Chemical elements in East Asian languages

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The names for chemical elements in East Asian languages, along with those for some chemical compounds (mostly organic), are among the newest words to enter the local vocabularies. Except for those metals well-known since antiquity, most elements had their names created after modern chemistry was introduced to East Asia in the 18th and 19th century, with more translations being coined for those elements discovered later.

While most East Asian languages use—or had used—the Chinese script, only the Chinese use the characters as the predominant way of naming elements. On the other hand, the Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese primarily employ native alphabets for the names of the elements (Katakana, Hangul and Quốc Ngữ, respectively).


In Chinese, characters for the elements are the last officially created and recognized characters in the Chinese writing system. Unlike characters for unofficial varieties of Chinese (e.g., written Cantonese) or other now-defunct ad hoc characters (e.g., those by the Empress Wu), the names for the elements are official, consistent, and taught (with Mandarin pronunciation) to every Chinese and Taiwanese student who has attended public schools (usually by the first year of middle school).

Native characters[edit]

Some metallic elements were already familiar to the Chinese, as their ores were already excavated and used extensively in China for construction, alchemy, and medicine. These include the traditional "Five Metals" (五金) — gold (金), silver (銀), copper (銅), iron (鐵), and tin (錫) — as well as lead (鉛) and mercury (汞).

Some non-metals were already named in Chinese as well, because their minerals were in widespread use. For example,

Characters based on European pronunciations[edit]

However, the Chinese did not know about most of the elements until they were isolated during the Industrial Age. These new elements therefore required new characters, which were invented using the phono-semantic principle. Each character consists of two parts, one to signify the meaning and the other to hint at the sound:

  1. The semantic (meaning) part is also the radical of the character. It refers to the element's usual state at room temperature and standard pressure. There are only four radicals used for elements: / (jīn "gold") for solid metals, (shí "stone") for solid non-metals, / (shuǐ "water") for liquids, and ( "air") for gases.
  2. The phonetic (sound) part represents the character's pronunciation and is a partial transliteration of the element. For each element character, this is a unique phonetic component. Since there are over 100 elements already discovered, there are over 100 different phonetic components used in naming the elements.
Examples of characters derived from European pronunciations
Semantic Phonetic Element Source
/ + = / () lithium
/ + jiǎ = / (jiǎ) kalium, Latin name for potassium
/ + / nèi or = / () natrium, Latin name for sodium
/ + or = / () antimony
/ + niè = / (niè) nickel
/ + = / () cadmium
/ + / = / () Wolfram, the discoverers' name for tungsten
/ + = / () bismuth
/ + yóu = / (Taiwanyòu*/Mainlandyóu) uranium
/ + / = / () aluminium
+ diǎn = (diǎn) iodine
+ hài = (hài) helium
+ = () fluorine
+ nǎi = (nǎi) neon
/ is primarily pronounced as nèi, but when it is pronounced as , the character is the same as /. Likewise, the primary pronunciation of is , but when it is pronounced as , the character is the same as .
* The derived pronunciation differs (in tone or in sound) from the pronunciation of the element.

The "water" radical () is rarely used, since only two elements (bromine and mercury) are truly liquid at standard room temperature and pressure. (See List of elements by melting point.) Both of their characters are not based on the European pronunciation of the elements' names. Bromine (), the only liquid nonmetal at room temperature, is explained in the following section. Mercury (), now grouped with the heavy metals, was long classified as a kind of fluid in ancient China.

Meaning-based characters[edit]

A few characters, though, are not created using the above "phono-semantic" design, but are "semantic-semantic", that is, both of its parts indicate meanings. One part refers to the element's usual state (like the semanto-phonetic characters), while the other part indicates some additional property or function of the element. In addition, the second part also indicates the pronunciation of the element. Such elements are:

Semantic Semantic Element English Note
/ + bái (white) = / platinum See note ¥
+ chòu (stinky) = xiù bromine odorous (Greek βρῶμος brómos also means "stench")
+ yáng, short for / yǎng (to nourish/foster) = yǎng oxygen A continuous supply of oxygenated air nourishes almost all animals
+ /𢀖 jīng, short for / qīng (light-weight) = / qīng hydrogen the lightest of all elements
+ / , short for /绿 (green) = / chlorine greenish yellow in color
+ yán, short for dàn (diluted) = dàn nitrogen dilutes breathable air
+ lín, short for lín (glow) = lín phosphorus emits a faint glow in the dark
† The pronunciation of these characters come from the second semantic characters' now almost obsolete pronunciations. Nowadays 白 (white) is normally pronounced bái in the standard Mandarin dialect, although traditionally bó was preferred. Similarly, (stinky) is almost always pronounced chòu, as opposed to x, now an archaic reading.
‡ Regarding the seeming mismatch in pronunciation with the second semantic part, note that the pronunciation comes from the pronunciation of the actual character that gives meaning to the name. For example, the ultimate source of the pronunciation of yǎng (oxygen) is not yáng (sheep) but / yǎng (to nourish/foster).
¥ The original meaning of / is "thin sheet of gold" (now obsolete). The character was not associated with platinum until modern time, since platinum was known in the Old World only after the Age of Discovery.


