Russian Language Blog

Russian Chemistry for Muggles Posted by on Nov 30, 2010 in History, language

It’s been a while since we had our last guest post, but today is the day! Our guest writer today is Rob whom many of you know from the comments on the posts and invaluable contributions to our Fanpage discussions. Rob is what we, in Russia, call «эрудит» [a polymath] aka «ходячая энциклопедия» [a walking encyclopedia]. Turns out, in addition to his extensive knowledge of all things Russian, Rob knows a thing or two about «естественные науки» [natural science]. And so he gratiously «нахимичил» [concocted] this post for us. 

«Привет, меня зовут Роб, и я буду вашим хозяином в этом полёте – извините, на этом ПОСТЕ [Hi, I’m Rob, and I’ll be your host for this flight… or rather, for this post.]

Way back in 1989 when I began studying Russian as a first-year student at the University of Virginia, I also had some vague idea of going on to study medicine – which meant taking a LOT of «обязательныекурсыпоестественнымнаукам» [mandatory courses in the natural sciences], including chemistry and biology. As it turned out, «запоминатьрусскиеглаголыдвиженияоказалоськудаменеескучно, чемучитьнаизусть «циклКребса» исписокчерепныхнервов» [memorizing Russian verbs of motion was not as tedious as learning by heart the Krebs cycle and the cranial nerves] — so I ultimately chose to major in Russian, not biology. But I only came to that decision after taking many, MANY semester-hours of required science classes. So rather than letting that knowledge go to waste, it is my intention to inflict some of it on you – and in Russian!

But don’t worry, this post will NOT be highly technical – «Вамповезло!» [lucky thing for you!]. Rather, I intend it to be «краткоевведениекнаучномусловарюдлянеспециалиста» [a quick introduction to Russian scientific vocabulary for the layman]. Or, as I call it:

 «ХимиядляМаглов» [Chemistry for Muggles]

Why start with chemistry? Well, for one thing, some of the terminology used in «химия» [chemistry] is very helpful when you’re talking about other realms of natural science, such as biology or geology or astronomy. For example, even if you know that “kidney” is «почка», you’re not going to get very far talking about how the «почки» [kidneys] remove nitrogenous wastes from the blood if you don’t have the slightest clue how to say “nitrogen”!

And for another thing, any discussion of chemistry will necessarily be guided by the organizing principles of the «периодическаятаблицахимическихэлементов»(periodic table of the chemical elements) – credit for which belongs to… a Russian!

Although scientists before «Менделеев» [Mendeleev] had made efforts to arrange the chemical elements in a systematic way, «старыйдобрыйДмитрийИванович» [good old Dmitri Ivanovich] is honored by history because his table not only presented a logical ordering of the elements already known in his time, but also correctly predicted the existence and characteristics of several elements «дотехпорещёнеоткрыты» [that had not yet been discovered]!

Professor Mendeleev’s table begins with the Latin letter H (pronounced аш in Russian). “H” is, strictly speaking, not a «сокращение» [abbreviation] of the word “hydrogen”, but a «символ» [symbol] for the element, and is used by Russian scientists even though their word «водород» looks and sounds nothing at all like “hydrogen.” That’s because the Greco-Latin name was taken into Russian by the process of calquing — that is, a root-by-root translation, which works like this: The Greek root hydro- means “water”, which in Russian becomes «вода», while the root -gen signifies “birth” — in Russian, «род». And thus “hydrogen” is russianized to become «водород».

This simplest of elements, in its common, non-radioactive isotope, consists of a «ядро» [nucleus] with just «один протон» [proton], surrounded by a so-called «электронноеоблако» [electron cloud] containing a single «электрон» [electron]. There are also radioactive forms of hydrogen that have special names: «тритий» [tritium], for instance, has «два нейтрона» [two neutrons] in addition to the «один протон» [one proton] is thus «втриразатяжелее» [three times as heavy]. The number of protons in an atom’s nucleus «определяетатомноечислоданногоэлемента» [defines the “atomic number” of a given element], while the total number of protons and neutrons determines its «атомныйвес» [atomic weight]. Thus, the atomic number of hydrogen is 1. And as we continue our look at the elements, I’ll identify each one using its «символ иатомноечисловскобках» (symbol and atomic number in parentheses), like so: (1H).

Hydrogen is not the only chemical element whose Russian name was derived by “calquing” the neo-Latin scientific name. Let’s look at the element «кислород» (8O), which in English is “oxygen.” The Greek oxus means “sharp, sour, acidic”; in Russian, the adjective «кислый» is “sour”, the noun «кислота» means “acid”, and from this derives the adjective «кислотный», “acidic”. So “oxygen” and «кислород» both signify “that which gives birth to acid,” and the element got its name because many familiar acids do in fact contain oxygen. For example, there’s CH3COOH, «уксуснаякислота» [acetic acid] – which, «когдаразбавленаводойврастворе» [when diluted with water in a solution] is known as common kitchen vinegar. Speaking of which, it’s no mere coincidence that the Russian word for vinegar, «уксус», is pronounced very much like the Greek word oxus – the words are cognates.

