English 250: Language of Science 1
Developing a common language
To engage in any type of communication is to “participate in a community; to write well is to understand the conditions of one’s own participation—the concepts, values, traditions, and style
which permit identification with that community and determine the success or failure of communication” (Miller 22).
Miller, Caroly. 2004. “A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing” 15-23. Teaching Technical
Communication. Critical Issues for the Classroom. Ed. James M. Dubinsky. Boston:
Before the development of a common medical language, every country, region, city, and doctor would have different terms for body parts and diseases. Observation was a primary method of
gathering evidence; however, the scientific community had much difficulty sharing knowledge. “No wonder that the concept of contagion was so often misunderstood, and the word itself used in connotations that added to the uncertainties. And no wonder also that in reviewing the events of these times, a modern reader is so easily thrown into a quandary in trying to interpret small shadings that differentiate one usage from another. Specificity of meaning would come to this and other areas of medical theory only when science itself became more specific and a consistent vocabulary could be developed” (61).
Medical language timeline
Until relatively recently, disease was seen in whole body term and was diagnosed in whole body terms.
Ancient Greks and Egyptians believed disease was caused by an imbalance of the four humors:
blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Cures and therapies were intended to re-
balance the humors and included such things as bleeding, induced vomiting and sweating. Disease was believed by many to be a punishment from G-d.
1674 Theophilus Bonetus believed that to understand a disease, one must identify where the
disease started. He published a collection of
autopsies, but the text was so disorganized that it
wasn’t possible to see patterns. In addition, every
autopsy report used different terminology, so it
wasn’t possible to compare autopsies.
1761 Giovanni Battista Morgagni publishes De Sedibus et
Causis morborum per Anatomen Indagatis (On the
Seats and Causes of Disease, Investigated by Anatomy). Morgnani spent decades
conducting autopsies and comparing his findings to doctors’ clinical findings (patients’
symptoms) while they were still alive. He organized his findings by symptoms and the
location of disease using consistent terminology. Using his book, doctors were, for the
and these diagnoses first time, able to look up patients’ symptoms to diagnosis disease—
would be similar across city, region, state, and country.
Doctors started to pay more attention to symptoms and inspect their patients more closely. Their
reported findings continued to increase medical knowledge.
The diagnostic tools of palpation (feel), percussion (tapping), auscultation (listenting) were
developed to locate the seat of disease; all findings were reported and shared in the
evolving common language of medicine.
1816 René Lænnec invented the stethoscope, which allowed doctors to hear and diagnosis even
1844 Karl Rokitansky publishes a multivolume book, Handbook of Pathological Anatomy. This
academic textbook not only further current doctors’ abilities, but it allowed medical
schools to teach the same concepts with the same terminology no matter what language
their students spoke. Rokitansky conducted 30,000 autopsies during his career; he
compared symptoms with findings on autopsy to further identify the origin of disease.; he
was able to categorize diseases.
Different discourse communities have different language and genre guidelines that influence not only the way the communication is delivered, but actually influence meaning. We are going to do an exercise that will test your ability to communicate to a specific community, in a specific context, for a specific purpose. (Refer back to the quote at the top of this handout.)
; What would the implications be of a lack of shared language in a given field?
; In what way do you think that communicating scientific knowledge makes you a
participant in that community?
; How would you define the concepts, values, traditions and style of the scientific