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Elements on the periodic table are ascribed unique Chinese characters, and because they're relatively new characters (vs. thousands of years of history of the Chinese language), they're usually carefully designed and easy to remember. For example, the alkali metals are:

锂 (lǐ) Li (lithium)
钠 (nà) Na (sodium)
钾 (jiǎ) K (potassium)
铷 (rú) Rb (rubidium)
铯 (sè) Cs (cesium)
钫 (fāng) Fr (francium)

These all have 钅 (釒) semantic component (pertaining to metals), and mostly the phonetic component seems immediately reasonable, except for potassium 钾, which has the phonetic component 甲. Wikipedia discusses its etymology in Latin and English.

Question: Why is 钾 the Chinese character for potassium?

2 Answers 2

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It’s transliterated from Latin kalium, the first syllable.

To avoid confusion in symbols, please note k in Latin is /k/ in ipa and g in pinyin, voiceless but unaspirated. The pinyin k is voiceless and aspirated, which is ch in Latin and /kh/ in ipa.

Standard Mandarin no longer has the syllable /ka/, i.e. ga in pinyin. This is wrong, thanks for the comment 尬. But the syllable ga is irregular (see the last paragraph) and very infrequent.

甲 has initial 见 and historically pronounced as /kap/. From g to j (pinyin) is the second process of palatalization in Chinese. Some dialects didn’t go through this palatalization process, e.g. Cantonese, where 钾 is pronounced as gaap3. I came from a region where this process is not complete. We do pronounce 甲 as jia, but for other words with standard mandarin jia, especially colloquial ones, we pronounce them as ga. So my first instinct at seeing the Latin ka is to associate it with ga in my local dialect, and then immediately translate it to jia in standard mandarin. The initial translator probably went through the same mental process.

You can see here https://blog.sciencenet.cn/blog-612874-1346630.html and related blog for a full list of the origins of Chinese element names.

My opinion: The problem with 尬 is most likely that its sound is irregular and thus ambiguous if used as a phonetic component. Its induced Standard Mandarin sound should be jie4. I’m not sure where does ga4 come from, but mostly it came from a colloquial layer in some southern dialect. It's from Wu dialect (thanks to @alephalpha for the comment). Probably also because it’s composed of left and right parts. If we add an 金 to the left it seems a bit wide to write. Also probably because the syllable ga is very infrequent in standard Mandarin; it didn’t even come up to me at first. Also kalium has a i in the second syllable, making it more likely to be associated with a palatalized sound.

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  • I was just wondering if i got the wrong idea. Do you mean pinyin "ka" and "ga"? We are still using them, such as 卡 or 尬
    – Havier
    Oct 28, 2022 at 1:32
  • @Havier I mean ga in pinyin. The Latin k is voiceless unaspirated, same as pinyin g, which is different from the aspirated pinyin k. I didn’t thought about 尬. I’ve added some thoughts on it in the answer.
    – lilysirius
    Oct 28, 2022 at 2:03
  • @Havier 卡 being "ka3" is also irregular; qia3 is the expected pronunciation from regular sound change Oct 28, 2022 at 3:16
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    The pronunciation of 尴尬 (gan ga) is borrowed from Wu.
    – alephalpha
    Oct 28, 2022 at 5:47
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    @Havier I guess another way to put it is that w/o borrowings from foreign languages or other dialects (or perhaps onomatopoeia), Mandarin would not have the syllables "ka" or "ga". Regular sound changes changed all the syllables that used to be pronounced that way to qia and jia a long time ago. Oct 28, 2022 at 7:05
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Because 徐寿 created these "domain specified characters". (领域专用文字哈哈)

to make it simple, it's just newly made character, with "金字旁" + [same pronounced character],

由于元素周期表对科学和工商业的巨大推动作用,1871年,清国人徐寿先生在翻译《化学鉴源》(Well's Principles of Chemistry)时就确立了不同于当时日本人的以日语谐音称呼化学元素英文名的原则,而使用怎样的华语汉字称呼这些元素就成了一个难题。因为按照徐寿的方案是在汉字中找一个发音和化学元素相近,并且能用偏旁代替这些化学元素常规状态的字。

为此,徐寿灵机一动,取各元素拉丁语第一音节而造新字的原则来命名,例如钠、钾、钙、镍等。

refer to: https://3g.163.com/dy/article/GG42MS180534BC3J.html

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  • These only apply to words that didn’t exist in Chinese already, not including for example 铁. Also, for those new words, not all characters are newly coined. For example, 钠 has existed from at the latest 南北朝. It’s a different word but the same character.
    – lilysirius
    Oct 29, 2022 at 6:15
  • 你说的对![doge] 你说的对![doge]
    – Siwei
    Oct 30, 2022 at 23:51

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