January 31, 2007

The astrophysical lexicon and liver shrinkage

On tonight's Daily Show, Jon's guest, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson1 remarked that astrophysical terminology was kept simple because the universe is complicated enough as it is:

What is a black hole? Matter is so dense, and has such a high gravity, that light travelling even at its tremendous speeds cannot escape. So it's dark, it's a black hole, and in astrophysics, we call it like we see it. It's black, it's a hole, it's a black hole. [laughter] We are simple people in astrophysics. (Jon: You are not simple people!) We are! Our lexicon -- spots on the sun? 'Sunspots'! [laughter] No, I'm serious! The universe is complex enough! We don't want to lay down a lexicon to confuse the public, [who] try to follow what we do. The chemists do that! The medical doctors do that! Not in my field. (Jon: You are going to walk out of here tonight and get jumped by a gang of chemists.)

Of course, he's right that medical terminology, and most English scientific terminology in general, is Latin- (and Greek-)based, because Latin was the international language of learning when science was first getting going. (Modern astrophysics perhaps came along late enough in the game not to be bound by this convention.) Even in England, back in the day, English couldn't get no respect, at least as far as scientifically codifying the natural world went. As a consequence, English chemical, medical and biological terminology is generally opaque to nonspecialists, requiring particular effort or special training to understand natively.

This famously causes something of a distancing effect between patients and their problems: understanding the exact nature of our illnesses often involves an extended interview with the diagnostician, asking for precise explanations for what the diagnosis really mean, in lay terms. It's not that English lacks native or common terms for most relevant body parts or conditions (it would be a very odd language indeed that did), but rather that science doesn't use those terms, instead employing parallel Latin-based ones.

However, I've often wondered what the patient-doctor relationship feels like in other languages. In Romance languages like Spanish or Italian, the Latinate terminology presumably seems at least somewhat familiar, being cognate with the everyday terms for the relevant body parts.

An English speaker might be able to get something of a feel for what that must be like by looking at some German disease names, where the terms are often cognate with familiar English terms. Although it does employ plenty of Latinate medical terminology, German seems not to employ as much as English. For example, cardiovascular disease translates as Herz-Kreislauf-Erkrankung, 'heart circulation illness', according to this online dictionary.2 What if, instead of being told you had a fracture of the tibia, you instead heard you had a Schienbeinbruch, a 'shinbone break'? How would you feel if your doctor told you you had Lungenentzündung, 'lung inflammation', rather than pneumonia, or Leberschrumpfung 'liver shrinkage' rather than cirrhosis, or Sprachstörung, 'speech disorder', rather than aphasia? It feels different, doesn't it?

Does this sensation of semi-understanding mean that Germans and Italians have a less boggling experience when talking about their illnesses with their doctors? Perhaps patients are lulled into a false sense of understanding by the familiar terms, and skip the extended interview that would really let them know what's going on? Or perhaps they have a better understanding of what's going on, not needing an extended translation of even the most basic terminology? Or are doctors inscrutable the world over?3

1How's that for an anarthrous NP, eh?

2(Despite my given name) I don't actually speak any German, so I've relied entirely on this dictionary for the particular translations offered here.

3Comments can be made on the crosspost at Heideas, if you like.

Posted by Heidi Harley at January 31, 2007 02:22 AM