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, the names of most elements were created after modern chemistry was introduced to East Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries, 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 logograms as the predominant way of naming elements. Native phonetic writing systems are primarily used for element names in Japanese (Katakana), Korean (Hangul) and Vietnamese (chữ Quốc ngữ).


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 Terminology in Science and Technology.[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.[2] For example,

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:

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. Only four radicals are 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.

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, over 100 phonetic components are used in naming the elements. Because many characters in modern Chinese are homophones, including for tone, two different phonetic components can be pronounced the same. 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, the names of tin (锡) and selenium (硒) both have the pronunciation with the same tone. The alternative pronunciation for tin is recommended by the National Committee for Approval of Terms in Science and Technology (全国科学技术名词审定委员会).

锡 (tin) and 硒 (selenium) are not homophones in Nanjing Mandarin, which was the prestige dialect of Chinese when most elements were named, which was until the late 19th century. The phonetic component of 锡, 易 (), was accurate when the character was invented around 3000 years ago, but not now because of sound change. In Middle Chinese 锡 was an entering tone character, a closed syllable ending in -p/-t/-k (or -ʔ in some modern dialects). But 硒 was constructed in the late 19th century using the (still accurate) phonetic 西 (), which in Middle Chinese was a level tone character, an open syllable with a vowel ending. In Beijing Mandarin, the variety on which Standard Modern Chinese is based, stop consonant endings of syllables were dropped, and the entering tone was merged into the other tones in a complex and irregular manner by the 16th–17th centuries, and 锡 and 西 both became Tone 1 (high tone) characters. In dialects that preserve the entering tone, like Nanjing Mandarin and Shanghainese and Cantonese, 锡 retains a -k or -ʔ ending and 锡 and 西 (硒) are pronounced differently.

This sometimes causes difficulty in verbal communication, as Sn and Se can both be divalent and tetravalent. Thus, SnO2 二氧化锡 and SeO2 二氧化硒 would be pronounced identically, as èryǎnghuàxī, if not for the variant for 锡. To avoid further confusion, P.R.C. authorities avoided using the name 矽 (or any tonal variants) for silicon. (In Taiwan 矽 is pronounced .)

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 = / (Taiwan / Mainland tī*) 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
+ = (Taiwan xì* / Mainland ) silicon. Mainly used in R.O.C. (Taiwan), Hong Kong, and Macau
guī = (guī) silicon. Derived from Japanese transliteration '珪' (kei, けい) of archaic Dutch keiaarde. Mostly used in P.R.C.
/ is primarily pronounced as nèi, but 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 not used much here, as only two elements (bromine and mercury) are truly liquid at standard room temperature and pressure. 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:

Semantic Semantic Element English Note
/ + bái (white) = / [note 1] platinum The character is repurposed.[note 2]
+ chòu (stinky) = xiù[note 1] bromine odorous (Greek βρῶμος brómos also means "stench")
+ yáng, short for / yǎng (to nourish/foster) = yǎng[note 3] oxygen A continuous supply of oxygenated air nourishes almost all animals
+ /𢀖 jīng, short for / qīng (light-weight) = / qīng[note 3] hydrogen the lightest of all elements
+ / , short for /绿 (green) = / [note 3] chlorine greenish yellow in color
+ yán, short for dàn (diluted) = dàn[note 3] nitrogen dilutes breathable air
+ lín, short for lín (glow) = lín phosphorus emits a faint glow in the dark
  1. ^ a b 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. ^ a b c d 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).

Usage in the nomenclature for simple inorganic compounds

Simple covalent binary inorganic compounds EmXn are named as

n X 化 (huà) m E   (with n and m written as Chinese numerals),

where X is more electronegative than E, using the IUPAC formal electronegativity order. 化 as a full noun or verb means 'change; transform(ation)'. As a noun suffix, it is equivalent to the English suffixes -ized/-ated/-ified. It is the root of the word 化学 (huàxué) 'chemistry'.

For example, P4S10 is called 十硫化四磷 (shíliúhuàsìlín) (literally: 'ten sulfur of four phosphorus', 'decasulfide of tetraphosphorus'). As in English nomenclature, if m = 1, the numerical prefix of E is usually dropped in covalent compounds. For example, CO is called 一氧化碳 (yīyǎnghuàtàn) (literally: 'one oxygen of carbon', 'monoxide of carbon').

However, for compounds named as salts, numerical prefixes are dropped altogether, as in English. Thus, calcium chloride, CaCl2, is named 氯化钙 (literally: 'chloride of calcium'). The Chinese name for FeCl3, 氯化铁, literally means 'chlorinated iron' and is akin to the archaic English names 'muriated iron' or 'muriate of iron'. In this example, 氯 is 'chlorine' and 铁 is 'iron'.

