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October 15, 2006
Back when I was a first-year graduate student, I had to do something that I'm not sure that folks today have to worry about: pass a German test. Mind you, it wasn't much of a test - you got a passage from a journal article, and could use a dictionary, and you had a couple of hours. Fast page-flipping would get you through it, which is basically how I did it, since I'd only had one semester of the language as an undergrad (and not much of it took). Little did I know that I'd have a year coming up when I'd have to speak the language in order to eat.
You couldn't substitute another language, either, because German is a uniquely important one in chemistry. A lot of the older physical and inorganic (and a huge amount of the early organic) work was done in Germany, which also produced huge reference works like Beilstein, Gmelin, and Houben-Weyl. But perhaps all the verbs in those sentences should be in the past tense, because both of those references are now appearing in English.
Beilstein switched over with the 5th printed supplement, which appeared only after massive delays which led many scientific libraries to give up on their subscriptions. At one point, the print edition was a good thirty years out of date. Organic grad students had regarded Beilstein with awe back in the 1950s and before, but by the 1980s many of them had never used it. The switch to electronic database searching, which was done in English right from the start, brought them back to relevence. Now libraries are having to remind people that the computer-based service used to be part of a printed handbook.
Houben-Weyl, for its part, switched to English in 1990 or so, but that doesn't seem to have raised its profile in the non-German-speaking world. I recall a Dylan Stiles post where he didn't seem to have heard of the work, for example. The publishers finally caught on to the fact that printed reference works are in trouble, and have moved into the electronic age.
So, here's a question for the grad-student readers: does anyone have to take a German exam any more? The importance of the language in chemistry has been in steady decline for decades, and (if anything) accelerated decline for the last fifteen years. And if you do have to take a test, does anyone at your department still know why?
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