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Names of the chemical elements in Chinese (upenn.edu)
39 points by breadbox on May 4, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 50 comments

> I was both surprised and disappointed by how hard it was to find a simple numerical list giving the following information for each element: number, symbol, English name, Chinese character (traditional and simplified), Pinyin.

I find wikipedia is ze best tool for cross-language reference research

1. go to this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Periodic_table

2. click the last language item on the left column

3. you got this http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%85%83%E7%B4%A0%E5%91%A8%E6%...

Unless I'm missing something I don't see the pinyin in wikipedia's table so it still doesn't fit the author's requirements.

I've pondered on multiple occasions, what if computing was born somewhere other than the west and we had to use roman numerals and/or Chinese/Arabic for software development. I could never understand how anyone can quickly discern/read a huge dictionary of such dense and wildly intricate glyphs.

For what it's worth, although English is based on a small alphabet, we read whole words at a time (rather than one letter at a time). So although we are bewildered by the idea of learning thousands of characters, we exercise similar skill in recognising tens of thousands (out of a total of millions) of English words.

English has middling-simple grammar [+] and you really can make a good start with a few hundred words. But learning those first few hundred words ... about half of them have such completely ridiculous spelling, you might as well be learning pictograms anyway. (I'd like you to picture trying to explain this to a confused four-year-old. Her spelling's good now, a few years later ...)

[+] no genders, no inflection, not many cases. Of course, articles are just ridiculous, and I challenge any English speaker to explain to a native Russian speaker the rules for when and when not to use "a" and "the" without looking it up ...

i'm native russian and english, Russian rules and exceptions are even more ridiculous and have all the [+]

Also English is not that phonological. In reality, you need to learn how combinations of 3-4 letters are mapped to sound. It's more like syllabary, really, except you don't have a separate glyph for each syllable.

Inventing computer with Chinese/Arabic is inherently harder because it's more difficult to type such characters. Once you pass the punctuation card stage, now what? Build a huge keyboard with 10s of thousand of Chinese characters? It took 13 years for MS-DOS to support typing in Chinese.

The first solution that came into my mind, type using strokes.

Here is a list of 11 strokes:


Every word's strokes has a pre-determined "correct" order.

Once you list out the word's strokes, there are only a a couple of possibilities of characters left.

A blog post on `Chinese Python`. http://reganmian.net/blog/2008/11/21/chinese-python-translat...

Unfortunately, Chinese Python maps English words to 2-character Chinese words, so the translation requires spaces between the Chinese words. So

    while running:
      guess = int(raw_input('Enter integer: '))
      if guess == number:
        print 'Congratulations'
        running = False
      elif guess < number:
        print 'No, higher'
        print 'No, lower'
translates to

    當 運行:
      猜測 = 整數(輸入('輸入數字: '))
      如果 猜測 == 數字:
        印出 '恭喜'
        運行 = 假
      假使 猜測 < 數字:
        印出 '錯了, 再大'
        印出 '錯了, 再小'
But if we map English words in programming to single Chinese characters, we wouldn't need spaces, so perhaps

      猜=整(輸('輸入數字: '))
        印'錯了, 再大'
        印'錯了, 再小'
And if we made the syntax more C-like to fully make use of the spaceless syntax

      猜=整(輸('輸入數字: '))
      否如猜<數{印'錯了, 再大'}
      否{印'錯了, 再小'}
One could program on one's smartphone screen on the train!

You can use semi-colons in Python to put multiple lines in one line, as well as inline blocks next to the colon. So, you can remove the braces, too. Added parenthesis for python 3.

      猜=整(輸('輸入數字: '))
      否如猜<數:印('錯了, 再大');
      否:印('錯了, 再小')

Hard to really guess what would have happened but it's possible that a Chinese speaker could have opted to start with one of the romanization systems or zhuyin fuhao and then build a system to inputs characters at a later point.

For Arabic the challenge is more akin to this type of problem: "create a computer that can handle a cursive form of the Latin alphabet". You could start with something really rudimentary like allow for Arabic characters in isolated form. It would be ugly and challenging to read, but a start. Wouldn't be too hard to add the initial, medial and final forms, eventually diacritics as well.

That's an English way to think about Chinese.

How do the Chinese approach this problem? Even something as simple things as looking up a word in a dictionary seems impossible in a language like Chinese where every work is a unique cahracter but obviously the people who actually deal with the language will have solutions I've not thought of.

Human ingenuity always finds a way. In Chinese dictionaries, there are simply multiple indices: you can look up characters by pronunciation (if you know the word but not how to write it) or by shape (if you know the character but not how to say it). The latter works because there is a small set of shapes (“radicals”) that are combined to produce new characters.

