Japanese periodic table versus Chinese periodic table

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[This is a guest post by Conal Boyce.]

As they say, "a picture is worth a thousand words." Here are two pictures, copy/pasted from Google Images: First, the Japanese periodic table, then the Chinese periodic table. I apologize for the tiny font, but notice how, in the Japanese periodic table, the symbol 'S' has the word for sulfur (硫黄) under it. That pair of kanji, Romanized as iō, is simply an annotation of the international symbol, S, not meant to 'compete with' S. (Glance also at the very long katakana items that appear elsewhere, e.g., for the element Sc or Mt. The nuance that I'm driving at will become clear after you compare the Chinese periodic table further down, and see how S, Sc, and Mt are handled there. No need to know any Chinese or Japanese at all to see what's afoot here.)


[click to embiggen]

In the Chinese periodic table below, notice how the international symbols are played down, by chasing them all into the upper left corner in small font. Meanwhile, at center stage, it seems that each element has a single, unique Chinese character of its own — as if these are all little pieces of ancient Chinese wisdom, placed like postage stamps into the western periodic table 'stamp book.' Really? Of course not. While some of the elements were known in ancient times and indeed had names already (e.g., Liú 硫 for 'sulfur' is genuine and old), most of the characters in the table are XX century inventions. Why invent all those characters, in a language that already has too many characters? Showing a bit of my own bias here, I'd say it's a form of Chinese chauvinism, one that goes directly against the concept of "international symbols". As I read it (again with some admitted bias), the subtext of the Chinese periodic table is: "See how clever we are, here in China? We already have a unique character for every element, running in exact parallel with the set of international symbols — so don't worry about the symbols, like 'S' and 'W', too much; they're just for foreigners."


[click to embiggen]

Suppose we look for element 21, scandium (Sc), first in an old Chinese-Chinese dictionary, such as the Gwoyeu Tsyrdean (Beiping 1936, Changsha 1947, hereafter GYTD), then in a newer one, such as the Xiandai Hanyu Tujie Cidian (Beijing 2016, 1699 pages).

In the older dictionary we find kāng 鏮 (first tone), followed by these Roman characters at the start of the entry: "Scandium, Sc", after which the character is defined as one of the chemical elements, a metal, hence its 'gold' radical, etc. (II:1494).

In the newer dictionary we find that Sc is represented by this character instead: kàng 鈧 (fourth tone). (鈧 has its entry on p. 699 and is found also in the periodic table at the back of the volume, on unnumbered pages 1702-1703. It cannot be explained as a simplified version of 鏮. In simplified Chinese, 'healthy' is still written as 健康, the same as in traditional Chinese.) In the newer dictionary, there is no indication, either with Chinese characters (which might have been read as su-kan-di-er?) or with Roman letters, that the name of the element is in fact 'Scandium'. The sole non-Chinese thing provided is its correspondence to the symbol Sc.

The comparison above (chosen at random, btw) illustrates two things: First, it points up the arbitrary, not to say fake, nature of many of the Chinese "characters for elements," as we see 鏮 (kāng) abandoned on someone's whim so that 鈧 (kàng) could be enshrined in its stead as element 21. Second, the comparison might suggest a more civilized era back in the 1940s, when one found it natural to show the actual name of an element in Romanization (GYTD II:1494), by way of acknowledging the civilization that produced the periodic table? Who knows. And it was certainly helpful to native Chinese students who would thus have a leg up, as they learned not only the international symbols but also the actual names associated with them. After all, Sc is scandium (or el escandio in Spanish or skandium in Swedish or skandiyum in Turkish, etc.).

Selected readings


  1. Jerry Packard said,

    May 25, 2022 @ 12:00 pm

    I see no reason to view it pejoratively – putting the Chinese terms, even the newly-created ones, on center stage is less a sign of chauvinism than it is simply a bias of the producer. Note that the Chinese version at least has English glosses, nowhere evident in the Japanese version.

