Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Spoken chemistry

As I was going, for the nth time, through the draft of the “new Blue Book”, it did strike me how much attention is paid to the appearance of a printed word. It is discussed in length what type of dash or bracket to use, which part of term has to be italicised and so on, whereas we often do not even know how to pronounce it. Which is a shame really, because I think IUPAC should take care of pronunciation (and comprehension of a spoken word) when coming with nomenclature recommendations. These are meant to improve the quality of chemical language, right? But the language where words cannot be pronounced is dead. (Think ancient Egyptian.)

Imagine we are given a task of recording an audio book on chemical nomenclature. Suddenly the names that look neat on paper become next to useless. Why? We do not pronounce parentheses (brackets, braces). We can’t pronounce sub- or superscripts. Ditto dashes, full stops and colons, which all can be parts of systematical names. Not to mention white space.

No, in olden days the pronunciation of your chemicals was taken seriously. Back in 1949, Dr. W. Bryce Orme wrote in a letter to British Medical Journal [1]:
Doctors and chemists are aware that difficulties occur in reaching consistency in the pronunciation of certain chemical terms, such as benzene and benzine, but generally it is conceded that the former should be rendered as ben'zēn and the latter ben'zin. It was, however, a shock to hear several highly qualified and distinguished chemists at a well-known pharmaceutical laboratory all referring to the radical CH3 as mēthyl. I had the temerity to correct them and pointed out that the term was derived from the Greek μεθυ = wine + ύλη = wood. . . . Neither Dorland’s Medical Dictionary nor our old school friend, Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon, refers to any latitude in the pronunciation of methyl.
Well I never. American Chemical Society had a Nomenclature, Spelling and Pronunciation Committee, which even came up in 1934 with a list of recommended pronunciation for 437 terms [2]. Apparently, one even could order the complete report by writing to the chairman of the committee:
A charge of five cents per reprint (postage acceptable) to cover costs is made.
Sounds like a bargain, but that was quite a while ago. So far I was unable to get hold of the report. However, I found the next best thing: a list of about 400 common chemical terms that originally appeared on an audio tape prepared by Dr. M.P. Sammes and the Hong Kong Association for Science and Mathematics Education in 1988 [3]. Now, at long last, I know how to say “2-ethanoyloxybenzenecarboxylic acid”.
  1. Orme, W.B. (1949) Points from letters: Pronunciation of chemical terms. Br. Med. J. 2 (4638), 1236.
  2. Crane, E.J. (1934) The pronunciation of chemical words. J. Chem. Educ. 11, 454.
  3. Sammes, M.P. Pronunciation of Chemical Terms.