Croatian chemical nomenclature is in no way singular or peculiar.

Croatian chemical nomenclature is in no way singular or peculiar. As there are no letters q, w, x and y in the Croatian alphabet and Croatian orthography is strictly phonetic, names of compounds have been simply phoneticised: ’methoxy’ is therefore metoksi and ’quinine’ is kinin. Names of elements were mostly derived from Latin, but - as in English - aurum is not aurum, but zlato (gold) and argentum is not written ’argentum’ but srebro (silver). Also, there are some ’translated’ names of chemical elements, eg vodik for hydrogen (voda = water) and kisik for oxygen (kiselina = acid), but the same fate of words can be traced in German (wasserstoffsauerstoff) and in another Slavic language, Russian (vodorodkislorod).   

Yet, that which seems simple, can be very complicated. Nearly three years ago, the Croatian official journal Narodne Novine published a list of trivial and systematic names of illegal chemical compounds - psychotrophic drugs and related substances ( Nothing interesting except that the names were written neither in Croatian nor English. For example, ’dihidromorphin’, is obviously a hybrid between English (dihydromorphine) and Croatian (dihidromorfin). 1 gama hidroksi butirna kiselina is very probably 1- g -hydroxybutyric acid (1- g-hidroksimaslacna kiselina in Croatian), but what  clordiazepoksid should be I have not the slightest idea. Needless to say, as the official language in Croatia is Croatian, every act or legal document must be written in Croatian. And so our story begins...

Nobody ever reads official records. Especially not chemists. But one of them did. A postgraduate student Tomislav Portada saw this ’terrible list’, and wrote a letter to the minister of health, who had signed the document. Nothing happened. After the first unsuccessful attempt, Portada persuaded his older colleagues to do the same and the effect was the same. No response.

Finally, Portada pressed charges against the ministry of health at the Constitutional Court of Croatia. The argument was simple: the list of illegal substances had to be rejected since it was not written in the official language: Croatian. (The list was nevertheless written in some other standard language. I named this hybrid language ’Narodnonovinal’, after the journal in which it was published, and proclaimed it a new, (supra)European language.) 

The ministry of health received the charges but the minister first learned about the affair when a reporter in a daily newspaper asked him for a statement. He was very surprised but gave a simple explanation: ’It is not possible to croatise all medical terms.’ Does this mean that chemical names cannot be written in Croatian or in any other language but English? 

How did the story end? Instead of asking chemists to help them, the officials in the ministry of health used a ’back door’ to replace the initial list with a new one, with chemical names in English (

Alas, the list was swarming with typos; for instance suffix -yl was misspelled as -yt 20 times, as -yf two times, as -yi 32 times, and once even as -y1. In the ’English’ name ’(+)-4-[2-methyf-4-oxo-3,3-diphenyl-4-( 1-pyrrolidinyl)butyi] morpholine’ suffix -yl was written in three forms: -yl, -yi and -yf. Alpha was indiscriminately written as ’a ’ and ’a’, and carboxylic acid was written as ’carboxiic acid’. Of course, from the legal point of view nothing changed; the list was now equally unintelligible for the English and Croats alike. 

In an article about this list I said that Croatian has 80 terms for a stupid person, but I will qualify the ministry’s act using a Turkish word of the same meaning ’hajvan’ (literally: cattle), colloquially used in Bosnia, because - as the minister remarked - you cannot express everything in Croatian. 

Nenad Raos