A Linguistic Approach to Science


The most intimidating thing about science is often the technical jargon that can sometimes confound the meaning of a piece of scientific literature for the standard lay audience; or even scientists and students in training. By breaking words down into their constituent parts, said technical terms are infinitely more accessible and memorable.

A brainwave whilst revising prompted this article- researching the brief etymology of certain prefixes and suffixes can really help to compartmentalise and understand not only scientific jargon, but jargon from an array of fields. Many denounce the English language as a mess of hybridisation of ancient and modern languages; a perplexing stew of Latin, Greek and French amongst others. However, this means that word components can be categorised according to meaning to aid learning of terminology; it’s also interesting to see how the root of a word can be incorporated into modern usage.

Take for example the levels of stratification in lakes. This is split into three depths: the uppermost section is known as the epilimnion; the second is known as the thermocline and the last is the hypolimnion. At first glance these words look mythical and you may take the approach of memorising for the sake of memorising, but not really taking the time to understand the construction of the terms themselves.

Credit: http://www.uwsp.edu/
Credit: http://www.uwsp.edu/

To make it easier to understand and remember, you can split, firstly, epilimnion into two constituents: epi– from the Greek meaning “on/upon/above”; limnion– also from Greek meaning “lake/water”. This provides a simple learning aid because now you know how the word itself translates to its position in the lake; the uppermost strata. Next you have the thermocline- thermo is arguably a widely understood prefix, which you would take to have relation to heat and temperature. Indeed, it comes from the Greek thermos meaning “heat”. “Cline” is from the Greek “klinein” meaning “to slope” and thus is used as a suffix to mean a gradation or a continuum. Thereby you can take the word “thermocline” to mean a temperature gradient, which is one of the characteristics of this intermediate layer. Lastly, you have “hypolimnion”. At this point we already known limnion means lake/water, so now we just need to understand that hypo comes from the (surprise) Greek, meaning “under” or “low”. This easily translates into the lowest part of the lake and there you have it: a simple way of understanding a concept by referencing etymological roots of words.

This formulaic approach to tackling terminology is incredibly useful as you will begin to notice the same morphologies in many words; once you know one you can easily apply it to other words to infer meaning.



Sub-editor 2017/18. Third year Biology with Linguistics student. Interested particularly in global health, genetics and nutrition. Very disposed towards writing about things that haven't quite been explained yet.

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