Language and

Thracian tetradrachm from the first century BC. Literature about these coins has appeared in German, French, Bulgarian, Romanian, and English, undoubtedly among other languages.

IN A NUTSHELL: To communicate with the most people, and to spread their knowledge the most widely, ancient numismatic scholars should write in English, a language most already know, just as scholars in the sciences do.


Ancient numismatic scholarship is a Tower of Babel, a confusion of voices in which far too many collectors and dealers can't understand the scholars who through their research and reasoning create new knowledge. It wouldn't be that way if ancient numismatic scholarship followed the lead of other areas of scholarship today and the precedents set by the empires of ancient Rome and Greece.

Ancient numismatic scholars should write in English to better communicate with people worldwide.

How scholarly information about ancient coins is disseminated is a core issue. It determines how we learn about the coins we buy, sell, and appreciate. As enjoyable as it is to acquire a 2000-year-old piece of monetary metal, it can be even more enjoyable to acquire knowledge about the latest evidence and the latest interpretations of evidence about when, where, why, by whom, and how it was minted. Not all collectors of course approach coins from a scholarly perspective. But doing so can greatly deepen the attraction.

Today, journal articles and books about the coins of ancient Rome and Greece are written in a cacophony of different languages. In researching areas of my own interest, I've come across older as well as newer works in German, French, Italian, Greek, Bulgarian, Romanian, Russian, Georgian, Turkish, and, yes, even English. Others have mentioned works in still additional languages.

Lingua Franca

When scientists from around the world write physics papers, 90 percent of these papers are in English. This is done for a very rational reason -- to maximize the number of people who can read the work, to maximize the wide dissemination of the information. Responding to the increasingly globalized village that is our world, physics scholars have been publishing more and more in English. This 90 percent figure has increased from 70 percent over the past 20 years.

This phenomenon has occurred with the other sciences as well. "English has very nearly become the universal language of science," according to an article in the journal Scientist. "Whether for publication or for international conferences and symposia, English now dominates scientific communication." And this was from the September 1987 issue.

Along with science, English has become or is becoming the lingua franca, the universal language, of engineering, medicine, business, diplomacy, the Internet, and other fields as well. This doesn't mean that every last journal article and book in these fields are published in English, just that the bulk of material published by those who want to communicate with the largest number of people worldwide is published in English rather than in their native language.

Chinese is the world's most popular first language, but more people know English as either their first or second language than any other. It's the world's most commonly spoken, read, and written auxiliary language, and the language most often studied as a foreign or secondary language in continental Europe, Japan, and China, among other places. Perhaps today's universal language should be Esperanto or Interlingua, but it's not. Advocating a common language doesn't mean you're disrespecting the linguistic heritage of anyone. It means you're respecting and advocating communication.

In an article for the Japan-based The Internet TESL Journal: For Teachers of English as a Second Language that's titled "Why Do We Teach English?", Kenji Kitao of Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, wrote, "The importance of English is not just in how many people speak it but in what it is used for. English is the major language of news and information in the world. It is the language of business and government even in some countries where it is a minority language. It is the language of maritime communication and international air traffic control, and it is used even for internal air traffic control in countries where it is not a native language."

The situation is different with ancient numismatics. For many collectors and dealers, much knowledge is locked away in languages they don't understand.

When you suggest online that it would be rational for ancient numismatic scholars to speak to us in one tongue, some people agree with you. Others get offended. You get accused of being a cultural imperialist and an ugly American. People say you're pompous and provincial. You're called a complainer. As can happen online, it can become quasi-schizoid. One person who has a tendency online and in print to play fast and loose with the facts implied I was a numismatic fascist who wanted to stamp out foreign languages.

The tone of these responses in part is due to the nature of the online world. It goes with the territory. Because those conversing are separated from one another by distance and time and because of the absence of facial expressions, body language, and voice inflections, people sometimes converse less civilly than they do elsewhere.