    I think we'd have to be careful about adopting the sliding scale of 'acknowledging the civilization that produced' the discovery. That might make the representation of much current scientific knowledge decidedly different.

    And if it is 'not to say fake', then don't say it.

  2. Bill Hannas said,

    May 25, 2022 @ 12:32 pm

    Agree with Jerry (for once) on this. I'm not bothered by it at all. What's the option? Supply characters for elements where the correspondence is well-established, leaving blank spaces in the other squares? Like it or not (I don't like it) Chinese use Chinese characters. That's the reality. So where is the chauvinism? The Periodical Table used in Taiwan has the international symbols and the characters but (in the example I'm looking at) not the English words, which the PRC table does have. So Taiwanese are chauvinistic, too? I'm not buying it.

  3. Vampyricon said,

    May 25, 2022 @ 12:33 pm

    I think you're reading too much into much too small a set of data. Most of the (English) periodic tables I've seen don't contain the element's full name either. You're just kind of expected to know it as a scientist. There's also been a history of reducing elements to single characters. That's just how it's done. If I were to guess, I'd guess it's because we want compound names to fit a simple formula (氯化鈉、二氧化碳), but that's pure speculation.

    While 鈧 is not the simplification of 鏮, that 康 in 「健康」 is not simplified is not a good argument for it. One of my complaints about CCP simplification has been that it is inconsistent between characters. One would have to compare characters between the HK/TW periodic tables and Mainland China periodic table to determine so.

  4. Cervantes said,

    May 25, 2022 @ 12:49 pm

    Yeah, I'm not really seeing so much in this. With all Chinese writing you have to know how to pronounce the word. Don't know why this would need to be any different. Anyway, the discoverer of the periodic table was Russian. He used the Cyrillic alphabet. We don't write the names on the table in Cyrillic in order to honor the civilization that discovered it.

  5. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 25, 2022 @ 1:04 pm

    yes, re: "the actual names", "Sc is scandium", etc. — what de Saussure said about the arbitrariness of phonological shape :D

    the PRC element names were a 50s era organized move towards standardization where single character names + no homophones were the primary desideratums strike that desideratii.

    if this approach to naming is special in any way within Chinese it is that one often expects a disambiguating word specifying "type" to serve as a kind of suffix — like e.g. country names generally alternate between long, awkward sound translations and Chineseified X-国 forms… but the element names often just stand alone and are thus highly dependent on context for understanding. You can't even say, e.g., a single word "potassium" and be understood. Which is arguably odd. But chemistry in China seems to proceed apace

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden said,

    May 25, 2022 @ 1:25 pm

    A couple of years ago in pre-Covid times I went to a meeting in Kraków at which many of the lectures were in the Chemistry Department, and there was a very large periodic table on the wall. That was when I learned why the Polish currency is called the złoty (though I don't think there is much gold in a modern złoty).

  7. Luke said,

    May 25, 2022 @ 2:00 pm

    How dare they write down the names of elements in their native script. We get it; China is chauvinistic and Chinese characters are bad. If you're going to interpret anything from them as malicious, why would you go for the most benign example one can think of?

  8. VVOV said,

    May 25, 2022 @ 2:21 pm

    At the post "Naming Nihonium" linked above, user "Xin DANG" (26 March 2018) has a native-speaker take which I'll simply quote in fully here:

    As a Chinese who passed 4 years in high school with chemistry exercises almost every day, which BTW is still the case for today's students in China, I assure you that the one-syllable transcription of chemical elements is really convenient and efficient, especially when you have to recite a large part of the periodic table. Try to read "硼铝镓铟铊,碳硅锗锡铅" (péng lǚ jiā yīn tā ,tàn guī zhě xī qiān) and "Boron, Aluminium, Gallium, Indium, Thallium, Carbon, Silicon, Germanium, Tin, Lead". Which one will you learn by heart faster?

    If there are any homophones, element symbol and atomic number can help to remove the ambiguity.

