Chemical elements in East Asian languages

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 have used—the Chinese script, only the Chinese language uses the characters as the predominant way of naming elements. On the other hand, the Japanese and Koreans primarily employ native writing systems for the names of the elements, such as Katakana and Hangul.


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). New names and symbols are decided upon by the China National Committee for Terms in Sciences and Technologies.[1]

Native characters

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 long-established group of "Five Metals" (五金) — gold (金), silver (銀/银), copper (銅/铜), iron (鐵/铁), and tin (錫/锡) — as well as lead (鉛/铅) and mercury (汞).

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

  • boron (硼) as part of borax
  • carbon (碳) in the form of charcoal
  • sulfur (硫) had been used to make gunpowder since at least the 10th century in China.

Characters based on European pronunciations

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; metal") for solid metals, (shí "stone, rock") for solid non-metals, / (shuǐ "water") for liquids, and ( "air, steam") 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 118 elements have been discovered, there are over 100 different phonetic components used in naming the elements. Current practice dictates that new names should avoid being homophonous with previous element names, or with organic functional groups. However, this rule was not rigorously followed in the past, and confusingly, tin (锡) and selenium (硒) have names that are both pronounced xī.[2] To avoid further confusion, P.R.C. authorities avoided using the name 矽 for silicon.
Examples of characters derived from European pronunciations
/ + = / ()lithium
/ + jiǎ= / (jiǎ)kalium, Latin name for potassium
/ +/ nèi or = / ()natrium, Latin name for sodium
/ + or = / ()stibium, Latin name for antimony
/ + niè= / (niè)nickel
/ + = / ()cadmium
/ +/ = / ()wolframium, Latin name for tungsten
/ + = / ()bismuth
/ + yóu= /
   (Taiwan yòu* / Mainland yóu)
/ +/ = / ()aluminium
+ diǎn= (diǎn)iodine
+ hài= (hài)helium
+ = ()fluorine
+ nǎi= (nǎi)neon
+ guī= (guī)silicon (P.R.C.), from Japanese transliteration

'珪' (kei, けい) of archaic Dutch 'keiaarde'.

Note that R.O.C. (Taiwan), Hong Kong,

and Macau use 矽 derived from silicon.

/ is primarily pronounced as nèi, but has less commonly as , the source of /. Likewise, the primary pronunciation of is , but the alternate reading of gave rise to .
* 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. 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

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:

/ + bái (white)= / [note 1]platinumThe character is repurposed.[note 2]
+ chòu (stinky)= xiù[note 1]bromineodorous (Greek βρῶμος brómos also means "stench")
+ yáng, short for / yǎng (to nourish/foster)= yǎng[note 3]oxygenA continuous supply of oxygenated air nourishes almost all animals
+/𢀖 jīng, short for / qīng (light-weight)= / qīng[note 3]hydrogenthe lightest of all elements
+/ , short for /绿 (green)= / [note 3]chlorinegreenish yellow in color
+ yán, short for dàn (diluted)= dàn[note 3]nitrogendilutes breathable air
+ lín, short for lín (glow)= línphosphorusemits a faint glow in the dark
  1. The pronunciation of these characters come from the second semantic characters' nearly 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The apparent mismatch in pronunciation with the phonetic component is because the pronunciation is inherited from another character that provides the meaning. For example, the ultimate source of the pronunciation of yǎng (oxygen) is not yáng (sheep), but / yǎng (to nourish/foster).

Recently discovered elements

In 2015, IUPAC recognised the discovery of four new elements. In November 2016, IUPAC published their formal names and symbols: nihonium (113Nh), moscovium (115Mc), tennessine (117Ts), and oganesson (118Og).

Subsequently, in January 2017, the China National Committee for Terms in Sciences and Technologies published four naming characters for these elements.[1] The National Academy for Educational Research under the Ministry of Education of the Republic of China on Taiwan published an identical list in April 2017.[3] For traditional Chinese, nihonium and moscovium are existing characters; while in simplified Chinese, only moscovium exists in the Unicode Standard. The missing characters were added to Unicode version 11.0 as urgently-needed characters in June 2018.[4]

The Chinese characters for these symbols are:

Nihonium: Traditional: U+9268 (HTML 鉨) Simplfied: U+9FED (HTML 鿭) ()
Moscovium: Traditional: U+93CC (HTML 鏌) Simplfied: U+9546 (HTML 镆) ()
Tennessine: Both Traditional and Simplfied: U+9FEC (HTML 鿬) (tián)
Oganesson: Both Traditional and Simplfied: U+9FEB (HTML 鿫) (ào)

In the periodic table


Comparison of China, Taiwan and SAR names
English Z China Taiwan Hong Kong/Macau
silicon14 guī gwai1, zik6
technetium43 daap1, dak1
lutetium71 liú lou5, lau4
astatine85 ài è ngaai6, ngo5
francium87 fāng fong1, faat3
neptunium93 nài noi6, naa4
plutonium94 bat1
americium95 méi méi mei4, mui4
berkelium97 péi běi pui4, bak1
californium98 kāi hoi1, kaa1
einsteinium99 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, 鏷 (protactinium), 鈹 (beryllium), 鉻 (chromium), and 鑭 (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.[5]

The isotopes of hydrogen – protium (1H), deuterium (D) and tritium (T) – are written 氕 piē, 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, a previous name for the isotope thorium-230.


Like other words in the language, elements' names in Japanese can be native, from China (Sino-Japanese) or from Europe (gairaigo).

