Sanskrit in the Periodic Table

Who would have thought that there is some connection between Sanskrit alphabet and the periodic table? I certainly wasn’t aware of any such link until I came across this paper by Subhash Kak.

A quick refresher first. The periodic table is a two-dimensional display of Chemical elements arranged according to their atomic numbers. The rows are called periods, and when you move from left to right the atomic numbers increase. There are gaps in some rows to ensure that Chemical elements with similar properties stay in the same column. The invention of the periodic table is generally attributed to the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. Below is one of the first drafts of his periodic table from 1869:

Notice the question marks – these are the places where he thought that there should be corresponding elements, but they had not yet been discovered. It’s what Mendeleev decided to call those then-unknown elements where the link to Sanskrit comes in.

Mendeleev, who had studied Sanskrit at a university in St Petersburg, used Sanskrit prefixes eka, dvi, and tri to name those yet-to-be-discovered elements. The prefixes were chosen based on how far away the unknown elements were from the known ones. For example, Gallium was named eka-Aluminium because it was one place down from Aluminium.

It is this naming convention that made some people (like Subhash Kak mentioned above) speculate if the connection between Mendeleev’s periodic table and Sanskrit runs any deeper. One possible connection is: the two-dimensional arrangement. Like the elements in the periodic table, Sanskrit alphabet are also arranged, very logically, in rows and columns based on how each letter is pronounced. At this point, you might want to check out my post from few years back where I discussed the logic  behind the beautiful arrangement of Hindi alphabet: The Sequence of Hindi Alphabet.

In short, atomic numbers of Chemical elements are, in a way, comparable to the articulatory properties of the consonants (i.e. the place of articulation; whether the letter is pronounce from the throat, or from the palate, etc. ) They are used to determine the order (of elements and letters respectively). In the same way, the Chemical similarity between two adjacent elements, can be compared with the phonological similarity between, say क and च. Both are used to determine which elements, and consonants, appear next to each other. [Again, if you read that post of mine mentioned above, you will see that क and च are similar because they are both non-voiced and non-aspirated.]

Is it possible that Mendeleev might have been inspired by the two dimensional arrangement of Sanskrit alphabet? Here’s Stanford university professor Paul Kiparsky on this similarity:

[T]he analogies between the two systems are striking. Just as Panini found that the phonological patterning of sounds in the language is a function of their articulatory properties, so Mendeleev found that the chemical properties of elements are a function of their atomic weights. Like Panini, Mendeleev arrived at his discovery through a search for the “grammar” of the elements (using what he called the principle of isomorphism, and looking for general formulas to generate the possible chemical compounds). Just as Panini arranged the sounds in order of increasing phonetic complexity so Mendeleev arranged the elements in order of increasing atomic weights, and called the first row (oxygen, nitrogen, carbon etc.) “typical (or representative) elements”. Just as Panini broke the phonetic parallelism of sounds when the simplicity of the system required it, e.g. putting the velar to the right of the labial in the nasal row, so Mendeleev gave priority to isomorphism over atomic weights when they conflicted, e.g. putting beryllium in the magnesium family because it patterns with it even though by atomic weight it seemed to belong with nitrogen and phosphorus. In both cases, the periodicities they discovered would later be explained by a theory of the internal structure of the elements.

Now I am not a language expert and I also don’t claim to know the intricacies of the periodic table, so I can’t say if these similarities are far-fetched or merely coincidental. Kak argues in his paper that “[I]t is unlikely that [the arrangement of Sanskrit consonants] influenced him, because there is no evidence that he knew Sanskrit well enough to appreciate the subtle points related to the organization of the Śiva Sutras. It is more plausible that he noted the comprehensiveness of the two-dimensional arrangement of the Sanskrit alphabet (varnamālā) which is apparent to even the beginning student of the language. The tabular form of the Sanskrit letters is due to the two parameters (point of articulation and aspiration) at the basis of the sounds, and Mendeleev must have recognized that ratios/valency and atomic weight likewise defined a two-dimensional basis for the elements.” [Emphasis is mine.]

Influential or not, tenuous or otherwise, I am just astonished to learn that there are structural similarities in the period table and the Sanskrit alphabet. What do you think?

[Image courtesy: Wikipedia]

PS: If you’re interested in reading more about the elements of the periodic table, I strongly recommend The Disappearing Spoon. Funny, engrossing, and often chilling episodes of the elements in the periodic table.

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7 responses to “Sanskrit in the Periodic Table

  1. Great piece Vishal.
    I am of the opinion that the students are taught things in the similar way of comparisons (justifiable).

  2. A very interesting article and thanks for drawing attention to the piece by Kak.
    For more information on all aspects of the periodic table please see my new book, A Very Short Introduction to the Periodic Table, published by Oxford University, 2011. Also see the website, http//ericscerri.com/ http://ericscerri.com/

  3. Pingback: We are “Human Isotopes”: What is an Isotope?: What Children Do!® « What Children Do!®

  4. Pingback: The Disappearing Spoon « David's Commonplace Book

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