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Writing Chemical Equations

Using symbols to write chemical equations

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What Did You Say?

What Did You Say?

Credit: Robert Lopez
Source: CK-12
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

A university chemistry professor in American was having dinner with a student and her Chinese parents. Since the mother was a chemical engineer, the professor was interested in learning more about what she did. Since he did not speak Chinese and the mother did not speak English, the bilingual daughter had to translate back and forth. Unfortunately, the daughter did not “speak chemistry”, so communication became a problem. Finally, the mother took a napkin and wrote an equation for the industrial synthesis of ethanol from ethene and steam. Aha! The professor immediately understood what she did and how she did it. Words were not successful in this case, but chemical formulas told the story.

Amazing But True

  • There have been numerous attempts to come up with a universal language that everyone on Earth could speak. For several centuries, Latin (and Greek to some extent) were spoken and read by the educated class in Western Europe. A modern Harvard University tradition is to have a graduating senior give a short speech in Latin. In the early days of that university, all the speeches would have been in Latin (along with some in Greek and Hebrew).
  • In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the major language of the sciences was German. That country was a leader in the natural sciences. After World War I, however, German science went into decline for decades. The United States began to assume a pre-eminent role, so that English soon became the predominant language for publications and presentations.
  • The predominant “invented language” today is Esperanto. Developed in 1887, the hope was to devise a language that would bridge cultural and social barriers among different people. Relying heavily on Latin roots, with some taken from modern European and English forms, the language also has a special alphabet that is to be used when writing. Some ten thousand people today can speak Esperanto fluently.
  • Credit: kimubert
    Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/treevillage/6282081378/
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    There is less of a need for a universal language now that mobile translation apps are available [Figure2]

  • The chemical symbol for an element or compound is the universal language. The symbol C stands for carbon in English, but is called “kol” in Swedish and “kohlenstoff” in German. Even in English there is some variation. The symbol Al is referred to as “aluminum” in the U.S. and Canada, but “aluminium” in Australia and other parts of the English-speaking world.
  • Watch the video to get an example of Esperanto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIQyGettpTc

Show What You Know

Use the links below to learn more about universal languages. Then answer the following questions.

  1. Why would Latin be considered the universal language of science?
  2. How did Newton propose to express degrees of something?
  3. What was one of the first “universal languages” to gain any popularity?
  4. When did German universities begin teaching international courses in English?
  5. Why was Esperanto developed?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Robert Lopez; Source: CK-12; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: kimubert; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/treevillage/6282081378/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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