But there's also a core of irrationality running through the substance of some of the responses. As irrational as they are, they're no more irrational than the current situation with ancient numismatic scholarship. Knowledge doesn't get spread as it should. Because of the language factor, it filters down through auction and collection catalog attributions and through references in other journal articles and books instead of going to people directly, with much of it never reaching those who could benefit from it.

Learn a foreign language, some urge. But it's not just one language you need to know. And it's not rational to suggest that people who want access to the knowledge of ancient numismatics should learn ten languages instead of suggesting that those who publish it should write in one language, a language that in all likelihood they already know.

Ancient numismatic scholarship used to have a common language. Before 1800 most books on ancient coins, as well as ancient history and the classics, were written in Latin, according to Curtis Clay, a numismatist with
Harlan J. Berk Ltd. and one of the most learned and helpful ancient coin experts who's active online. After about 1800, Latin largely disappeared, and from then on, as today, people generally wrote in their native language, he says.

Language and Empire

As the discussion below will illustrate, there are many reasons for the opposition to universal language, in ancient numismatics and elsewhere. But I'd contend there's one core reason, a reason that's little understood and largely unarticulated. Universal language provokes uncomfortable feelings about empire.

We find the entire notion of empire repugnant. As the historian Rupert Emerson wrote in 1942, "With the exception of the brief period of imperialist activity at the time of the Spanish-American war, the American people have shown a deep repugnance to both conquest of distant lands and the assumption of rule over alien peoples."

Yet the universality of English in many fields today is the result of two empires, the British and American.

The British Empire, which at its zenith between 1918 and 1922 comprised 14.2 million square miles (36.7 square kilometers) or 27 percent of the Earth's land surface excluding Antarctica, was the largest land empire in the history of the world, according to
Bruce R. Gordon and his associates. The English language spread, over the centuries, with British rule.

The United States today comprises an empire of a different sort, one that's more economic and cultural than military. It's not chauvinistic to say that much of the world today is influenced by American advances and trends in science, technology, medicine, film, music, literature, art, fashion, and ... language. As Niall Ferguson wrote in his 2004 book Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, America "has astonishing cultural reach." Conversely, there's much opposition to this, and much antipathy toward the economic and military role of the United States in the world and how it conducts itself.

The irony with ancient numismatics is that we typically celebrate empire, in particular the Athenian, Persian, Macedonian, Seleukid, Roman, and Byzantine empires, all of which were much more militarized than the U.S. is today. We collect and admire their coins, which even more than vehicles of commerce and trade were the organ through which military power wielded or repelled military power, paying soldiers and mercenaries, buying weapons and supplies, and paying tribute.

Alexander the Great's Macedonian Empire comprised 2.1 million square miles, slightly smaller than the Persian Empire that preceded it, which was 2.4 million square miles in size. The Seleukid Empire, its largest successor, was 1.3 million square miles. Both the Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire at their height were 2.2 million square miles. The British Empire may have been history's largest overall, but the largest contiguous land empire was the Mongol Empire of the 13th century, comprising 12.8 million square miles or 24 percent of the Earth's land surface excluding Antarctica.

Before English, the world's universal language was French, particularly in diplomatic circles, as a result of the French Colonial Empire of the 19th century, which was 4.9 million square miles. The key reason behind the French attitude toward English today is cultural resentment that French is no longer the international language that it was. Before French, the universal language was Latin. Going back to Roman times, educated people in areas controlled or influenced by Rome spoke Latin as their first or second language. Before Latin, it was Greek. During Hellenistic times throughout the Mediterranean world educated people spoke Greek as their first or second language. All this promoted communication. It was efficient. This still applies today. Perhaps two hundred years from now the universal language of the day will be a simplified, phonetic version of Chinese if China continues to grow in population, prosperity, and power.

Other Precedents

One argument that's made against a universal language in ancient numismatics is that there would be too much resistance in ancient numismatic circles to publishing more work in English than is done today, that it's too impractical. But this argument about retaining the status quo is the same that was made about the euro, the European Union, and the United Nations and its predecessor, the League of Nations. It was also used about the metric system, and is still used, unfortunately, in the U.S. today.