    And another interesting advantage of this naming mechanism : some basic properties of a given element is directly shown in its Chinese name. For example, the radical 气 of 氧 (Oxygen) indicates this element is not a metal element and it's normally in gas state; 碳 (Carbon) represents a non-metal in solid state; 汞 (Mercury) is an element in liquid state; and 铜 (Copper) is a metal. If you are not a chemist, you may not know what Strontium is, but with its Chinese name 锶, at least you know that we are referring to a metal element. : )

  9. Jerry Packard said,

    May 25, 2022 @ 2:56 pm


  10. Philip Anderson said,

    May 25, 2022 @ 3:38 pm

    Thanks to Cervantes for pointing out the overlooked Russian origin of the Periodic Table.
    As for the “actual” names associated with them (by which the author apparently means the true ones, not fake), does he mean the English names (including aluminium), or the ones from which the symbol came? Ferrum, aurum, Wolframite, kalium etc? Don’t most countries have their own names for these elements, in their own script?

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    May 25, 2022 @ 4:01 pm

    I have virtually no knowledge as to whether most countries "have their own names for these elements, in their own script", but taking Russian as an example, and using Google translate for the list of ten elements provided by Xin DANG (see above), I find Boron, Aluminium, Gallium, Indium, Thallium, Carbon, Silicon, Germanium, Tin, Lead -> Бор, алюминий, галлия, индий, таллий, углерод, кремний, германия, олово, свинец (Bor, alyuminiy, galliya, indiy, talliy, uglerod, kremniy, germaniya, olovo, svinets), from which I would deduce that Russian has its own words for some of the elements but by no means all (where "own words" means "sounds nothing like the English (or Latin, etc) name"). So in the above list, while Boron, Aluminium, Gallium, Indium ,Thallium and Magnesium have sound-alikes, Carbon, Silicon, Tin and Lead do not.

  12. Conal Boyce said,

    May 25, 2022 @ 7:27 pm

    IF the Chinese periodic table existed in a 'vacuum,' meaning in the absence of a Japanese periodic table for comparison, then I can imagine various positive remarks that might be reasonably made about it. For example, "The Chinese clearly attach great importance to science and have worked hard to invent 90-odd brand-new characters in that spirit. In effect, their very own periodic table!" (In this context, we'll pretend not to notice how poorly suited all those monosyllabic 'words' are for delivering a chemistry lecture, an aspect that was duly noted in the 3 May 2015 Lang Log post entitled "Names of the chemical elements in Chinese." Moving on, then:)
    Now add the Japanese table into the mix, so that the Chinese periodic table is no longer in a vacuum. The Japanese approach causes one to remember that the symbols H, He, Li, Be… are intended to be an 'international symbol set' once for all. Accordingly, they belong at center stage, while one annotates them in one's own language, which project — yes — can be very awkward and difficult. But what you don't want to do is create a set of sort-of kind-of symbol-like things that might be seen as competing with the international symbol set. The Japanese, being every bit as inventive as the Chinese, chose not to create 90-odd brand-new kanji and slam them into a "Japanese" table. Why did they refrain from that path? (aside from the fact that it is crazy, as it leads easily to a bunch of joke characters, as if scribbled by children to pass the time while trapped inside on a rainy day). Why?

  13. Vampyricon said,

    May 25, 2022 @ 10:04 pm

    @Conal Boyce

    Again, I just don't see much evidence this is the case. This is a case made from a sample size of 1. I've seen Chinese periodic tables with element characters, and the elemental symbol placed center-stage. I've seen periodic tables with just the symbols and no names whatsoever. This one single example isn't indicative of anything but the fact that at least one person decided to make a periodic table with Chinese characters in the center rather than the elemental symbol.

