So recently there was an article on boingboing titled “The Elements Song (Tom Lehrer tune), Super Cute Japanese Version,” which featured two 13-year-old girls singing “元素” [genso]*, meaning “element” (Japanese doesn’t have articles or plural forms of nouns), a Japanese rendition of the well-known tune “The Elements” by Tom Lehrer. Because it is awesome, I’ve decided to transcribe the lyrics and translate them (obviously, for most of the song, the translation is fairly obvious) here. First, I’ve made a table of the elements in the order that they are sung — unlike Tom Lehrer’s version, there are no extra words like “also”, etc, so these are the lyrics to most of the song — with chemical symbol in the left column, Japanese name (as written in the youtube video — there are alternate ways to write some of the names, which I’ll talk about later) in the middle column, and Hepburn romanization in the rightmost column, followed by the final sentence in the song….
The final line of the song is “これが今ま派遣された全てな元素の集まりです” [kore ga ima made haken sareta subete na genso no atsumari desu], which roughly translates to “this is all of the elements collection that have been sent up ’til now.”
Here comes the random spew of notes about the song, transcription process, translation process, etc: the order of the elements is the same as in the original, but there are more of them, which have been tacked on to the end of the song. In fact, the last element in the song is new enough that when I was going through and checking my transcription/romanization using WWWJDIC, I found that the dictionary didn’t have it. And in checking the transcription/romanization, I ended up finding two mistakes. I’m also considering giving this mass of katakana to my Japanese-Learners students for practice. How about it, guys?
Anyway, to the last line: it’s hard to get the number of syllables exactly right for everything, so some of the vowels are stretched out when sung. The problem is, in Japanese, the length of the vowel is a differentiating trait between words. The final line is sung with extra elongated vowels (so that it sounds like “haaken saareta”), but given that we’re probably trying to approximate the last part of the original “The Elements” song, I settled on the word 派遣 [haken] (defined in WWWJDIC as dispatch/send) as the noun to form the compound verb “send” when combined with された [sareta], the perfect/past form of the potential form of する [suru], meaning “do.” Thus, the combination “派遣された” [hakensareta] roughly means “was sent,” and it modifies the noun phrase “全てな元素の集まり” [subete na genso no atsumari], where 全て [subete] means “all”, な [na] is a nominal-connecting particle, 元素 [genso] means “element” (or, as pointed at near the beginning of the post, could be interpreted as “the elements” because of the lack of articles and plural noun forms in Japanese), の [no] is the other nominal-connecting particle, and 集まり [atsumari], derived from the verb 集まる [atsumaru], which means “gather up” or “collect”, means “collection.” Thus, the noun phrase can be translated as “all of the elements collection,” and since it is modified by “派遣された” [hakensareta], I translated that chunk of the sentence as “all of the elements collection that have been sent.”
As for the rest of the sentence, これ [kore] is a demonstrative that means “this” (and here refers to the aforementioned elements, of course), が [ga] is a subject marker that indicates that “これ” [kore] is the subject of the imperfect, distal copula, です [desu], at the end of the sentence. And the “今まで” [ima made] component of the sentence can be broken into 今 [ima], meaning “now,” and まで [made], a particle meaning “until.”
So now, some comments about the names of the elements, because I find them somewhat intriguing: most of the element names are from English, German, or Chinese, as exemplified in アルミニウム [aruminiumu], アンチモン [anchimon] (from “Antimon”), and ヒ素 [hiso], respectively. Okay, so the completely katakana names have origins that are fairly obvious — they’re nipponizations of either English or German, mostly (I’d say all, but some are potentially ambiguous, and superlatives are difficult to support). A handful of elements share the exact same kanji as their Chinese counterparts: Fe/鉄 [tetsu], Au/金 [kin], Ag/銀 [gin], Pb/鉛 [namari], and Cu/銅 [dou]. Another handful of elements are derived from the Chinese: As/ヒ素/砒素 [hiso], I/ヨウ素/沃素 [youso], B/ホウ素/硼素 [houso], Si/ケイ素/珪素/硅素 [keiso], and F/フッ素/弗素 [fusso]. (All of the non-素 [so] 漢字 [kanji] are not considered common kanji, according to WWWJDIC.) Going down the list one at a time, then: 砒 is pronounced pī and means “arsenic” in Chinese, which is where the Japanese pronunciation derives from. The Chinese word 沃 is pronounced wò and means fertile/rich/irrigate; again, Japanese pronunciation derives from the kanji and is thus written with katakana because it’s a loan word of sorts. Oddly, the Chinese 硼, which does mean “boron,” is pronounced péng, so this nipponization is beyond me…. Both 珪 and 硅 mean “silicon,” though the first character has a radical that is generally used with precious materials and can refer to a “jade tablet” (according to MDBG), while the second character refers specifically to the chemical element and is the character used in the Chinese periodic table; both characters are pronounced guī, for which the nipponization makes sense again. Finally, we have 弗, pronounced fú and meaning “not” in Chinese (according to MDBG), though the meaning of the 漢字 [kanji] in Japanese is “dollar” (according to WWWJDIC); the pronunciation makes sense, but I’m unsure as to the rationale behind the meaning….
Of course, some of the names are original to Japanese: H/水素 [suiso] meaning “water element,” O/酸素 [sanso] meaning “sour/acidic element,” N/窒素 [chisso] meaning “plug-up/obstruct element,” Br/臭素 [shuuso] meaning “stinky element,” Hg/水銀 [suigin] meaning “liquid silver,” Pt/白金 [hakkin] meaning “white gold,” S/硫黄 [iou] meaning “yellow sulfur” (the first character is the same as the Chinese character for elemental sulfur, while the second character means “yellow”), Zn/亜鉛 [aen] meaning “come-after lead,” Cl/塩素 [enso] meaning “salt element,” and C/炭素 [tanso] meaning “charcoal/coal element.” The hypotheses for nitrogen and zinc that Ben came up with on zephyr follow:
[Nitrogen] blocks oxidation and/or breathing.
Traditional early experiments in such things involved burning metal in a confined volume of air, allowing one to measure that 30% of the air’s mass was added to the metal and 70% was left unreacted. Isolation and further study of that remaining portion shows that it obstructs breathing, etc..
I think it has to do with the refining process — if you have mixed zinc and lead ore, the lead will reduce out first, but if you go to higher temperature (???) then the zinc will come off.
So there you have it. “The Elements” song in Japanese!!
* Japanese in this post is followed by the Hepburn romanization in brackets, as it is through most of the blog.