English has an alphabet of 26 letters. The Arabic numeral system we use in the U.S. and in most other countries has 10 digits, 0-9. Together, we use these building blocks to put together thousands of words and countless numbers.
When you’re growing up, you learn to use a primary language to communicate concepts to others. In America, it’s usually English (American English). But if you make it to high school or above, you may learn another language – the language of chemical formulas and reactions. This language has about 100 “letters” (chemical element symbols), and also uses the Arabic numerals. If you know this language, you can read the chemical literature, but more importantly, maybe understand the world a little better, or at least what it’s made of.
Let’s lay out the language by starting with the “letters”, the symbols on the periodic table of the elements. Some people have this table as a popular wall hanging that translates the symbols into different ideas like trees, vegetables, etc. But the original periodic table contains the letters of our new language as: H, He, Li, Be, Al, C, N, O, F, Ar, etc. Notice that a fair amount of the English alphabet is included in our new language, which we’ll call Chemish (like the Mormon scribe and the ridge in Antarctica). The full alphabet is listed in Appendix A, along with a guide to pronunciation and derivation of the symbols.
Next, we need some rules for putting the letters together to form words that are considered part of the language; in other words, words that will make sense to native speakers. For instance, the word “NaCl” is a legitimate word in Chemish, whereas “ClNa” would only be readable by a few dyslexic or Middle Eastern folks.
There are 118 (and counting) one-letter words (each elemental symbol is considered a letter) in Chemish. There is a dictionary of one-letter English words, but some of these (over 700 entries) are a bit tenuous. Wiktionary says that there are only 3 one-letter words in English. More like it. Unlike English then, Chemish’s letters can all be used in words by themselves.
How about two-letter words? Well, according to The Free Dictionary, there are 675 two-letter English words acceptable in the major word games (like Scrabble and Words With Friends). In Chemish, there are significantly more. Although you could theoretically have ? two-letter combinations, there are rules in Chemish that disallow many of them (kind of like the Scrabble rules). And unlike English, Chemish has a way of producing words that involves using the numerals 0-9. So you can get a pretty staggering amount of words (millions?) quickly. Fortunately, like English, there are only a few thousand that are in regular use, or that mean anything realistic or accepted, so it wouldn’t be hard for a child to learn Chemish as a second language.
Unlike English, the letters in Chemish don’t have simple names, and although words are made by stringing together letters, as in English, the rules of reading these words are much harder. It would be safe to say that Chemish’s words are more like the pictograms of Chinese than the strings of letters of English. For instance, the Chemish word Al2O3 would be read as “A l 2 O 3” or “alumina” or “aluminum oxide”, but not “altúohthree”.
Sentences in Chemish are what are called chemical reactions, and are much closer to mathematical equations than English sentences, at least on paper. Sentence structure is simple, with the words being augmented by symbols that have similar meanings to their mathematical forebears. For example, the Chemish sentence “HCl + NaOH = NaCl + H2O” would be read “Hydrogen chloride reacts with sodium hydroxide to produce salt and water” (in one dialect).
Instead of writing the letters over again, as in “tt” or “ll” in English, subscripts to the right of letter indicate the amount of that letter in the word in Chemish. So, in the example above, instead of writing HHO or HOH (though this one is seen in some dialects and situations), we write H2O, and pronounce this word “H 2 O” or “water” (a 3-letter word in Chemish).
Completing this introduction to the Chemish language, many words have capital Arabic numerals as their first letter. The sentence “N2 + 3H2 = 2NH3” is well-formed in Chemish.
The full set of letters in Chemish includes all the elemental symbols of the periodic table, the Arabic numerals and certain mathematical symbols that are usually seen in the “option” tab of font tables.