Comparison of Mainland, Taiwan and SAR names
English Z Mainland Taiwan Hong Kong/Macau
silicon 14 guī gwai1, zik6
technetium 43 daap1, dak1
lutetium 71 liú lou5, lau4
astatine 85 ài è ngaai6, ngo5
francium 87 fāng fong1, faat3
neptunium 93 nài noi6, naa4
plutonium 94 bat1
americium 95 méi méi mei4, mui4
berkelium 97 péi běi pui4, bak1
californium 98 kāi hoi1, kaa1
einsteinium 99 āi ài oi1, oi3

A minority of the "new characters" are not completely new inventions, as they coincide with archaic characters, whose original meanings have long been lost to most people. For example, (protactinium), (beryllium), (chromium), and (lanthanum) are obscure characters meaning "raw iron", "needle", "hook", and "harrow" respectively.

The majority of the elements' names are the same in Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese, merely being variants of each other, since most of the names were translated by a single body of standardization before the PRC-ROC split. However, since francium and the transuranium elements were discovered during or after the split, they have different names in Taiwan and in Mainland China. In Hong Kong, both Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese names are used.[1] See the table on the right for a comparison of the names used in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium (D) and tritium (T)) are written 氘 dāo and 氚 chuān respectively in both simplified and traditional writing. 鑀 is used in Taiwan for both einsteinium (mainland China: 锿) and ionium, the radioactive isotope of thorium, element number 90.[citation needed]

Periodic table[edit]

A periodic table using simplified Chinese characters.

The periodic table with simplified Chinese characters is shown in the image. Some operating systems and web browsers may not support the display of some of the newer elements, since the simplified characters for elements with atomic numbers 104 and above were only added in Unicode 5.2 (2009) and above as surrogate pairs that are part of the CJK Unified Ideographs Extensions C, D, and E character sets. Source Han Sans supports all the encoded simplified characters except livermorium (Lv; U+2B7F7 𫟷, 钅+立). The simplified characters for meitnerium (Mt) and copernicium (Cn) are not encoded as of Unicode 7.0 (June 2014) and ISO/IEC 10646:2014 (September 2014).

A Chinese periodic table with links to elements is available on the Chinese Wikipedia: 元素週期表_(正文)


Even though the Japanese language also uses Chinese characters (kanji), it primarily employs katakana to transliterate names of the elements from European languages (often German/Dutch or Latin [via German] or English). For example,

English Japanese Note
antimony anchimon (アンチモン) This form without the final vowel (i from y) is likely from Dutch (Antimoon): see also: Sakoku
tungsten tangusuten (タングステン) from English; other major European languages refer to this element as wolfram or tungsten with some additional syllable (-o, -e, etc.).
sodium natoriumu (ナトリウム) natrium in Latin
uranium uran (ウラン) Uran in German, uran in Polish and úran in Icelandic

Native names[edit]

On the other hand, elements known since antiquity are Chinese loanwords, which are mostly identical to their Chinese counterparts (see above), albeit in the Shinjitai, for example, iron () is tetsu (Tang-dynasty loan) and lead () is namari (native reading). Whereas all elements in Chinese are single-character in the official system, some Japanese elements have two characters. Often this parallels colloquial or everyday names for such elements in Chinese, such as 水銀/水银 (pinyin: shuǐyín) for mercury and 硫黃/硫黄 (pinyin: liúhuáng) for sulfur.

English Japanese Chinese Note
mercury 水銀 (suigin) (gǒng) literally meaning "watery silver", like the element's symbol, Hg (from Latin/Greek hydro-argyrum = "water-silver")
sulfur 硫黄 (iō, formerly iwō ) (líu) (ō) means "yellow", to distinguish from other characters pronounced the same
zinc 亜鉛 (aen) 鋅/锌 (xīn) meaning "lesser lead": 鉛 means "lead" in Japanese and Chinese

Some elements with names written in kanji have the suffix -so (), meaning "element/component". For instance, arsenic is hiso (ヒ素?, "hi element") in modern Japanese. The name hi () is derived from hishima, the Chinese name for crystalline white arsenic (砒霜; pīshuāng; "arsenic frost"). In modern Chinese, however, arsenic is now simply shen (砷), being an approximation of the second syllable of the element's European name (-sen-). Likewise, although boron is written in katakana now as hōso (ホウ素?, " element"), its origin is Chinese. (ホウ) is derived from hōsa, the Chinese name for borax (硼砂; péngshā; "boron sand"). Boron is still called péng in modern Chinese.

Meaning-based names[edit]

Furthermore, a few of the pre-modern elements from the 18th century also have Kanji names, though sometimes drastically different from their Chinese counterparts. The following comparison shows that Japanese does not use the radical system for naming elements like Chinese.

