Sunday, September 25, 2011

Do we need the terminal e?

Chemical English, after all, is just a subset of English. As such, it suffers the same problem as English in general: the pronunciation of the words is far from obvious. What makes it worse for chemistry is absence of any authoritative pronunciation guide. (Since the last year’s post on this topic, the audio guide “Pronunciation of Chemical Terms”, originally hosted by Hong Kong Cyber Campus, has disappeared from the web.)

You’d think that the chemical terminology was developed after the Great Vowel Shift and therefore there must be less of gap between the spoken and written word. You’d be wrong. The gap is there, a-gaping.

For instance, the effect of silent terminal e on pronunciation of English words, including chemical terms, is simply unpredictable. Sometimes the terminal e makes no difference: both thiamine and thiamin are pronounced and mean the same. (Cf. “win” and “wine”.) In some other cases, it makes a lot of difference: chlorine (chemical element number 17) and chlorin (tetrapyrrole), or silicon (chemical element number 14) and silicone (a class of silicon-containing polymers).

Protein vs cysteine; cisplatin vs astatine; krypton vs ketone; phenol vs pyrrole — what is the point of terminal es? Wouldn’t we all be better off without them? That will spare us a few rules about elision of terminal vowels, for example.