    Expanding on one more thing in my earlier comment: 鈧、鈦、釩、鉻、錳 *are* the "actual names" of the element… in a Sinitic language. The name of, say, aluminum isn't, say, 阿鋁米南. It's just 鋁. Languages can nativize the names of elements however they want. No one's telling the Dutch to stop saying waterstof and start saying (some derivative of) hydrogen. Let the Chineses keep their 氫.

  14. Greg said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 12:49 am

    Before you go judging the scientific tables of various countries, it might be a good idea to understand the languages of the tables. The long words written in the Japanese table is not actually japanese. It's katakana which is a letter system in Japan used to pronounce foreign words. It literally tells how to pronounce the words for a reader who may not be able to pronounce English. But in fact the words are in English, it's just that they've been katakanized. Element 89Ac for example アクチ二ウム is spelling out akuchiniumu. Maybe the correct English is Actinium, so It's not exactly the same as English but it does help japanese people especially those not so familiar with English to pronounce the word within the pronunciation constraints of the Japanese language

  15. Mike said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 2:43 am

    I have to agree with Vampyricon. We tend to resist anything we are not familier with. Westerners tend to conclude that Chinese is the most difficult language to learn. As Chinese, I think Western languages are the most difficult to learn. As another author commented, the Chinese periodic table has a logic to it if you read Chinese. Chinese writing may appear complicated, but the Western languages have too many sounds. Take people's name, for example, Most Chinese names have 2 to 3 syllables but Western names tend to be much longer. Therefore, I think naming elements has nothing to do with chauvenism, rather they are just trying to make sense out of them in their own language.

  16. Wujiaoguan said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 3:00 am

    I agree with above comments that take issue with Dr. Boyce's accusation of the Chinese version displaying a "chauvinistic" attitude. For one thing, consider the source. This is a graphic that someone on Reddit made as a project because they couldn't find a version they liked; it is not necessarily representative of mainstream Chinese people or of the PRC government. (Another aspect of its non-official nature is the minor error "Nobel Gas" (recta "Noble"), which you can see how that error happened, Nobel being a word often associated with chemistry).

    Nevertheless, I do think there Dr. Boyce's take on this is also well within the ballpark of a very valid point. And that is, that this type of document exemplifies a tendency (which LLog has discussed several times) among Chinese speakers to believe that the Chinese language is "made up of" characters (rather than words or morphemes); that the characters are primary to the spoken language, which is in a sense derived from them, rather than the other way round — see e.g. https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=40140

    @Bill Hannas – the Taiwanese version that exists on wikipedia ( https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chinese_periodic_table,_TW_zhuyin.png ) does have the English words (interestingly, with the American "aluminum" rather than Brit "aluminium" which is used in both the Chinese and Japanese versions shown here). It also has bopomofo, which I think is another important element; the lack of pinyin on this Chinese version does also seem to support Dr. Boyce's argument, with the implication that an educated person already knows how to pronounce all these obscure, recently-invented characters, that the characters are "sufficient" unto themselves even without any further clues as to their pronunciation.

    Anyway, I'm not fully on board with Conal Boyce's interpretation, but I very much enjoy the opportunity to spend some time thinking about the potential assumptions, linguistic and otherwise, that go into making this kind of document.

  17. ~flow said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 3:18 am

    My guess is that one shouldn't overthink this issue. Both Chinese and Japanese early modern chemistry was heavily influenced by European scholars; in the case of the Chinese, two persons in particular, John Fryer (Fu Lanya 傅蘭雅, 1839–1928) and Xu Shou 徐壽 (1818–1884) stand out; in five books that were published between 1871 and 1883, they first established what was to become the standard way of referring to Chemical elements. This was a deliberate, conscious and documented effort; under the rubric 華字命名 of their first work, 《化學鑑原》 from 1871, they write:

    "In the West, the names of substances often have many ‘characters’ and are difficult to pronounce. If one translates them into Chinese, it is impossible that they fully correspond [to the original]. Here we use one character for each term designating a chemical element. … With respect to the names of compounds we combine the terms of the elements. Many of the elements were known in ancient China. Their names we retained, for instance, ‘gold’ (jin 金), ‘silver’ (yin 銀), ‘copper’ (tong 銅), ‘iron’ (tie 鐵), ‘lead’ (qian 鉛), ‘tin’ (xi 錫), ‘mercury’ (gong 汞), ‘sulphur’ (liu 硫), ‘phosphorus’ (lin 燐 [modern: 磷]) and ‘carbon’ (tan 炭 [modern: 碳]). … We also retained names that had already been translated appropriately, such as yangqi 氧氣 ‘oxygen’, danqi 淡氣 [modern: 氮] ‘nitrogen’ and qingqi 氫氣 ‘hydrogen’. In addition, there are several dozen [elements]—which were either unknown to the ancients or which they knew of but designated with a name that was deficient in some respect—and which are covered more completely in Western books. Were one to translate their meanings, it would be extraordinarily difficult to be concise. Transliterating the whole name would be excessively complicated. We therefore used the first sound of the Western term and transliterated it with one Chinese character. If the first sound was unsuitable, we used the second sound. We then added a radical to distinguish the classes but retained the original pronunciation."—Wang Yangzong, *A New Inquiry into the Translation of Chemical Terms by John Fryer and Xu Shou*, http://www.wsc.uni-erlangen.de/pdf/wang.pdf

    This is as clear and reasonable as one could wish for. The authors actually strove for what they perceived as simplicity, regularity and pragmatism with a modicum of informed judgement. They also had to deal with only about half the number of elements that we know today (50 or maybe 70, as compared to over a hundred today; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_chemical_element_discoveries).

    Interestingly, the original version used the suffix 氣 for the gaseous elements and generic characters for the epithets, e.g. 輕氣, 淡氣, 養氣, 弗氣, 緑氣 (literally: light gas (H), bland/thin/indifferent gas (N), nourishing gas (O), F-gas (F), green gas (Cl)), which were only later developed to their monosyllabic modern names 氫, 氮, 氧, 氟, 氯 that (at least in the nomenclature) have lost the suffix—a very Chinese way of dealing with language and characters, I would say. The outcome of this process is that the names of the elements are much closer to the western H, N, O, F, Cl which one totally sometimes *can* say in isolation such as H₂O or NaCl but that need generally need more context (you can say "O" in isolation but not outside, say, a lecture in chemistry; you can say "氧" but ordinarily "氧氣" will be necessary to be understood). (cf. https://zh.wikipedia.org/zh-tw/化学元素的中文命名法)

    The thing that I do not get is why Chinese professionals put up with two element names being only distinguishable in the written, not in the spoken; given there are over 400 distinct syllables in Mandarin, there's ample space to have one syllable per element with plenty to spare.

    When criticizing the difficulties of this system as it has come down to us for learners and users it should be pointed out that the western one-to-two-letter names are not 'simple', either; I for one have to constantly look things up although I grew up as a chemist's child. They are rather unsystematic: H for Hydrogen but He for HElium; why is it not Hy? Often the letters chosen to not match or conflict with the spoken name (Zn Zinc/Zink, but Sn Tin/Zinn, K Potassium) and so on.

  18. postmortes said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 4:22 am

    @Vampyricon I mostly agree with you, but unfortunately the Dutch 'waterstof' and the Greek-french hybrid 'hydrogen' mean the same thing: water-producing. So 'waterstof' is, quite literally, a 'derivative' of hydrogen….

  19. ~flow said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 4:29 am

    my post has seemingly vanished :-/

  20. D.O. said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 5:00 am

    Having one- or two- (Latin) character symbols for elements is mostly valuable for writing compounds. Do Chinese write 氫2氧 for what Wiki calls "an inorganic, transparent, tasteless, odorless, and nearly colorless chemical substance"? At least Chinese Wiki doesn't as far as I can see. Do they call the "aqua vitae" 碳2氫5氧氫 ?