This pattern is altered a little with the Russian word «углерод» (6C) – literally “born from «уголь» [coal].” But for some reason, English speakers simply call this element “carbon”, from the ancient Latin word for “coal,” though we might logically expect the name to be “carbogen”! «УглеродныесоединенияявляютсяосновойвсейжизнинаЗемле»[carbon compounds are the basis for all life on Earth], and there are so many of them that there is a branch of chemistry especially dedicated to their study: «органическая химия» [organic chemistry], which particularly focuses on «углеводороды» [hydrocarbons] – «ихнельзяпутатьсуглеводы, кпримеру, ссахаром [don’t confuse them with carbohydrates – for example, sugar!]And nowadays, of course, you can’t open a newspaper without reading about «углекислыйгаз» [carbon dioxide, CO2 ] and its relation to global climate change.

Finally, the Russian word for nitrogen (7N) breaks this pattern altogether: «Слово «азот» восходяткгреческойфразесозначением «без жизни»» [The word azot derives from a Greek phrase signifying “without life”], because «когда учёныевосемьнадцатоговекапервоначальновыделиазотизобычноговоздуха» [when 18-century scientists originally isolated nitrogen from ordinary air], they quickly noticed that mice died from asphyxiation when breathing pure nitrogen gas. The Greek-based name is slightly ironic, however — because while some nitrogen compounds such as «аммиак» (ammonia, NH3) are «оченьядовитые» (highly toxic), «азот» is utterly essential to life.

«Междупрочим» (by the way), if you’re wondering where the word “nitrogen” came from – it reflects the fact that the element was discovered to be a component of the mineral saltpeter (KNO3), which in Latin is called niter.

Let’s finish Part 1 of our «урокхимии» (chemistry lesson) with a quick look at two more elements that, along with the above four, «считаютсяубиологов«кирпичикамижизни»» (are considered among biologists to be the “building blocks of life”).

«Фосфор» (15P) is quite easy to remember because it sounds so much like its English translation. In its pure form known as «белыйфосфор» [white phosphorus], the element «светится приреакциискислородомизвоздуха» [glows upon reaction with oxygen from the air] – and thus it got its name, from a Greek word that means «светоноситель» [carrier of light].

Finally, the word «сера» has a strange double meaning – in the context of chemistry it means sulfur (16S), but it also refers to that waxy yellow gunk in your ears – which Russians call «ушнаясера» [literally “ear-sulfur”]!

Stay tuned for part 2, when we’ll take a quick tour through «остальные 106 веществвтаблицеМенделеева» [the remaining 106 substances in Mendeleev’s table] – but don’t worry, because «изэтих, мыбудемопускатьиигнорироватьбольшинство» [we’ll be skipping over and ignoring the majority of them]!

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  1. Rob McGee:

    Thanks for the kind introduction!

    Если я «ходячая энциклопедия», это в значительной части благодаря великому русско-еврейскому американцу, Айзеку Азимову — as a child, I positively devoured his books and essays on popular science. (Some were written for children, others for adult “laymen”.)

  2. Rob McGee:

    By the way, the title of this post was indirectly “suggested” to me by Google Translate!

    I didn’t know the Russian word for “layman”, so I tried the Google auto-translator, and one of the suggestions was мир’я’нин.

    Right away, I guessed that this probably meant “layman” in the religious sense — that is “a member of the laity”, as distinct from the “clergy” (духов’е’нство) — so it wasn’t quite what I needed. And eventually Yelena advised me that неспециал’и’ст was, in most contexts, the best translation for “layman.”

    But the etymology of мир’я’нин stuck in my head — obviously it comes from мир in the sense of “world” — in Latin, mundus, from which comes the English “mundane”. In ecclesiastical contexts, “mundane” can be properly translated мирск’о’й (“worldly”), but colloquially it means something more like бытов’о’й, повседн’е’вний, бан’а’льный.

    On the basis of this colloquial meaning of “boring and everyday”, English-speaking readers of science-fiction and fantasy books will sometimes use the terms “Mundania” and “Mundanes” to describe people who aren’t obsessively interested in sci-fi or fantasy and don’t attend Renaissance Fairs and Star Trek conventions, etc.

    And following along these lines inevitably made me think of “Muggles” from the Harry Potter books — so I hope that makes (metaphoric) sense to everybody!

  3. David:

    Rob this is fantastic! I went the other way from you – I might have become a linguist also interested in science, but instead I became an organic chemist also interested in languages.

    Will you be covering Фтвор and крeмь in part 2? I know where the former comes from but not the latter.

  4. Rob McGee:

    David: Yes — F and Si are two of the elements that will be singled out in Part 2 because their Russian names have interesting etymologies.

    (In fact, I’d definitely be talking about these two anyway, by way of briefly discussing the significance of the vertical groups in Mendeleev’s table — so it’s nice that they ALSO happen to have interesting Russian names!)

  5. David:

    Great! You were too polite to point out that I’d got the word for Si wrong – it should have been крeмний.

  6. Olga:

    сапоги мои того – пропускают аш-два-о )))