A remarkable post by Victor Mair at the Log begins by quoting a query from a reader:
I was wondering what the periodic table of elements looked like in China, and found this image.
This may or may not be the “official” periodic table, but I thought it was interesting to see the similarities in the characters. Specifically the character for gold, which is also the character for metal in general, and is a prefix for a large portion of the periodic table. The character for water is a large part of the character for mercury, and a few others, and all of the gas elements have the same character in them. It makes me wonder what the protocol is for naming new elements in Chinese, since they seem to be focused on the properties of the element itself, and that would take more investigating than might be possible for new elements, which usually only exist for fractions of fractions of seconds. Newly discovered elements these days are named (in English) after people: Bohrium, Rutherfordium, Fermium, Einstenium, etc. and I wonder what the Chinese equivalent of those elements is.
Mair then comes out with this astonishing fact: “The first thing we may say about the names of the chemical elements in Chinese is that every single one of them is monosyllabic.” He discusses the history of the names in Chinese and presents his own list of all the elements, giving for each element the number, symbol, English name, Chinese character (traditional and simplified), and Pinyin version; he ends with Tom Lehrer’s elements song and the elements song in Japanese. The thread that follows is also extremely interesting, and I second Nickolas’s call for someone to “please create a ‘Rosetta Stone’ spreadsheet of the periodic table in (at least) the top ten to fifteen world languages and highlight the differences.”