Names based on European pronunciations

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,

antimonyanchimon (アンチモン)This form without the final vowel (i from y) is likely from Dutch (antimoon) or German (Antimon)
tungstentangusuten (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.).
sodiumnatoriumu (ナトリウム)natrium in Latin
uraniumuran (ウラン)Uran in German
iodineyōso (ヨウ素 / 沃素)-yō (ヨウ, "io-" [joː], like German Jod [joːt]) + -so (, "element/component"). Chinese uses (diǎn), the second syllable of iodine.
fluorinefusso (弗素)futsu () approximates flu-. Similar to the Chinese: , plus the "air" radical (气). As is not a commonly used kanji, it is often written フッ素, using katakana.

Native names

On the other hand, elements known since antiquity are Chinese loanwords, which are mostly identical to their Chinese counterparts, albeit in the Shinjitai, for example, iron () is tetsu (Tang-dynasty loan) and lead () is namari (native reading). While 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. A special case is tin (, suzu), which is more often written in katakana (スズ).

mercurysuigin (水銀) (gǒng)lit. "watery silver" aka. quicksilver, like the element's symbol, Hg (Latin/Greek hydro-argyrum, "water-silver"). In the Greater China Region, 水銀/水银 is being used wider than 汞 because 汞 usually won't be taught until the chemistry class but 水銀/水银 is the word used in daily life; for example, when people talk about the mercury liquid in the thermometer, most people would say "水銀/水银" but not 汞. This kind of thermometer is called "水銀溫度計/水银温度计" (lit. "watery silver thermometer") in Chinese instead of "汞溫度計/汞温度计" (lit. "mercury thermometer"), which is not being used at all. However, is also exists in Japanese, but extremely rare, serves as an alternative reading of the obsolete reading mizugane.
sulfur, formerly iwō (硫黄) (liú) (ō) means "yellow", to distinguish from other characters pronounced the same.
zincaen (亜鉛)鋅/锌 (xīn)meaning "light lead"; 鉛 is "lead" in Japanese and Chinese.
platinumhakkin (白金) (bó)lit. "white gold". Like 水銀/水银 and 汞 in Chinese, 白金 is the "daily" word, and 鉑/铂 is the formal name and usually won't be taught until the chemistry class. In mainland China, jewelry stores usually use the word "白金" or "铂金".
arsenichiso (砒素) (shēn)hi () < (砒霜) hishima, the Chinese name for arsenic trioxide (pīshuāng). In modern Chinese, arsenic is instead shēn (砷), an approximation of the second syllable of arsenic.

The kanji is quite rare. Often written ヒ素 using katakana.

boronhōso (硼素, "borax element") (péng) (ホウ) < hōsa (硼砂), the Chinese name for borax (péngshā). Boron is still called péng in modern Chinese.

The kanji is extremely rare. Mostly written ホウ素 using katakana.

Meaning-based names

Some names were later invented to describe properties or characteristics of the element. They were mostly introduced around the 18th century to Japan, and they sometimes differ drastically from their Chinese counterparts. The following comparison shows that Japanese does not use the radical system for naming elements like Chinese.

hydrogensuiso (水素, "water's element")氫/氢 (qīng)translation of the hydro- prefix
carbontanso (炭素, "coal element") (tàn)translation of the German word for carbon, Kohlenstoff ("coal substance").
nitrogenchisso (窒素, "the suffocating element") (dàn)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).
oxygensanso (酸素, "acid's element") (yǎng)

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.)

siliconkeiso (硅素 / 珪素) (guī)same as Chinese; the kanji is extremely rare. Often written ケイ素 using katakana.
phosphorusrin () (lín)similar to Chinese, except the "stone" radical replacing the "fire" radical. The kanji is rare. Usually written リン using katakana.
chlorineenso (塩素, "salt's element") (lǜ)it and sodium make up common table salt (NaCl); is the Shinjitai version of .
bromineshūso (臭素, "the stinky element") (xiù)similar to Chinese, except the lack of the "water" radical.


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. But recently, some elements' names were changed. For example:

EnglishKorean (before 2014)Source(South) Korean (after 2014)
goldgeum (금)from Chinese jin (金)geum (금)
silvereun (은)from Chinese yin (銀)eun (은)
antimonyantimon (안티몬)from Germanantimoni (안티모니)
tungstenteongseuten (텅스텐)from Englishteongseuten (텅스텐)
sodiumnateuryum (나트륨)from Latin or German (Na for natrium)sodyum (소듐)
potassiumkalyum (칼륨)from Latin or German kaliumpotasyum (포타슘)
manganesemanggan (망간)from German Manganmangganijeu (망가니즈)

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

EnglishKorean (Hangul, hanja)
hydrogensuso (수소, 水素)
carbontanso (탄소, 炭素)
nitrogenjilso (질소, 窒素)
oxygensanso (산소, 酸素)
chlorineyeomso (염소, 鹽素)
zincayeon (아연, 亞鉛)
mercurysueun (수은, 水銀)

See also


  1. (in Chinese). 2017-01-15 Missing or empty |title= (help)
  2. It is worth noting that Nanjing Mandarin was the prestige dialect of Chinese until the late 19th century when most elements were named, and that 锡 and 硒 are not homophones in this dialect, since 锡 is an entering tone character while 硒 is level tone. (In Modern Standard Mandarin, based on the Beijing variety, the entering tone had merged with the other tones by the 17th century.)
  3. "Chemical nouns -- overview of the names of chemical elements". Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  4. "Unicode® 11.0.0". Retrieved 7 June 2018.
  5. 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" (PDF). 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

Periodic tables


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