Names of the Elements in Chinese.

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.”

Comments

  1. Bathrobe says:

    Doing such a list for East Asian languages has been on my to-do list for a long time. Much of what is said on that page is rather ‘old hat’, except for Jongseong Park’s comment, which was fascinating as usual.

    Another interesting one is geological eras. Did you know that the Chinese name for the Devonian, 泥盆纪 nípén-jì, is actually from Japanese? 泥盆 is pronounced in Japanese as deibon. The Japanese, of course, now use デボン紀 debon-ki.

    So is the Chinese word for Carboniferous (石炭纪 shítàn-jì). 石炭 sekitan is the Japanese word for ‘coal’. Chinese uses 煤炭 méitànor 煤 méi for ‘coal’. The Japanese call the Carboniferous 石炭紀 sekitan-ki.

  2. Jongseong Park’s comment, which was fascinating as usual.

    Yes indeed; here‘s a direct link to his comment.

  3. If anybody is going to include Russian in the “Rosetta stone of the elements” here’s a good starting point http://www.chem.msu.su/rus/history/element/ (but you need to be able to read Russian). In general, Russian has three groups of names for the elements. The largest one are transliterated Latin/international (and one Greek — azot = nitrogen) names, a few calqued international names (водород hydrogen, углерод carbon, кислород oxygen) and some old names, most of them of unclear origin: сера sulfur, кремний silicon, железо iron, медь copper, олово tin, мышьяк (rat poison?) arsenic, серебро silver, золото gold, ртуть mercury, свинец lead, сурьма antimony.

  4. Bathrobe says:

    Азот may originate from Greek, but I suspect it came to Russian from French.

    I think many languages are like Russian. That is: (1) old traditional names (2) calques for some important early elements, and (3) international names (with some variants like ‘nitrogen’ and ‘azot’). The Chinese case is somewhat exceptional because, as Wang Yangzong’s paper explains, there is a historical background to the current names. The story of historical diffusion is not only more interesting than the names themselves, it also helps to explain them. The way things are now is almost always because of something that happened in the past. This applies even to the current Korean screwup. Korean chemists perhaps feel that American names are now the ‘international standard’ and Korea needs to get with it. Admittedly a pretty crowd-chasing attitude, but that’s the way things work.

  5. There are very few native element names in English: lead, gold, iron, tin, lead. Silver and copper are very old borrowings, the former from Semitic into PIE, and the latter from Greek > Latin > Proto-Germanic. Berkelium is Latinized Berkeley ‘birch lea’.

  6. серебро silver, золото gold of course both are pairs of cognates.
    сурьма “antimony” is an obvious Turkic borrowing, it’s Latin designation stibium Sb is from Egyptian, like a few other chemical terms and of course the word “chemistry” itself. In Russian the proper way to read chemical formulas actually required knowing full Latin names, because all the two-letter symbols must be spelled us. We wouldn’t say ess-bee, but rather stibium; not ar-bee but rubidium. And, oh, of course “Azot” came by the way of France where they even used to have “Az” instead of “N” in the Table.

  7. Azot(e) is borrowed from French in the same sense as meter and gram are borrowed from French.

  8. Eli Nelson says:

    In Russian the proper way to read chemical formulas actually required knowing full Latin names, because all the two-letter symbols must be spelled us.

    As far as I know, it’s the same in English, though there are some cases where the Latinate words are not used as much anymore (i.e. you can say stannous fluoride or tin(ii) fluoride, but as far as I know the anion terms like permanganate and thiosulfate have no alternatives).

  9. There’s an Asimov mystery short story which depends on a student figuring out which chemical element name is most obnoxious to his professor. The professor despises prolixity, so the answer turns out to be this, the only six-syllable name.

  10. Azot(e) is borrowed from French in the same sense as meter and gram are borrowed from French.

    I’m not sure what you mean. Aren’t all those words borrowed from French in the same sense as any borrowed words are borrowed from the language they’re borrowed from?

  11. Aren’t all those words borrowed from French in the same sense as any borrowed words are borrowed from the language they’re borrowed from?