Imagine a scenario today with measuring systems that's similar to the scenario that exists today with languages in ancient numismatic publishing. Let's assume that most countries of Europe use their own measuring system. Would it then make sense to suggest that everybody who has dealings with people in these various countries learn a dozen different measuring systems, or would it make more sense to promote the common use of one system?

Mutual benefit derives in the real world from people of different backgrounds forgoing divergent old ways and adopting a common way. This doesn't mean that this needs to be done universally. Cultural heritage is important. Multiculturalism is a good thing. But there's a healthy balance between cultural uniqueness and practical commonality.

There are lots of opportunities for celebrating individual culture, including language, such as travel, ethnic festivals, foreign films (subtitled), world music, art exhibits of foreign artists, and world literature (translated). All of this opens your eyes to other ways of thinking, feeling, and living, ways that may be just as valid as your own, or more so. All of this also helps us understand and better live with one another. None of this requires us to speak a babel of different languages. Communicating to the world, I would contend, is not the best way to celebrate culture.


There are other reasons, both logical and illogical, that English is not the universal language of ancient numismatics today. The reality with ancient coins, as well as artifacts, is that for the most part they're found in lands where English isn't spoken as the native language. But just as ancient coins are or should be all of our heritage, not just the heritage of those who control the land where the coins happen to be found, so should the knowledge about them. Advocating a universal language isn't suggesting that anyone change his native language, his nationality, or his religion or, heaven forbid, switch from coin collecting to stamp collecting. It's simply a better way to spread knowledge.

There's an economic reason that ancient numismatic articles and books are published in only one language. The market for these works is so small that publishers can't justify publishing in two languages, according to Georges Depeyrot, the well-respected researcher and author whose work is published, in French, by Belgium-based
Moneta. The ancient numismatic publishing market is small, he says, because of the small ratio of book buyers to coin buyers, because of the decreasing number of people who belong to scholarly societies worldwide, and because of the lack of orders from libraries.

Publishers feel they will earn the same relatively small revenue no matter what language they publish in, says Depeyrot. There are, in turn, reasons behind this, none of which I would contend is intractable either in itself or taken together with the other reasons. A higher percentage of continental Europeans are collectors of ancient coins and buyers of ancient coin literature than people from native-English countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. Continental Europeans tend to be more proficient in languages than people from native-English countries. This is so in large part because they have to be. The countries of continental Europe are in close proximity to one another while native-English countries are more isolated geographically.

Despite all this, the potential market for ancient coin literature as well as ancient coins in native-English countries is huge, and if publishers must publish in one language, I would contend, they would reach more potential buyers if that language were English. On the other hand, Georges Depeyrot deserves much kudos, as do other scholars like him, for bringing to light knowledge about our collective past through his numismatic research and publishing efforts, which involve among other things working with hoards in difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions. Publishing at all is far better of course than not publishing.

Another reality about ancient numismatics is that, almost by definition, it's a conservative field. We try, after all, to conserve and celebrate the past. This conservation, however, carries over into resistance to change in publishing and other areas, though this isn't saying that all involved are tradition bound. There's also the demographics. Numismatics in general is skewed toward an older population, and older people tend to be more conservative and resistant to change than younger people.

With ancient numismatic publishing, the appropriate metaphor isn't a young researcher wearing a white lab coat at his computer in his office, discussing his work in English on the Internet so people all over the world can benefit from his thoughts. Instead, it's a distinguished elderly gentleman wearing a tweed jacket, smoking a pipe, and sitting in an overstuffed leather chair in his study, discussing his work in his native language with two of his chums.

Another argument that's made is that people who write in English as a foreign language can't communicate as adeptly, conveying the same subtleties and nuances, as they can with their native language. But in various online discussion groups, numismatists who don't speak English as their native language do an excellent job in general of communicating. Many scholars in other fields who don't speak English as their native language yet publish in English do an excellent job of communicating as well. If ancient numismatic scholars published more of their work in English, other scholars would cite their work more often in their own work, in addition to more people receiving their knowledge directly. Knowledge would spread further and faster.

