g., lecturer to students); and in mode, phonic or graphic channel, most congruent (e.g., formal ‘written language’ with graphic channel) or less so (e.g., formal with phonic channel), and with variation in rhetorical function-expository, hortatory, polemic, imaginative and so on. So for example in the research programme in the linguistic properties of scientific English carried out at University College London during the 1960s the grid used was one of field by tenor, with three subject areas (biology, chemistry and physics) by three ‘brows’, high, middle and low (learned journals, college textbooks, and magazines for the general public).