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Chemical morphology

The terminology of chemical compounds (such as natriumchloride sodium chloride, NaCl, kaliumchromaat potassium chromate, K2CrO4 , N-acetyl-p-aminophenol paracetamol) is a field in its own right, with a large terminological component - there are official guidelines for its nomenclature. From a language system perspective, chemical terminology can be seen as a mix of (neo-classical) derivation and (neo-classical) compounding, with a great number of internationalisms (De Haas and Trommelen 1993: 2.3.41, 273 vv). Remnants of older naming systems such as natronloog caustic soda, NaOH and zuiveringszout sodium hydrogen carbonate, baking soda, NaHCO3 belong to the realm of lexicography.


Chemistry has an extensive vocabulary and a significant amount of jargon, much of it derived directly or indirectly from Latin or Ancient Greek. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) is responsible for the international standardization of nomenclature in chemistry (Anstein 2006). From a linguistic perspective, the terminology of chemical compounds can be seen as using both derivation and compounding. For example, zuurstof oxygen in its (simplest) bound form is called oxide oxide, waterstof hydrogen in its (simplest) bound form is called hydride hydride. Both in oxide [ɔk.ˈsi.də] and hydride [hi.ˈdri.də] the suffix -ide can be recognized. A simple chemical compound, then, is described by means of a morphological compound: water water (H20) can be called both waterstofoxide hydrogen oxide and (less common) zuurstofhydride oxygen hydride. To denote structural variants, prefixes such as iso- are used as well: both isopropylalcohol isopropyl alcohol and propanol propanol have the molecular formula C3H7OH, but the structure of the molecules is different.

A domain-specific property of chemical compounds is that the terms can be adorned with diacritics for disambiguation purposes. Cf., e.g., ijzer(III)chloride [εɪ.zər.ˈdri.χlɔ.ri.də] FeCl3, iron(III)chloride, ferric chloride, ijzer(II)chloride [εɪ.zər.ˈtwe.χlɔ.ri.də] FeCl2, iron(II)chloride, ferrous chloride and N-acetyl-p-aminophenol paracetamol.

The table below (after De Haas and Trommelen (1993: 274) lists some common chemical suffixes:

Table 1
suffix meaning/use examples
-aan to denote saturated carbohydrates butaan butane, C4H10
-aat to denote salts of certain acids natriumsulfaat sodium sulfate, Na2SO4
-ase to denote enzymes maltase an enzyme that breaks down the disaccharide maltose
-een to denote unsaturated carbohydrates benzeen benzene, C6H6
-ide to denote simple ions fluoride fluoride
-iet to denote salts of certain acids natriumsulfiet sodium sulfite, Na2SO3
-ine to denote certain psycho-active compounds heroïne heroin
-ium to denote chemical elements kalium potassium
-ol to denote alcohol-like substances isopropanol 2-methylpropan-1-ol, (CH3)2CHCH2OH
Most suffixes make neuter nouns, selecting the singular definite article het.

  • Anstein, Stefanie, Kremer, Gerhard & Reyle, Uwe2006Identifying and Classifying Terms in the Life Sciences: The Case of Chemical TerminologyCalzolari, Nicoletta and Choukri, Khalid and Gangemi, Aldo and Maegaard, Bente and Mariani, Joseph and Odijk, Jan and Tapias, Daniel (ed.)Proceedings of the Fifth Language Resources and Evaluation Conference (LREC 2006)Genoa, Italy1095-1098
  • Haas, Wim de & Trommelen, Mieke1993Morfologisch handboek van het Nederlands. Een overzicht van de woordvormingSDU Uitgeverij
  • Haas, Wim de & Trommelen, Mieke1993Morfologisch handboek van het Nederlands. Een overzicht van de woordvormingSDU Uitgeverij