Monday, 25 February 2013

antimony

In my first year at secondary school, which I entered at age 12½, we were given taster classes in science: an hour a week each of chemistry, biology, and physics. I remember that when the physics teacher had explained to us how an electric bell worked I asked him what determined the frequency of the beats in the ringing. But instead of giving me a serious answer, perhaps involving either the dimensions and elasticity of the vibrating clapper or the characteristics of the current applied, he sarcastically replied, “Why don’t you count them?”. This rather put me off physics. The chemistry teacher, on the other hand, showed us sodium, manganese, potassium, and other elements, and did experiments involving explosions and brightly coloured flames. He even demonstrated a Geiger counter and sources of alpha, beta and gamma rays. When I let slip that I knew that the lead (Pb) resulting from the radioactive decay of thorium has a different atomic weight from that of ordinary lead, he was so excited that he made a serious effort to recruit me to study science. But I had just started classical Greek, and I decided to stick with that, while continuing (as I do to this day) to read popular science books in my spare time and try to be reasonably well-informed about scientific subjects.

So you will understand that when I came to make a dictionary I took it as obvious that the headword list should include, for example, the names of all the chemical elements. I noticed with amusement that Daniel Jones’s EPD had ytterbium and yttrium, but not the other two elements named after the ore mines at Ytterby in Sweden, namely erbium and terbium. Naturally, LPD has all four (as does the current Cambridge EPD).

…which brings me to the question of element number 51, Sb, antimony. At school I acquired the pronunciation ænˈtɪməni for this element, with antepenultimate stress. This is also the pronunciation recorded in Daniel Jones’s EPD, at least up to and including the twelfth edition (1963). However, when Gimson took over the editorship for the fourteenth edition (1977), he added (and prioritized) the initial-stressed ˈæntɪməni. The on-line OED gives only this latter; whether this is the pronunciation recorded in 1885 or one reflecting a more recent editorial decision I do not know. After informally consulting colleagues in the chemistry department, I also decided to go with this in LPD. Merriam-Webster shows the same initial stress, but with a strong (‘stressed’) penultimate vowel, ˈæntəˌmoʊni, so bringing it into line with such words as testimony, alimony, ceremony. For what it’s worth, the -mony part of antimony does not seem to derive from the classical Latin -mōnium that we see in these words (nor from the ‘anti-monk’ origin given by Dr Johnson, which the OED calls an ‘idle tale’). The OED thinks it is ‘probably, like other terms of alchemy, a corruption of some Arabic word, refashioned so as to wear a Greek or Latin aspect’.

Nor is this chemical term to be confused with the philosophers’ antinomy (though it sometimes is).

When I was young relatively few transuranic elements had been named. As Tom Lehrer sang in 1959, the 102 elements then known were “the only ones of which the news has come to Ha’vard | and there may be many others, but they haven’t been discavard”. So in LPD I’ve got lawrencium, rutherfordium and dubnium, but not seaborgium, bohrium, hassium, meitnerium, or darmstadtium, still less such exotic newcomers as roentgenium and ununtrium. According to Hugh Aldersley’s recent book Periodic Tales, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, the organization in charge of ratifying chemical nomenclature, requires each new element to have a name ‘that is easily pronounced’. It’s not clear to me what that means in the last three cases I have mentioned, in each of which there is more than one possibility in English that could be supported by the spelling.

32 comments:

  1. I am intrigued by roentgenium: is it ˌrʌnt ˈjɜːn i‿əm.

    –J-M. Riachi

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  2. Correction: darmstadtium is in my LPD.

    However, the surname Aldersley is not. So it might make that list of new entries you are preparing for a possible future edition.

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  3. Darmstadtium, roentgenium and ununtrium may be open to alternative pronunciations, but I suspect that all of them are 'easily pronounced'.

    Moreover, I suspect that any of the alternatives would be easily identified and understood in the very particular contexts in which they might be spoken.

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  4. I forgot ununtrium.

    I first checked Wikipedia: it records a bizarre pronunciation – uːnˈuːntriəm.

    That cannot be right.

    American Heritage Science Dictionary has ə ˈnʌntr i‿əm.

    Which makes my supposed ju ˈnʌntr i‿əm inexistent.

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    1. This link gives oon-oon-TRI-em. But they also seem to be saying that it's best to say one-one-three, since ununtrium is only a temporary name.

      One of the labs with a claim of discovering the element is in Russia, so it may be relevant that the Russian spelling is унунтрий — which sounds rather like that Wikipedia pronunciation but without the -um suffix.

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    2. The recorded pronunciation I player in the American Heritage dictionary online made me think that the actor who recorded it said ʌ ˈnʌntr i‿əm. Though LPD breaks phonotactics rules often by ending the syllable after a vowel which cannot occur in open syllables, I haven't managed to find an example with ʌ. n, in my view, should go after the stress symbol because un- here has nothing to do with the prefix un-. I think?

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    3. The morphemes are un-, -un-, -tri- (after the digits of 113) and -ium.

      --
      Armando di Matteo

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    4. army

      The morphemes are un-, -un-, -tri- (after the digits of 113) and -ium.

