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Science Communication


Languages grow with scientific expressions

by Alex Scott
September 9, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 30


Celtic chemistry

Owain Beynon.
Credit: Cardiff University
Welsh first: Owain Beynon's chemistry PhD dissertation was the first written in the Welsh language in Cardiff University’s 140-year history.

Owain Beynon has broken more than scientific ground with his chemistry PhD. He is the first person in Cardiff University’s 140-year history to write a dissertation in Welsh—it could even be the first PhD in chemistry ever completed in Welsh, Beynon tells Newscripts. The distinctive Celtic language—Beynon’s mother tongue and the first language of Wales—is related to Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic, as well as to Breton, which is spoken in northwestern France.

It was “a natural choice” to write the dissertation in Welsh, Beynon says. The work is titled “Astudiaeth Gyfrifiadurol o Synthesis a Sefydlogrwydd Defnyddiau Mandyllog Anorganig,” or “A Computational Study of the Synthesis and Stability of Inorganic Porous Materials.”

Welsh has 28 letters but lacks a number of scientific phrases. Beynon collaborated with terminologists in Bangor, Wales, to come up with new phrases to fill some of the gaps. They include “damcaniaeth dwysedd ffwythianolion,” which means “density functional theory,” and “brasamcan graddiant cyffredinol,” or a “general gradient approximation.”

Beynon defended his PhD in a viva voce held entirely in Welsh with examiners Dewi Lewis of University College London (UCL) and Ifan Stephens of Imperial College London, who are both Welsh speakers and experts in catalysis. Beynon was successful and has since become a postdoctoral research fellow 241 km away and across the English border, at UCL. He is quite capable in his second language, English, so he expects to manage just fine in the UK capital.

He may have started a trend. “I know of many other students doing their PhD in other scientific fields through the medium of Welsh, at Cardiff and other Welsh universities,” Beynon says.


Signs of science

Sign language of ozone layer.
Credit: Scottish Sensory Centre
Sign of the times: The UK is on track to create 400 new scientific signs for sign language users, including one for ozone depletion.

Welsh is not the only language that has been missing some scientific terms. Sign language has been bereft of a raft of expressions relating to climate and biodiversity. That is changing, though, through a joint project at the Royal Society and the Scottish Sensory Centre. The project researchers are creating 400 new signs for common environmental terms that will be incorporated into British Sign Language (BSL); the partners have so far generated 200 signs in a series of workshops.

These signs include the phrases “carbon footprint” and “greenhouse gases.” For the former, the left hand forms a C while fingers from the right hand move away from the left to signify carbon being released to the environment. For the latter, both hands move in circles to represent gases. The left hand is placed horizontally, and the right index finger moves down and back up toward the left hand to indicate sunlight reflecting on Earth’s surface.

The researchers have not shied away from developing signs for things that are hard to conceptualize, such as "rewilding”. In this case, the signer makes two flat hands, palms facing down, then drops the palms while bringing the hands to the chest—a sign for habitat. The right hand, held at a distance from the body, turns from palm up to down.

The second set of 200 signs will include the themes of energy, sustainability, and environmental impacts on humans.

“These new BSL signs are an important first step towards allowing BSL users to not only share their appreciation of the natural world but also to join the conversation about the current threats to biodiversity and the environment,” says Audrey Cameron, BSL glossary project coordinator and chancellor’s fellow at the University of Edinburgh, in a press release.

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