Spelling: sulphur-sulfur, sulphate-sulfate, etc.

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natkretep

Moderato con anima (English Only)
English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
My question relates to those using BrE spelling. (It is a non-issue for AmE. :))

While helping my daughter with her science, I noticed that children are now asked to write sulfur, sulfate, sulfite, etc., whereas when we were in school, we wrote sulphur, sulphate, sulphite, etc.

I have looked at the O level and GCSE syllabuses for Chemistry and also find the -f- spelling. For instance, the AQA syllabus for Chemistry (June 2014 onwards) says:
Most fuels, including coal, contain carbon and/or hydrogen and may also contain some sulfur. The gases released into the atmosphere when a fuel burns may include carbon dioxide, water (vapour), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen. Solid particles (particulates) may also be released.
So it looks as if there is a concerted effort in schools to use the -f- spelling. My question is whether this is happening in all schools (in the UK, Australia, etc.) and is this becoming the normal BrE spelling?
 
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  • grubble

    Senior Member
    British English
    According to this link the reason is

    ...in the UK a few years ago. It concerned the spelling of the name of the element sulphur. The Royal Society of Chemistry ‘decided’ that ‘to avoid confusion’ all UK textbooks and examination papers should henceforth adopt what is thought of (by dictionary scholars, not just me) in the UK to be an American spelling, viz sulfur...

    http://home.clara.net/rod.beavon/sulphur.htm

    I wonder if aluminium will go the same way?
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    The Royal Society of Chemistry ‘decided’ that ‘to avoid confusion’
    I love those quotation marks. I fail to see how any kind of 'confusion' could be caused but then I am a not an expert.
    I only wish I was a publisher of UK textbooks ~ I wouldn't think twice about telling the RSC to go phucque themselves. (Pardon my French.)
    It's not that I object to the concept of Spelling Reform in English; it's not that I object to American-style spelling; it's the fact that some self-appointed 'experts' have suddenly taken it into their heads that the sulphur/sulfur dichotomy has been causing confusion over the past few centuries, and that therefore a spelling which has in fact served us perfectly adequately since the late Middle English period (in fact far longer than sulfur has been serving the US perfectly adequately*) has suddenly to be jettisoned.
    I'd normally here launch into a diatribe about the plummeting standards of ~ not UK intelligence ~ but what the State expects of its young. But that's a separate rant.

    EDIT: Sorry, Nat ~ I don't read enough stuff that's likely to contain the word sulphur to be able to make a judgement on whether it's becoming standardized. It's definitely still sulphur for me, not that I ever actually write the word.

    *Unverified:eek:
     
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    Einstein

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    I've no objection to "sulfur" if that's what the scientific world wants. I'll remember this the next time it comes up in a translation.

    I'm not so happy about changing from aluminium to aluminum, because aluminium is the same or similar in other European languages and the extra "i" and the stress on min help to distinguish from alumina (aluminium oxide). I don't know why the Americans changed that. Maybe we could make an exchange: the British will adopt sulfur if the Americans agree to write (and say) aluminium. I'm not very optimistic!:D
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    The spellings sulfur, aluminium, and caesium were officially adopted in 1990 by the IUPAC, the international body in charge of chemical names. These were the three where there were variant BrE and AmE names: they standardized on the -ium ending for aluminium, but they're not going to change ones such as molybdenum and tantalum where there's no common variant in -ium.
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    Thanks, ETB - someone who knows his/her stuff! :) If they've standardised it, can we expect American textbooks to begin using aluminium?

    I assume it's standardising for the sake of standardising! I don't see how there can be any confusion if we write sulphur. I suppose we might end up seeing sulfur for technical contexts and sulphur for others.
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    Having been pointed here by nat's link in a recent thread, and having read ewie's reaction to grubble's quote, I have to note that the Royal Society of Chemistry didn't impose the spelling fosforus for phosphorus. So forcing a spelling change of sulphur to sulfur is inconsistent, unscientific thinking. Both spellings are established, so live and let live. If it was supposedly 'to avoid confusion', I agree with nat: I don't see what "sulphur" can be confused with!