    They are all created by a committee as international terms of art. Sure, the committees themselves were French, but relations of these words with the language of French is a bit tenuous. It’s a bit like saying that Polonium was borrowed from French (or should it be Polish?).

  12. I’m glad people found my comment interesting. The overhaul of chemistry terms in Korea to imitate American English IUPAC forms is a topic which sees a number of my pet interests intersect (technical terminology, language policy, transcription of foreign terms into the Korean alphabet). I frankly couldn’t believe it was happening when I first found out about it (around 2003, I think) and I remember seeing a couple of pretty strong opinions against it in the blogosphere at the time. The feeling was that the language authorities caved in too easily to the Korean Chemistry Society’s demands. But in the end it wasn’t something that interested the public once the more radical proposals affecting everyday terms like vinyl and vitamin were withdrawn. The issue of what names to give chemical elements and compounds is not frankly something that really excites the general public.

    I did some personal research about standardizing the Korean translations of the geological divisions a while back. Most of the major ones already have established names, of course, but there are lots of minor ones that pose some interesting challenges. For example, in translating the Aquitanian stage, do we take as the base form the Latin Aquitania (아퀴타니아 Akwitania)? Aquitani (아퀴타니 Akwitani)? Or the French form Aquitaine (아키텐 Akiten)?

    I haven’t checked but I wouldn’t be surprised if the major geological divisions just followed the Japanese names. Indeed, the Carboniferous period is 석탄기 石炭紀 seoktan-gi using the same characters as the Japanese and the Devonian period is 데본기 Debon-gi in Korean, even though the place name Devon is now written 데번 Debeon as a schwa in English is mapped to ㅓ eo.

  13. David L says:

    Speaking chemical formulas is a chaotic business in English. I don’t think you would often say the names of the elements in a plain way. You can say aitch-two-oh for water, not (unless you’re trying to be painfully humorous) di-hydrogen oxide. Similarly, aitch-cee-el for hydrochloric acid and eff-ee-three-oh-four or eff-ee-two-oh-three to distinguish between different iron oxides. Or you can say iron-2-oxide, iron-3-oxide. Or ferric and ferrous (not used much anymore, I think). Or you can call them magnetite, hematite, etc etc.

    But when you get to big, horrible organic chemicals (the bane of my undergraduate days), you describe them in structural terms, such as n-acetyl-p-aminophenol, aka paracetamol, aka acetaminophen, aka tylenol.

    It’s assumed in all this that you know the names of the elements from their symbols, but you can go a long way with faking it.

  14. In Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series, the chemical used in flamethrowers to destroy Thread, a dangerous parasite, is called agenothree < HNO3 (nitric acid).

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Another interesting one is geological eras.

    It is – and I had no idea!

    Or ferric and ferrous (not used much anymore, I think).

    Used often enough that you need to know them; very salient to me, because German has no equivalent and probably never had one.

    Silver […] are very old borrowings, the former from Semitic into PIE

    Do you have details on this?

  16. David Marjanović says:

    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.”

    Clearly, the characters for the newly created names were created first, and then a pronunciation was coined for each of them.

  17. I don’t like saying “iron two”; using “ferrous” just sounds a lot better to me. If I were a chemist, I would probably feel more pressed to use the updated terminology. However, I do a certain amount of surface science and interact with chemists regularly, and obviously everyone knows the older terms.

  18. Do you have details on this?

    From AHD:

    [Middle English, from Old English siolfor, seolfor, probably ultimately from Akkadian ṣarpu, refined silver, verbal adj. of ṣarāpu, to smelt, refine; see ṣrp in the Appendix of Semitic roots.]

  19. [Middle English, from Old English siolfor, seolfor, probably ultimately from Akkadian ṣarpu, refined silver, verbal adj. of ṣarāpu, to smelt, refine; see ṣrp in the Appendix of Semitic roots.]

    New one for me too. A related Hebrew root צרף tsaraf means to refine, to smelt or to work (silver). By extension, today, and perhaps for a long time, it includes goldsmithing too. The root has lots of Semitic cognates of similar meaning. Klein specifically mentions Akkadian ṣarpa silver, and adds that the root is probably related to צרב tsarav burn (as in to burn a CD, or to cauterize) and שרף saraf burn (as in a fire); cf the special angels known as seraphim.