I can't speak directly to Chinese, but I am studying Japanese, which has a writing system derived from Chinese. Essentially each character can be broken up into smaller components (called radicals). This allows characters to be ordered somewhat 'alphabetically'. In theory, the radicals also carry some sementic and phonetic meaning, although (at least in Japanese) many characters have deviated significantly from what you would expect from the roots.

Also, although Japanese has been (through deliberate effort) simplified to about 2,000 characters needed to be considered literate, it still takes until high-school for students to be able to fully read and write all 2,000.

(Disclaimer: Not to argue for who invented computers first.)

Yeah, there is a famous computer geek who invented a super nice Chinese input method named "Cangjie" in Assembly and it can be used with a special Chinese CPU. (Now he is an old man.)


Two ways. If you know what it sounds like, you look in the phonetic index, which is ordered alphabetically according to the pronunciation; if you know what it looks like, you can look in the radical index, which lists characters by their radicals, ordered by how many strokes they have.

To answer your question on looking up a character in a dictionary, there are 3 ways, which are 3 indexing systems, all present in a dictionary. One can decide which index to use, either based on its pronunciation or its composition.

Largely, they don't, without a great deal of training. http://pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html

Arabic would actually be easier. It has about the same amount of letters and no capital letters.

It only seems difficult because you lack knowledge. Once you study a little you can break everything up into radicals pretty easy. It's one of the first things you learn so that you can lookup unfamiliar symbols in the dictionary by something other than stroke count.

I had a similar thought. I think if modern computing arose in China, technological progress would have been slower by a decade or so, simply because you need 16-bit computing before you can do any reasonable Chinese word processing.

After all, the printing press was invented in China, but it went nowhere there.

I've read that in China they didn't have typewriters and everything was hand-written right up till they got computers.

Edit: They had printing presses, but those are for newspapers etc. Ordinary people had to handwrite.

China did have typewriters, but the sheer number of keys made them impractical. The first practical ones came after the invention of dot matriz printing.

If computer languages were invented by Chinese, it would be written in pinyin and it would be as easy as English syntax is (the vocabulary used in computer languages are very limited after all). People always find ways to simply things, so no need to worry.

"The first thing we may say about the names of the chemical elements in Chinese is that every single one of them is monosyllabic. This actually causes great problems for Chinese chemists and other scientists, as well as the lay public, since there are so many homophones and near-homophones among them and with other monosyllabic words not on the list. Listening to a lecture or holding discussions that mention chemical elements and hearing the elements referred to by these monosyllabic names is challenging, to say the least."

-- It is untrue that "[this] actually causes great problems for Chinese chemists and other scientists, as well as the lay public." Chinese is a highly context-sensitive language. If people have no difficulty in communicating with other monosyllabic characters, why would they get confused when they refers to chemical elements? That does't sound making sense.

It is definitely hard to lay public, so is the case in English for American, at least for the people I know. They have no idea what most of the chemical ingredients listed in packaged food are, which is not surprising since the majority of people don't major nor minor in chemistry in college.

It is definitely not challenging for chemists and students who study chemistry, at least not for me and my college classmates, to understand lectures and have discussions on chemistry in Chinese. For example, when one refers to 铬 (Chromium) in a discussion in chemistry, the others wouldn't confuse it with other characters with the same pronunciation and tone, like 个,各,硌, etc. based on the context.

It is correct that most of the chemical element characters were invented from scratch in the last 150 years. Is a language supposed to evolve like that? Is it the similar case in English? I know most of the new elements were named after the scientists who discovered them. But what is wrong to create a Chinese new character for a new element based on the way how most Chinese characters have been created?

Disclaimer: I have studied inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, analytical chemistry in college. If it were in US, I could have at least had a minor in chemistry.

I spent a huge chunk of my adult life in Taiwan, studied there and worked there. I was familiar with about 40 of the words for elements.

>* If people have no difficulty in communicating with other monosyllabic characters, why would they get confused when they refers to chemical elements?*

People don't communicate with monosyllabic characters. They communicate with words most of which are polysyllabic in modern Mandarin. Characters and words are not the same, not even remotely. The relationship is character to syllable.

I absolutely agree with you that it's natural to create new characters. This is fine. The issue is that the more homophones in a given discussion the more likely you'll have to give some more context and say something like "x__的x" as way to clarify which "x" you're talking about.

    > Chinese is a highly context-sensitive language. If
    > people have no difficulty in communicating with other
    > monosyllabic characters, why would they get confused
    > when they refers to chemical elements? That does't sound
    > making sense.
From what you quoted, emphasis my own.