      Wow! Does that mean that it's a joke?

      Not such a strange idea, since it's only a temporary name and any silliness will be forgotten fairly soon.

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    5. Wow, David, I thought you figured it out immediately.

      Army, but here un isn't a negation prefix. That is what was meant.

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    6. J. M. R.

      I'm not that sharp. I probably would have figured it out if it had been ju:nju:ntrɪəm

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    7. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systematic_element_name

      They came up with that after Americans and Soviets couldn't agree about the names of new elements: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transfermium_Wars

      --
      Armando di Matteo

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  5. /ˈæntəmoʊni/ is certainly my usage, and indeed the only pronunciation I have ever heard. As for roentgenium, I'd follow the usual pronunciation of roentgen (the scientific unit), which is /ˈrɛntgən/, of course with stress-shift, giving /rɛntˈgɛniəm/. Merriam-Webster lists alternative pronunciations with fricative g, but I have never heard them in live use.

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    1. Which would probably translate to rɒnt ˈɡen i‿əm in BrE.

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    2. Online Merriam Webster offers an audio file that sounds like /rɛntˈgɛni.əm/

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  6. ˈæntɪməni. The on-line OED gives only this latter; whether this is the pronunciation recorded in 1885 or one reflecting a more recent editorial decision I do not know.’

    It goes back to the original, which has (æ·ntiməni).

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  7. Applying English-Latin pronunciation rules, roentgenium must surely be riːntˈʤiːniəm.

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    1. Wilhelm Röntgen was a German physicist.

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    2. Indeed. And the German-Latin pronunciation would be rœntˈg̊eːni̯ʊm.

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    3. And darmstadtium must be dɑːmˈstædʃ(j)əm.

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  8. Interestingly, the name of antimony was used in English already in the 15th century (as antymoyne, antymony, antemony, antimonie). Given the attested spellings, the MLat./OF prototype, and the development of similar words in Late Middle and Early Modern English, the primary stress was originally on the third syllable (as in Old French) and then became retracted to the first, leaving the vowel of the third weakly stressed or unstressed. Dr. Johnson, for what it's worth, marks the first syllable as stressed. No regular mechanism would have produced ænˈtɪməni, so it was in all likelihood some sort of arbitrary by-form derived from the spelling.

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    1. Analogous rather, and that's nearly the opposite of arbitrary.

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    2. But analogous to what? Surely not to the other quadrisyllabic -mony nouns with transparent Latin etymologies. Anyway, Walker and Smart also recommended the initial-stressed form -- something that would be trascribed ˈæntɪməni or ˈæntəməni today (no secondary stress marked).

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    3. Obviously not with these, but with those that have a "light penult". I suspect this is all connected to the (underlying) difficulty of deciding if a (Graeco-)Latin vowel in an open syllable is long or short, but however that may be, people tend to feel an antepenultimate stress sounds right for that sort of thing. (Never mind that words in -y have lost a syllable from -ia or -ium.)

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    4. Right. So we have two conflicting "attractors" and the choice between them is random for an unanalysable word (if you do not know the traditional pronunciation). That's why I called that choice arbitrary. In the case of, say, aluminum vs. aluminium the segmental composition does make a difference.

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  9. As a foreigner, my hunch was that 'antimone' should have the same stress as 'anemone'. Whoops, there I go - applying logic to English pronunciation!

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  10. It's not antimone, it's antimony.

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  11. The OED does, in fact, suggest the following pronunciations for roentgenium:
    Brit. /rʌntˈɡɛnɪəm/ , /rʌntˈdʒɛnɪəm/ , /rʌntˈɡinɪəm/ , /rʌntˈdʒinɪəm/ , U.S. /rɛntˈɡɛniəm/ , /rɛntˈdʒɛniəm/ , /rɛntˈɡiniəm/ , /rɛntˈdʒiniəm/

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  12.  To my mind the LPD³ entry for roentgenium [ˌrɒnt ˈdʒiːn i‿əm ˌrəʊnt-, ˌrʌnt-, -ˈɡiːn- ǁ ˌroʊnt- rent-] is satisfying, except that [rent-] should read [ˌrent-] and variant pronunciations with [-ˈɡen-, -ˈdʒen-] deserve mention.

     Charlie Ruland

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  13. It's probably relevant, since you mention him, that "antimony" is the first element mentioned in the great Tom Lehrer song. It probably has a pretty outsized influence, since most people don't think about antimony much, but many have heard the song and maybe memorized the first few lines (as I have; I'm pretty much a failure in the family for not making it much past that through the whole song).

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  14. It’s not clear to me what [easily pronounced] means in the last three cases I have mentioned, in each of which there is more than one possibility in English that could be supported by the spelling.

    To be fair, it is probably saying no more than that the pronunciation, once known, should not be too much of a tongue-twister. If the requirement is for a single obvious spelling pronunciation, then several of the common elements aren't exactly a good "lead" to follow...

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  15. And hot off the press, here's a new use for antimony...

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  16. On antimony: I think there is also the analogy of antinomy /ænˈtɪnəmi/. So I continue to say /ænˈtɪməni/.

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