  21. /df said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 5:17 am

    If any script should be used for the Periodic Table, surely it's Cyrillic. But that runs into problems at elements 1 and 2. Anyhow Mendeleev published in German, even if he may have presented the Table in a Russian venue first: https://web.lemoyne.edu/~giunta/mendeleev.html.

  22. Bob Ladd said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 5:46 am

    I completely agree with the overall tenor of the comments on this thread – the OP is quite a display of glottocentric prejudice, at least by the standards of Language Log. I'm surprised no one has mentioned the obvious history of many of the relevant words. Substances (esp. metals) that people have known about for centuries or millennia generally have names that are different in different languages (gosh!). Substances that have been discovered since the origins of (Western) scientific chemistry a few centuries ago generally don't. But there were early attempts to create native-ish names for some of the early discoveries (Fr. azote, German calques Wasserstoff, Sauerstoff on hydrogen, oxygen, and at best half-hearted attempts to completely standardise terminology across languages (sodium, natrium or even dialects (AmEng aluminum, BrEng aluminium. European scientists eventually settled on a trans-language systematic naming system for newly discovered or newly created elements in the European languages, but it's remarkably naive to treat those names as the real names, and remarkably arrogant to assume that Chinese scientists shouldn't do the same thing for Chinese.

  23. Philip Anderson said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 7:04 am

    I won’t repeat what Bob Ladd has summarised very well.

    But I was disturbed by the reference to “joke characters, as if scribbled by children”, which suggests a general prejudice against Chinese and Japanese scripts (and I suspect any non-Western ones). Maybe I’m wrong though.

  24. Philip Anderson said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 7:19 am

    While looking at the Welsh names for the elements (which are generally adapted from the English names, but conform to Welsh orthography, e.g. no ‘z’, -iwm for -ium), I came across an older list, with more original names:
    [N.B. hal- means salt]
    Mercwri is interesting, since Marcher is used for the planet, god and Wednesday. The older arian byw would have been a calque of quicksilver.

  25. KeithB said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 8:31 am

    Not quite OT, more of a veer.
    I read a science fiction story once where a group of Earth explorers came across a planet with an extinct civilization. They could not make head or tail of the language until they found a periodic table. Basically the point was that all periodic tables should look the same, which gave them a basis for deciphering the language.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 9:03 am


    "sample size of 1"

    Please elucidate.

    In the case of Dr. Boyce's post, we're talking about a sample size of at least 2 (Chinese and Japanese).

  27. Victor Mair said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 9:04 am

    Diana Shuheng Zhang is currently preoccupied with other demanding matters, but when she gets a chance in a few days, she will tell us something mind-boggling about the Sinographs used for the elements in the Chinese periodic table. So be sure to come back and check again later this weekend. Absolutely fascinating.

  28. Vampyricon said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 10:12 am

    "It also has bopomofo, which I think is another important element; the lack of pinyin on this Chinese version does also seem to support Dr. Boyce's argument, with the implication that an educated person already knows how to pronounce all these obscure, recently-invented characters, that the characters are "sufficient" unto themselves even without any further clues as to their pronunciation."
    In my experience, it's just "有邊讀邊" for all the elements, but I generally agree with the sentiment. The more obscure phonetic components and the homophones can be a headache. I guess chemists know which one is talked about through context? I do find the lack of concern about homophones concerning, but the example on Wikipedia, at least, seems to be a Mandarin-specific problem. 硒 (sai1) and 錫 (sek6) are different in Cantonese, for example. The international community got up in arms simply because boron and bohrium oxide ions would have the same pronunciation: borates and *bohrates. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemists solved it by saying that the latter should be called bohriates.
    Something even more concerning is the lack of standardization between the element names of Taiwan and China. Unfortunately I don't think IUPAC rules on this.

    What I was trying to say is that not every element has a name loaned from "hydrogen". One could calque it or come up with a new name, and that's fine.