    > "there are so many homophones and near-homophones *among them*"
If the context is "chemical elements", and lots of them sound very similar, I suspect that's going to be a problem.

I think it is a false statement that "there are so many homophones". In mainland system, I haven't found two elements with the same (pronunciation, tone). They could sound the same for non-native speakers, but they sound different for native speakers. I don't think this is hard to understand.

How do Chinese people differentiate 珠 "pearl" from 朱 "vermilion" in a spoken context such as "What material is best worn by an emperor?" These seem to be homophones, yet the words are similar enough in usage that it may not be clear from the context which one is meant (as opposed to 豬 "pig" which again has the same pronunciation but is less likely to be ambiguous).

There are other equivalent words. For instance, 珍珠 for pearl (I actually never heard anyone use 珠 alone). No idea what "vermilion" means in your question. If it refers to the color, then you can say “朱红” or “朱红色”. In fact, very few words in spoken Chinese are monosyllabic, so it is highly unlikely to confuse a chemical element with other things. Moreover, you can always say "chemical element" + 元素 (element) or 原子 (atom) if you are afraid of confusing people; for instance, 氢原子,碳元素, though it is hardly necessary, as I never encountered the problem the author described in my 5+ years of studying chemistry in Chinese.

Simply a tone difference doesn't prevent confusion, though. Tones can be gotten wrong or misheard. If tones always solved this, then four would not be associated with death, surely?

At the very least the phrases "great problems" and "challenging, to say the least" are called into question by the first-hand experience of the user you're responding to.

For instance? I don't find any two sound similar. If one pronounces the tones correctly, it is not hard for the listener to distinguish at all.

"It is definitely hard to lay public, so is the case in English for American, at least for the people I know. They have no idea what most of the chemical ingredients listed in packaged food are, which is not surprising since the majority of people don't major nor minor in chemistry in college."

That doesn't make any sense as a reference. What do chemical ingredients in packaged food, and understanding what that is for American consumers, have to do with chemical elements in Chinese, and understanding how those sound when spoken?

One is auditory comprehension, the other is knowledge.

What I mean was this: except those elements whose names are also common words in everyday language, like iron, copper, silver, etc. all the other elements's names are foreign to the general public. Like Neodymium, Samarium, etc, even if general public can pronounce them, they don't really know what they are. This applies to chemical compounds, like those listed as ingredients in packaged food, as well.

It doesn't matter it is in Chinese or in English. The general public don't know what they really are.

>The vast majority of the Chinese characters for the elements contain the "gold / metal" radical 金. Next in number are characters that contain the "gas / vapor" radical 气. After that comes a smaller group of characters containing the "stone / rock" radical 石. Last, there are two characters that contain the water radical 氵/ 水: xiù 溴 ("bromine") and gǒng 汞 ("mercury"). In terms of the classification of the elements by state (solid, liquid, gas, unknown) and type (metals [alkali metals, alkaline earth metals, lanthanoids, actinoids, transition metals, post-transition metals], nonmetals [halogens, noble gases, other nonmentals]), and metalloids, the division (according to character radicals) into metal, gas, stone, and water is not accurate.

Didn't anyone tell them to make their primary keys factless? By encoding all this information in the name they'll never be able to change it if they discover some new fact about it that contradicts all this information they put in the primary key.

We have this in English too. Helium's not only found on the sun. Oxygen is not an essential component of acids. Etc.

Fortunately, in chemistry, the symbol is more of the primary key than the name. Or, really, the primary key is the atomic number -- which is certainly not factless, but the facts follow from it as a result of nature; you don't have to worry that things will change and it won't work anymore.

Then it could be reduced to merely a historical coincidence. There aren't many English element names (or the etymology) that still accurately reflect the properties of the elements. Human names do not need to reflect any facts; and even they once did, they did not need to remain updated as our knowledge is updated.

Well a crocodile is also a "fish" in Chinese (鳄鱼) and the word for egg has the insect radical (蛋). Must be based on old concepts, but nobody has a problem with it except foreigners.

You'll never get far if you condemn the users of natural languages for how they form their words!

just want to point out that is traditional Chinese which only used in Taiwan, no main land.

It isn't.

Traditional Chinese widely used in China town all over the world, in Macao, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Guang Dong.

Traditional chinese is also used in Hong Kong.

It's also interesting to note that the traditional characters are called "standard" characters in Taiwan.

In China, almost every dictionary book has a back cover containing periodic table.

The author clearly has limited knowledge about Chinese. Most of his/her claims are wrong.

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