There is a Chinese analog of the -ic/-ous nomenclature for higher/lower oxidation states: -ous is translated as 亚 (, 'minor; secondary'): for example, FeCl2 is 氯化亚铁 and FeCl3 is 氯化铁. In a four-way contrast, hypo- is translated as 次 (, 'inferior; following') and per- is translated as 高 (gāo, 'high, upper'). For example, the acid HClO is 次氯酸 "inferior chlorine acid", HClO2 is 亚氯酸, HClO3 is 氯酸, and HClO4 is 高氯酸. In this example, the character 酸 (suān, 'sour') means (organic or inorganic) acid. The more modern Stock nomenclature in which oxidation state is explicitly specified can also be used: thus, tin(IV) oxide (SnO2) is simply 氧化锡(IV).

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 almost identical list (the only differences being the use of the traditional Chinese metal radical '釒' in place of the simplified Chinese form '钅' for nihonium and moscovium) in April 2017.[3]

For traditional Chinese, nihonium and moscovium were then existing characters; while in simplified Chinese, only moscovium already existed 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 CJK UNIFIED IDEOGRAPH-9268 Simplified: U+9FED CJK UNIFIED IDEOGRAPH-9FED ()
Moscovium: Traditional: U+93CC CJK UNIFIED IDEOGRAPH-93CC Simplified: U+9546 CJK UNIFIED IDEOGRAPH-9546 ()
Tennessine: Both Traditional and Simplified: U+9FEC CJK UNIFIED IDEOGRAPH-9FEC (tián)
Oganesson: Both Traditional and Simplified: U+9FEB CJK UNIFIED IDEOGRAPH-9FEB (ào)

In the periodic table

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18


















































1 asterisk
















1 asterisk







1 asterisk













1 asterisk














Pronunciations for some elements differ between mainland China and Taiwan, as described in the article. Simplified characters and mainland Chinese pronunciations are shown above.[5] Some of the characters for the superheavy elements may not be visible depending on fonts.


Comparison of mainland China, Taiwan and SAR names
English Z Mainland China 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, (beryllium), (chromium), (lanthanum), and (protactinium), are obscure characters meaning "needle", "hook", "harrow", and "raw iron", respectively.

Some elements' names were already present as characters used in the names of members of the House of Zhu. In the early Ming dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor established a rule that his descendants' given names must follow the order of the Five Phases per generation, and should have a character including the radical for one of the Five Phases. Some later descendants had to adopt rarely used characters, and even created new characters to fit this rule, which were later readopted for chemical elements. For example,

Most element names are the same in Simplified 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, elements discovered close to, during, or after the split sometimes have different names in Taiwan and in mainland China. In Hong Kong, both Taiwanese and mainland Chinese names are used.[6] A few pronunciations also differ even when the characters are analogous: cobalt gǔ (PRC) / gū (ROC); palladium bǎ (PRC) / bā (ROC); tin xī (PRC) / xí (ROC); antimony tī (PRC) / tì (ROC); polonium pō (PRC) / pò (ROC); uranium yóu (PRC) / yòu (ROC); bohrium bō (PRC) / pō (ROC).[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.[citation needed]


In 1871, John Fryer and Shou Xu proposed the modern convention of exclusively using single characters for element names.[7]


Like other words in the language, elements' names in Japanese can be native (yamatokotoba), 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). Elements not listed in any of the tables below have their names follow English, like tungsten.

English Japanese Note
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.).
nihonium nihoniumu (ニホニウム) The first element discovered in Japan. Named after Japan (Nihon).
sodium natoriumu (ナトリウム) natrium in Latin
potassium kariumu (カリウム) kalium in Latin
titanium chitan (チタン) Titan in German
chromium kuromu (クロム) Chrom in German
manganese mangan (マンガン) Mangan in German. Formerly written with ateji as 満俺.
selenium seren (セレン) Selen in German
niobium niobu (ニオブ) Niob in German
molybdenum moribuden (モリブデン) Molybdän in German
antimony anchimon (アンチモン) From either Dutch antimoon or German Antimon
tellurium teruru (テルル) Tellur in German
lanthanum rantan (ランタン) Lanthan in German
praseodymium puraseojimu (プラセオジム) Praseodym in German
neodymium neojimu (ネオジム) Neodym in German
tantalum tantaru (タンタル) Tantal in German
uranium uran (ウラン) Uran in German
fluorine fusso (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.
iodine yōso (ヨウ素 / 沃素) -yō (ヨウ, "io-" [joː], like Dutch jood [joːt]) or German Jod + -so (, "element/component"). Chinese uses (diǎn), the second syllable of iodine.