One more argument used is that if you want to be serious about ancient numismatics, you should at least know ancient Greek and Latin and modern German and French. Yet most serious collectors and dealers aren't fluent in all of these languages and are still inquisitive and deeply involved with their hobby or profession. They may know enough to make sense of coin inscriptions and attributions in reference and auction catalogs, but they don't know enough to read others' thoughts in books and journal articles -- the research they've done, how they interpret it, and how they interpret the research of others, in short, the knowledge of ancient numismatics.

Linguistic Dexterity

One of the many interesting aspects about the way that multilingualism is debated online is how people's opinions and experiences place them into two relatively distinct groups. There are those who have a facility with other languages, who enjoy the process of poring over works in a language they don't know, who contend that this process is easy, and who argue for linguistic diversity. And there are those who don't enjoy trying to make sense of works written in other languages, who would rather spend their time on the content rather than the form in which the content is expressed, and who argue for the use of a common language.

Most people involved with ancient numismatics, I believe, would prefer to spend their time learning about numismatics and various related fields, such as history, mythology, archeology, aesthetics, and metrology, rather than learning how different people say the same things using the words, grammar, and alphabets of different languages.

Despite the contention that it's easy, the reality is that deciphering a work in a language you don't know for many is both laborious and tedious, involving more than having a dictionary handy. Today's machine translation Web sites and software programs, useful though they are, clearly show that there's more to it than simply looking up words. Included here are free sites such as
Google Translate and Alta Vista's Babel Fish Translation. Also involved in understanding other languages is grammar, idiom, and jargon, in this case the specialized numismatic terms and abbreviations. Some Web sites help with numismatic jargon, including Wörterbuch der gebräuchlichsten Fachausdrücke für Münzsammler, for German numismatic terms. The Italian coin dealer Moruzzi Numismatica has a brief online numismatic glossary that translates among Italian, French, English, Spanish, and German.

Still, because of difficulties that still remain regarding grammar and idiom with languages you don't know, oftentimes you're still not sure whether what you think you're deciphering is what the author actually meant. I personally find it difficult enough at times understanding material written in my own language.

People's attitudes about a common language may have to do, at least in part, with whether during early childhood they were exposed to a second or third language and developed a facility for learning other languages. People who have a facility for languages, who enjoy them, are impressive. The arguments made for preserving the status quo in ancient numismatic scholarship are not impressive.

Preferring to read and write in a common language has little to do with how much education you have in other areas or how widely traveled or worldly you are, despite the charges of provincialism and the insinuations of ignorance. A credible argument could be made, from looking at this issue beyond a superficial perspective, that these charges and insinuations themselves are ignorant and provincial. Studying ancient coins, after all, is supposed to give us a deep historical perspective on the present. Suggesting that everyone in ancient numismatics who wants access to the knowledge should learn ten languages rather than encouraging the smaller number of people who are publishing it to write in a common language they already know is "cultural correctness" run amok.

Traveling opens up your eyes, and my experience is far from unique. I've lived and worked for extended periods of time in the U.K., Sweden, Finland, Greece, and Israel, and I've lived (inexpensively) without working for more than a month in both France and Spain. The fact that in all of these countries virtually all of the educated people I encountered were able to converse in English showed me the logic of a universal language. Though I learned as many native words and phrases as I could wherever I was, as a sign of respect and because it was appreciated, the bulk of my communication was in English, as it was for other foreigners I encountered from various countries who were also visiting the particular country.

This same debate over multilingualism of course occurs outside of ancient numismatics as well, and it can get heated there also. Along with multilingualism, other terms used include language protectionism, linguistic diversity, and linguicide. If you do a Web search using these terms, you'll find much information about this issue, primarily in English. Undoubtedly you'd find information in other languages too if you knew, and used, the appropriate search terms in those languages.

But on the Internet, as elsewhere, those who want to communicate with one another worldwide about this subject, and many other subjects, do so in English.


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