    I looked at a Hebrew periodic table. A small number of names of the elements are old words seen in the Bible. These include כסף kessef silver, from a word meaning pale, i.e., the pale metal, also with several Semitic cognates. Another is נחושת neḥoshet copper ‘brazen-stuff’. (!!) Many of the names for the newer elements are straight transliterations; a small number are loan translations, such as חמצן ḥamtsan oxygen ‘sour-stuff’ and חנקן ḥanqan nitrogen ‘choking-stuff’.

  20. Germanic probably got silver (Gothic silubr, OSax silvbar, OFris selover, ON silfr, MDu silver > ModDu zilver, OHG silabar > NHG Silber, all ‘silver, money’) from Balto-Slavic (OCS sъrebro, Rus serebro, Pol srebro; Lith sidabras). The /l/ in the former group looks like dissimilation.

    The general IE root is *arg-ent-, well-preserved in French argent < Latin argentum. Other cognates include Avestan erezata-, OPers ardata-, Arm arcat, OIrargat, Breton arc’hant. The unextended root *arg- is ‘shine, be white’, thus Greek argos ‘white’, argyron ‘silver’, Skt arjuna- ‘white, shining’, rajata- ‘silver’, Hittite harki- ‘white’.

    (All these from Etymonline.)

  21. Clearly, the characters for the newly created names were created first, and then a pronunciation was coined for each of them.
    It would probably be more accurate to say that the names and the characters were created simultaneously – for most non-traditional element names, the phonetic element in the character and the pronunciation of the character as a whole both reflect the foreign (usually English) pronunciation.
    However, there was a stage in the development of Chinese chemical nomenclature that really did proceed something like what you describe. In the late nineteenth century, at least one foreign chemist tried to invent new Chinese characters for the elements with no apparent attempt to assign them any pronunciation. The one that sticks in my mind is the character for manganese, composed by mashing together the three characters 無名異 – because wumingyi (“nameless strange thing”) was a traditional Chinese term for a certain manganese-containing mineral. Unsurprisingly, this system never caught on.

  22. Silver

    The OED gives a raft of cognates in the Germanic languages, and adds: “Related forms are found in the Balto-Slavonic languages, as Old Church Slavonic sĭrebro, Russian serebro, Polish śrebro, etc., Lithuanian sidabras, Latvian sudrabs; as to the relationship of these and the ultimate origin of the word no definite conclusions have been established.” It makes no reference to a Semitic root.

  23. If I were editing the Dictionary Of Record, I’d be cautious too.

  24. That entry is from 1910; I would expect when they get around to revising it they will add the Semitic connection.

  25. (I’ve tried posting this twice, but it didn’t take):
    Kroonen’s Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic compares PGmc *silubra- also with Celtiberian silabur and Basque zilhar, and calls it “A non-IE wanderwort whose distribution appears to be ‘circum-Celtic.'” Beekes’ Greek ditto says that some have conected the word for silver with Greek sídēros ‘iron’ (itself engendering much etymological speculation), “because both metals have a white color”.)

  26. Balashon has dealt with the Semitic root; the IE connection is mentioned but not delved into.

  27. (I’ve tried posting this twice, but it didn’t take):

    Sorry about that — I’m glad it finally went through! Let me take this opportunity to remind everyone that if the software refuses a comment (which happens occasionally, for reasons mysterious to me), please e-mail it to me and I will post it for you (for whatever reason, I never have this problem). I hate losing potential comments!

  28. David Marjanović says:

    Interesting. Now I wonder if a Phoenician connection would work to get a Semitic word into Celtiberian, Basque and Germanic.

  29. Except the semantic shift of ṣrp to ‘Silver’ is not in Phoenician or any other Semitic language but Akkadian, AFAIK.

  30. More on the ‘silver’ wanderwort, and others, by Don Ringe at Language Log.

  31. Rodger C says:

    On PGmc *silubra-, cf. Tolkien’s Silubril, an older form of Silmaril. Tolkien was fond of implicitly positing Elvish etc. origins for unexplained words. Cf. Dwarvish baruk ‘axes.’

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