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).

English Japanese Chinese Note
mercury suigin (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 more generally used than 汞, because 汞 is not taught until the chemistry class (or physics class as in "汞液柱" while teaching atmospheric pressure) 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 used at all.

In Japanese too, exists but is very rare and literary, having an alternative obsolete reading mizugane. It is used in 昇汞 shōkō "mercuric chloride" (which also exists in Chinese as shēnggǒng).

sulfur , formerly iwō (硫黄) (liú) (ō) means "yellow", to distinguish from other characters pronounced the same.
zinc aen (亜鉛) 鋅/锌 (xīn) meaning "light lead"; 鉛 is "lead" in Japanese and Chinese.
platinum hakkin (白金) (bó) lit. "white gold". Like 水銀/水银 and 汞 in Chinese, 白金 is the "daily"/colloquial 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".
arsenic hiso (砒素) (shēn) hi () < (砒霜) hi-shimo, 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.

boron hōso (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.

English Japanese Chinese Note
hydrogen suiso (水素, "water's element") 氫/氢 (qīng) translation of the hydro- prefix, or translation of the Dutch word for hydrogen, waterstof ("Water substance"), or the German word Wasserstoff
carbon tanso (炭素, "coal element") (tàn) translation of the Dutch word for carbon, koolstof ("coal substance").
nitrogen chisso (窒素, "the suffocating element") (dàn) translation of the Dutch word for nitrogen, stikstof ("suffocating substance"). While nitrogen is not toxic per se and in fact constitutes the majority of air, air-breathing animals cannot survive breathing it alone (without sufficient oxygen mixed in).
oxygen sanso (酸素, "acid's element") (yǎng)

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

silicon keiso (硅素 / 珪素) (guī) same as Chinese; the kanji is extremely rare. Often written ケイ素 using katakana. Its origin lies in the Dutch word keiaarde; kei is a partial calque. The Chinese word is an orthographical loan from Japanese.
phosphorus rin () (lín) similar to Chinese, except the "fire" radical replacing the "stone" radical. The kanji is rare. Usually written リン using katakana.
chlorine enso (塩素, "salt's element") (lǜ) together with sodium make up common table salt (NaCl); is the Shinjitai version of .
bromine shūso (臭素, "the stinky element") (xiù) similar to Chinese, except the lack of the "water" radical.


As 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:

English Korean (before 2014) Source (South) Korean (after 2014)
gold geum (금) from Chinese jin (金) geum (금)
silver eun (은) from Chinese yin (銀) eun (은)
antimony antimon (안티몬) from German antimoni (안티모니)
tungsten teongseuten (텅스텐) from English teongseuten (텅스텐)
sodium nateuryum (나트륨) from Latin or German (Na for natrium) sodyum (소듐)
potassium kalyum (칼륨) from Latin or German kalium potasyum (포타슘)
manganese manggan (망간) from German Mangan mangganijeu (망가니즈)

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)


In Vietnamese, some of the elements known since antiquity and medieval times are loanwords from Chinese, such as copper (đồng from ), tin (thiếc from ), mercury (thuỷ ngân from 水銀), sulfur (lưu huỳnh from 硫黃), oxygen (dưỡng khí from 氧氣; oxi or oxy is the more common name) and platinum (bạch kim from 白金; platin is another common name). Others have native or old Sino-Vietnamese names, such as sắt for iron, bạc for silver, chì for lead, vàng for gold, kền for nickel (niken or nickel are the more common names) 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:

A minority of elements, mostly those not suffixed with -ium, retain their full name, e.g.,

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

Update in 2018 General Education Program, chemistry section:[8] (At page 50)

See also


  1. ^ a b "新元素113号、115号、117号、118号的中文定名征集" (in Chinese). 2017-01-15.
  2. ^ Chang, Hao (2018). "What's in a name: A comparison of Chinese and Japanese approaches to the translation of chemical elements". Chemtexts. 4 (3). doi:10.1007/s40828-018-0065-0. S2CID 186517051.
  3. ^ "Chemical nouns -- overview of the names of chemical elements". Archived from the original on 18 April 2017. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  4. ^ "Unicode® 11.0.0". Retrieved 7 June 2018.
  5. ^ a b Language Log: Names of the chemical elements in Chinese
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Wright, David (1997). "The Great Desideratum: Chinese Chemical Nomenclature and the Transmission of Western Chemical Concepts". Chinese Science (14): 35–70. JSTOR 43290407.
  8. ^ "Ministry of Education and Training(Vietnam) - General Education Program _ Chemistry" (in Vietnamese). Retrieved 2024-02-18.

Periodic tables