    They say 一氧化二氫, but as far as I know (i.e. take this with a grain of salt), they write H₂O. For organic (i.e. carbon) compounds, they have different approaches. Ethanol is called 乙醇. No idea what they do for carbon chains longer than 10 though.

    @Victor Mair
    "In the case of Dr. Boyce's post, we're talking about a sample size of at least 2 (Chinese and Japanese)."
    I'm saying Dr. Boyce is concluding that the Chinese are chauvinistic based on a sample size of one Chinese periodic table, and the problems with small sample size statistics should be well known. If I take the Chinese periodic table on Wikipedia, I would conclude that the Chinese are champions of equality as the chemical symbol and Chinese character are of the same size, and that they are more aware than Westerners of the importance of the number of protons in the nucleus to an element's position on the table, as the atomic numbers are also of the same size as the symbols and characters. If I used the periodic table in my secondary school textbook, I'd say the Chinese prioritize standardization above all, with its prominent elemental symbols and small Chinese characters and English names, to the detriment of actually understanding the science, since their atomic numbers are tiny, tucked away in a corner, as if they're an afterthought. I would further be able to claim that chemists the world over consider the lanthanides and actinides an afterthought, since they break them away from the main table and leave it at the bottom, disconnected from the rest of the elements. (The converse problem could be true in the Japanese case as well, i.e. the Japanese periodic table here could be a particularly good one, though in this case their periodic table seems to be representative.)
    But obviously, none of this is true. The interpretation here by Dr. Boyce is an exercise in bad statistics since there's only one single periodic table of each type. That is insufficient data to conclude anything about the makers of periodic tables, much less the Chinese or Japanese as a whole.

    PS I found what seems to be the Chinese periodic table in the post. It was posted to the subreddit r/ChineseLanguage with the title "I made a Chinese-English Bilingual Periodic Table, notes in comments!" so it is definitely not an official publication.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 11:54 am


    "I'm saying Dr. Boyce is concluding that the Chinese are chauvinistic…".

    That was not the sole, main point of Dr. Boyce's post.

  30. Michael Daniel said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 11:58 am

    It would be chauvinistic for us to expect
    foreigners to automatically use our alphabet in their own publications.

  31. Victor Mair said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 12:23 pm

    Dr. Boyce, who has a PhD in Chinese language and literature (Harvard 1975 — present-day recitation of Song period poetry [rhythmic analysis]), is a published chemist. He has spent the last few days preparing a document that places side-by-side the list in my "Names of the chemical elements in Chinese" (5/3/15) and the corresponding entries in the Gwoyeu Tsyrdean ([GYTD] Dictionary of Mandarin) of the 1940s — a kind of concordance of the two. (This reveals that the GYTD has many gaps, in an odd, swiss-cheese sort of way; some of its gaps are quite surprising.) In a third column, he's added his own — often witty — comments on the construction of the 95-odd new characters.

    If anyone would like to see Dr. Boyce's annotated list, I will send it to them as a pdf.

  32. Vampyricon said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 12:46 pm

    @Victor Mair

    Sure, the main point is the arbitrariness with which characters are assigned, which is sort of correct and sort of not. It's arbitrary which specific phonetic component with a pronunciation approximating the first appropriate syllable in its English name is used, but this seems like a "words are made up" argument, to which I can only reply, "Okay, and?" I don't see any problem with it.

    But Dr. Boyce also spent an entire paragraph, maybe a quarter of the post, on the specific periodic table they chose to represent "Chinese periodic tables". While it might not be the main point of the post, I wouldn't say it's negligible either. At least that part of their post (and their comment) is just based on someone's amateur passion project on Reddit, and shouldn't be taken to represent Chinese chemistry in general. In either case, the main point could have been made without reference to the specific periodic table chosen, and that just seems like poor form to me.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 12:57 pm


    Now you're just going around in circles. If you don't have anything new or useful to say, better stop now.

