Friday, 6 May 2011

(Chinese Periodic Table) There's 锑,砷,铝,硒...

For those of you interested, the Chinese above is the first line from Tom Lehrer's song "The Elements".
"There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium.." and so on, a song which I became very familiar with when I was younger. I have fond recollection of an event revolving around the chemical elements when I was in my formative years. At this time I was perhaps 12 years old, and I had just moved from junior to senior school. For the first time, instead of having a mixed science class, the three sciences of chemistry along with physics and biology were segmented into specialised subjects.

The chemistry teacher set us a paper in the first class as an observation of our understanding of chemistry, and there was one question imploring us to "Write down any chemical elements that you know of." Most students managed 10, some perhaps 20. I tirelessly wrote down more than 80 elements, in the exact order and more-or-less the exact lyrics of Tom Lehrer's song. I will cherish the bemused and surprised look on the chemistry teacher's face for the rest of my life...

And this brings me on to the topic of this blog entry. See, when I left school I thought that I was done with chemistry, but recently I have started to develop quite an interest in the Chinese periodic table. A while back I suggested that new Chinese characters could not just be created out of no-where since most people would not understand them. Well, in fact, I was wrong. In very specialist cases they can be, and one example of this is the periodic table.

Early Chinese characters had already been found for the Five Traditional Metals: Gold, Silver, Copper, Iron and Tin; along with Lead and Mercury; but around the industrial age there was a need for the creation of characters to depict the recently isolated elements.
And the technique used is a fascinating one. Depending on the state of the element at room temperature, firstly one of 4 different radicals (this is not the sound part, it just contributes to the meaning) were used. 钅(metal/gold) for solid metals, 石 (stone) for solid non-metals, 氵(water) for liquids and 气 (air) for gases.

Some of the time a sound is then given which most of the time would correspond to the Western description of the element.
For Example: Sodium, depicted in the periodic table as Na, when translated into Chinese derives it sound from 内 and its metal state钅to make 钠. This is pronounced na in Chinese, an intentional similarity to Na

Aluminium, in the same way, utilises the character 吕 for the sound and pairs it with the metal radical 钅to make 铝. This pronounciation is , with strong correlations to Aluminum.

Other elements are purely meaning based. Hydrogen for example, since it is the lightest of elements, takes the character for light (轻) and pairs it with the radical for air (气)to give 氢.

One other kind of elements invokes a concept I mentioned in an earlier blog article, that of re-inventing obscure characters with a new meaning. The characters 镤,鈹 and 鉻 originally meant respectively "raw iron", "needle" and "hook", but these meanings have long been lost to most people and re-invented by chemists/translators as protactinium, beryllium and chromium.

So, to come to some sort of conclusion; it is in fact possible to invent new characters, but only under certain conditions. The creations must come to represent something which is agreed on and definitive. As a representation of Western elements already in some finite structurural template it is do-able, if it was an advertiser wanting to invent a word not so easy. And in today's technological climate there are some strange reprecussions. Tom Lehrer at the end of his song pointed out that
"These [elements] are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard, there may be many others but they haven't been discovered."

And indeed, some of the newly discovered chemical elements, and new creation of characters for them are just new. Copernicum, for example. This is simply too new an element and character, so new that it has not been added to my Chinese input system. Even if I wanted to type it, there is simply no way of doing so. Good thing I'm not writing a paper in Chinese on the discovery of Copernicum...

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