26 No. 5
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In Response to “Chinese Terms for Chemical Elements”
by Kaihsu Tai
I am writing to follow up on Chang Hao’s article (Jan-Feb 2004 CI) and to provide some items of trivia on the subject. Just as we cannot agree on how to spell “sulph/fur” and “alumin(i)um” across the Atlantic, different characters are used for “silicon” across the Formosa Strait (see figure). In Japanese, “zinc” is “a’en”, for “secondary lead”—a legacy of an earlier misunderstanding of the elements. (In Mandarin, it is “xin,” phonetically transliterated from “zinc.”
Now to the business: Chang Hao explained that as new elements become known, Han (that is, Chinese) characters are created. Following this principle, a character has been created for the IUPAC systematic name “unnilennium” by combining the “metal” radical with the character for “nine”. I was worried last decade about “ununnilium”: Combining the “metal” radical with the character for “ten” gives the character for “needle”! Thanks for “darmstadtium.”
In addition to such troubles of semantic overload, a more practical problem is in computer encoding of characters. Whenever a new character is created, computer systems have to be upgraded to catch up, even in this age of the Unicode standard (ISO 10646: Universal Character Set). For some, this process may not always be practical and affordable. Are they to be left out in the dark on chemical information?
Let me quote Zhou Youguang, the leading linguist and orthography reformer of China, at some length (Hanzi gaige gailun: General treatise on Han character reform. 3rd ed. Beijing: Wenzi Gaige Chubanshe, 1979; p. 211-213. My translation.):
“The [current] translation scheme for science-technology terms has serious flaws. First, it deviates from the principle of internationalization for scientific terminology. ... Second, it increases [the likelihood of having] homophones—making many terms only able to be distinguished when [written and] read and not when [spoken and] heard. This is detrimental to the usefulness of such terminology.
“The reasons for these flaws are: 1) Forcing translated terms to be monosyllabic, [for example, the chemical elements]. ... [Due to the small syllabary available in Mandarin,] this creates many near-homophones, hardly distinguishable when spoken. This is not a healthy state for scientific communication. 2) Creating new characters. The goals for Han character reform are not only simplifying characters, but also stabilizing and restricting the total number of modern characters in use. Creating new characters is against this latter goal. [New characters are not necessary for new terminology in the social sciences; why do the natural sciences insist on having them?]
“The best solution is to use phonetic alphabets to transliterate terms, which can then be used within Han character texts. For example, einsteinium as ‘einsteini’, mendelevium as ‘mendelevi’, lawrencium as ‘lawrenci’. ... The advantages are: (a) making our specialized vocabulary healthy for future development; (b) avoiding the bifurcation of terminology: transliteration is an international practice—the forms [in each language] may not be identical, but there are rules to follow. ... [This reduces the burden for learners, as they will only have to learn one set of terminology, plus the rules.]”
I reiterate my previous exhortation (Chemical and Engineering News, 14 June 1999, p. 4): Please consult chemical societies of many tongues as nomenclature is developed. Certainly, this is why we have IUPAC.
Kaihsu Tai <email@example.com>, University of Oxford, UK.
last modified 1 September 2004.
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