  34. Mike D said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 1:36 pm

    @ KeithB, the SF story is "Omnilingual" by H. Beam Piper (1957)


    https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19445 multi-format

    And there are multiple formats of the periodic table, upside-down, spiral, 3-D but the presence of atomic weights makes decoding easy

  35. Craig said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 3:26 pm

    @Greg, the "ni" in your transcription appears to be the kanji "ni" 二 ("two"), rather than the katakana "ni" ニ. (I.e. アクチ二ウム vs. アクチニウム) The difference is visually subtle.

  36. David C. said,

    May 26, 2022 @ 3:51 pm

    Japanese names for the elements are interesting in that there is a healthy mixture of katakana names transliterated from English or German and Sino-Japanese names written in kanji, but among the katakana hide names that were previously written in kanji but were replaced by katakana as they are not in the Joyo list of kanji. Take Phosphorus, リン. リン simply replaces 燐 and is parallel to the Chinese 磷.

    I agree with commentators above – these periodic tables were just created by someone on the Internet (if you follow the source, it's someone on Reddit with the username u/LeChatParle – from the accompanying note probably not Chinese and perhaps not even a native speaker of Mandarin). Not sure it proves anything about "the Chinese". There are plenty of Chinese periodic tables around that feature the internationally recognized symbols more prominently.

    Didn't Dr. Boyce make a similar point last year in response to a post about phrenology for words? That some Chinese words belie Chinese-centric chauvinism?


  37. Mike D said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 2:30 pm

    Notice the typo (English) in the Chinese table

    "Nobel Gas"

  38. Calvin said,

    May 27, 2022 @ 9:26 pm

    I am surprised that no one brought up what is the "official" version of the Chinese periodic table.

    So here it is: IUPAC化学元素周期表(中文版) – "IUPAC Periodic Table of Elements (Chinese Version)". PDF version link here.

    The English version is published by International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), and the Chinese version by 中国化学会 (Chinese Chemical Society).

  39. Isoraqathedh said,

    May 28, 2022 @ 2:30 am

    This reminds me of one particular observation with regard to a common point between Chinese characters and the US flag.

    They are both, in principle, allowed to change and extend themselves in any way possible, for any reason imaginable. In practise, they are only changed for one very specific reason that happens once every so often.

  40. KIRINPUTRA said,

    May 30, 2022 @ 10:28 am

    In defense…. Modern nation-states — and nation-building movements — extract, contrive, and market national essences. Part of the national essence of China — arguably its core — is these arcane, intricate, endlessly-many word drawings. We’re supposed to believe they were loyally preserved from a long-gone golden age. Truth is a lot of the complexity was pumped in by the literati of the last four or five centuries — with an assist from wandering Westerners with word-drawing fetishes — and codified by the modern Chinese republics, especially the first one.

    As one example of many, every Chinese kid or would-be Sinologist has to learn to tell 己 and 已 and 巳 apart. But the word drawing that’s supposed to be 已 is just 巳 in the 明州 version of an originally-11th-century imperial word-drawing book called the 集韻. (Yet that 巳 in that book is routinely digitized as 已 by modern specialists.) In the context of … other pre-modern or early modern texts (not modern editions), it’s clear that 巳 was no error.

    Now in late 19th century books we see forms like 淡氣 and 養氣 and 輕氣. Nothing wrong with these. They just weren’t arcane enough. They were transparent & kind of secular, like the scribblings of merchants & mariners. The use of sinographs didn’t mandate a switch to 氮 and 氧 and 氫. It was just that the founding Brahmins of the modern Chinese nation adopted complex orthography as one of its national essences. (Japanese is an example of a sister script without the contrived complexity. ) I think Mr. Boyce was partly trying to point this out. It’s an artificial and elitist aspect of Neo-China, dialed back a bit by the second republic. (Somebody mentioned Taiwan, but the Republics of China are just two states under a single nation.) If you think that’s fine, who’s to say? Maybe it is.

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