English Japanese Chinese Note
platinum hakkin (白金 "white gold") similar to Chinese
bromine shūso (臭素 "the stinky element") similar to Chinese, except the lack of the "water" radical
oxygen sanso (酸素 "acid's element")

similar to the German word for oxygen, Sauerstoff ("sour substance") or the Greek-based oxygen ("acid maker").
Many 19th-century European chemists erroneously believed that all acids contain oxygen. (Many common ones do, but not all.)

hydrogen suiso (水素 "water's element") translation of the hydro- prefix
chlorine enso (塩素 "salt's element") it and sodium make up common table salt (NaCl);
塩 is the Shinjitai version of 鹽.
fluorine fusso (弗素 lit. "the nothing element") similar to Chinese, except the lack of the "steam" radical. However, the kanji based from the character for Chinese (氟) is extremely rare.
nitrogen chisso (窒素 "the suffocating element") translation of the German word for nitrogen, Stickstoff ("suffocating substance"). While nitrogen is not toxic per se, air-breathing animals cannot survive breathing it alone (without sufficient oxygen mixed in).
carbon tanso (炭素 "coal element") translation of the German word for carbon, Kohlenstoff ("coal substance").


As the Hanja (Sino-Korean characters) are now rarely used in Korea, all of the elements are written in Hangul. Since many Korean scientific terms were translated from Japanese sources, the pattern of naming is mostly similar to that of Japanese. Namely, the classical elements are loanwords from China, with new elements from European languages. For example:

English Korean Source
gold geum (금) from Chinese jin (金)
silver eun (은) from Chinese yin (銀)
antimony antimon (안티몬) from German
tungsten teongseuten (텅스텐) from English
sodium nateuryum (나트륨) from Latin or German (Na for natrium)
potassium kalyum (칼륨) from Latin or German kalium
manganese manggan (망간) from German Mangan

Pre-modern (18th-century) elements often are the Korean pronunciation of their Japanese equivalents, e.g.,

English Korean (Hangul, hanja)
hydrogen suso (수소, 水素)
carbon tanso (탄소, 炭素)
nitrogen jilso (질소, 窒素)
oxygen sanso (산소, 酸素)
chlorine yeomso (염소, 鹽素)
zinc ayeon (아연, 亞鉛)
mercury sueun (수은, 水銀)


Some of the metals known since antiquity are loanwords from Chinese, such as copper (đồng from ), tin (thiếc from ), mercury (thuỷ ngân from 水銀), sulfur (lưu huỳnh from 硫黄), oxygen (dưỡng khí from 氧氣; ôxy is the more common name) and platinum (bạch kim from 白金; Platin is the more common name). Others have native Vietnamese readings, such as sắt for iron, bạc for silver, chì for lead, vàng for gold, kền for nickel (Niken is the more common name) and kẽm for zinc. In either case, now they are written in the Vietnamese alphabet. Before the Latin alphabet was introduced, sắt was rendered as 𨫊, bạc as , chì as 𨨲, vàng as , kền as 𨪝 and kẽm as 𨯘 in Chữ Nôm.

The majority of elements are shortened and localized pronunciations of the European names (usually from French). For example:

  • Phosphorus becomes phốtpho.
  • The -ine suffix is lost, e.g., chlorine, iodine and fluorine become clo, iốt and flo, respectively.
  • The -ium suffix is lost, e.g., caesium becomes xêzi (pronounced [sezi]), clearly indicating the French origin of the word (césium is pronounced [sezium])
    • Similarly, beryllium, tellurium, chromium, lithium and natrium (sodium) become berili, telua, crôm, liti, and natri, respectively
  • The -gen suffix is lost, e.g., nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen become nitơ, ôxy and hiđrô, respectively

A minority of elements without—or with etymologically unclear—suffixes retain their full name, e.g.,

  • Tungsten (aka wolfram) becomes volfram.
  • Bismuth becomes bitmut.
  • Aluminium becomes nhôm () because the end -nium has a similar pronunciation, further because it is the first element to be known in English in Vietnam.
  • Elements with the -on suffix (e.g. noble gases) seem to be inconsistent. Boron and silicon are respectively shortened to bo and silic. On the other hand, neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon do not seem to have shorter forms.
  • Unlike the other halogens, astatine retains its suffix (astatin in Vietnamese).
  • Antimony is shortened to Antimon and Arsenic to Asen; these names are similar to the German ones (Antimon and Arsen, respectively).

Some elements have multiple names, for instance, potassium is known as pô-tát and kali (from kalium, the element's Latin name).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wong, Kin-on James; Cheuk, Kwok-hung; Lei, Keng-lon; Leung, Ho-ming; Leung, Man-wai; Pang, Hei-tung; Pau, Chiu-wah; Tang, Kin-hung; Wai, Pui-wah; Fong, Wai-hung Raymond (1999). "English-Chinese Glossary of Terms Commonly Used in the Teaching of Chemistry in Secondary Schools". Education Bureau. Hong Kong Education City Limited. Retrieved 29 January 2015. 
  • Wright, David (2000). Translating Science: The Transmission of Western Chemistry into Late Imperial China, 1840–1900. Leiden; Boston: Brill. See especially Chapter Seven, "On Translation".

External links[edit]

Periodic tables[edit]