    [I propose that the Royal Society of Chemistry should change their name, because the initials might be confused with the Royal Shakespeare Company! :D]

    Ws:)
     

    DonnyB

    Sixties Mod
    English UK Southern Standard English
    When I took my O level Chemistry exam, we only ever wrote it as "sulphur" and would've lost marks for incorrect spelling if we'd put "sulfur". I'm all for standardisation where it matters, but I cannot see how sulphur/sulfur differs from any of the other thousands of variations between British and American spelling.
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    The difference between 'sulfur' and 'phosphorus' is that both spellings sulfur, sulphur were also used in Latin, and Romance derivatives show it was pronounced with an [f]: the spelling ph is presumably a learned (but irrelevant) importation from post-classical Greek. On the other hand, phosphorus really is a Greek word, with the Classical Greek [ph] justifying the spelling, and this later became [f] in the path through post-classical Greek, late Latin, Romance languages, and English. The IUPAC decision has sound etymology behind it.
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    Who's really 'in charge of' chemical names ~ IUPAC or the RSC? Does IUPAC have jurisdiction in the UK? Does the RSC just imagine it's 'in charge'?
    Who put these people 'in charge'? Who decided that we have to kowtow to their diktats?
    If every self-appointed, self-interested professional body was 'in charge of' their own particular lexis, not only would we 'have to' say household waste removal operative instead of binman, but (and I've seen unedited writing produced by scientists) we'd all be forced to read ... well, you get the rest.

    It's the arrogance of these folk that gets my goat aflame:mad:
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    The difference between 'sulfur' and 'phosphorus' is that both spellings sulfur, sulphur were also used in Latin, ... [...] On the other hand, phosphorus really is a Greek word, ... [...]
    Thanks, eb. I wasn't aware that sulphur had been Latinised to <f> that far back. So OK, there's an etymological justification. Nonetheless, the reason quoted for the RSC's decision (I don't know about the IUPAC's motives) was 'to avoid confusion', not etymological accuracy; and frankly I reckon that imposing a change to sulfur (when every UK schoolkid for generations had learned it as sulphur) is more likely to cause confusion than avoid it — especially because of the apparent inconsistency with phosphorus (etymology aside).

    I know nothing of the IUPAC's remit, but if they're an international body does that mean that they standardise nomenclature in other languages? Would they propose imposing sulfur in place of the established names in German, Spanish, etc? If not, then what's the point in trying to standardise the different established variants within the major language groups? Internationally, you just end up with a lot of different names instead of a fractionally bigger lot of different names! I'm still convinced that, as nat suggested, it's standardising for the sake of standardising.

    My goat stands united with ewie's.;)

    Ws:)
     

    Einstein

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    If they're an international body does that mean that they standardise nomenclature in other languages? Would they propose imposing sulfur in place of the established names in German, Spanish, etc?
    Ws:)
    In Italian sulphur is zolfo while sulphuric acid is acido solforico, so there doesn't seem to be much standardisation there, although the -ite/-ate and -ic/-ous distinctions for different levels of oxidation are respected. The fact is that the English-speaking world believes there is standardisation worldwide and so reverently calls the International System of measurement the SI, from the French initals, while other countries tranquilly refer to it in their own languages, at least the Latin languages.

    Mods please don't cancel this post just because it contains foreign words! It's to illustrate a point about English usage.:)
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    The IUPAC gives an internationalizing let-out for when ancient elements have common rather than scientific names. These oldest elements are listed with the Latin form as an alternative in brackets, thus gold (aurum), lead (plumbum), mercury (hydrargyrum). So we can all in theory use something close to the same Latin-like name for each element. I don't think they seriously expect the English/Latin names to be used routinely in all languages.
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    Who's really 'in charge of' chemical names ~ IUPAC or the RSC?
    The RSC can decide what it wants chemists to use in learned journals. Any rebellion will be met with a red pen. Those being taught chemistry will be taught by the faithful minions of the RSC who inculcate their heresies into the minds of a generation innocent children; mere mortals can choose whichever spelling they prefer.

    I for one welcome the ideas of our new masters and look forward to oxygen being given its rightful name of dephlogisticated air. :thumbsup:
     

    Pedro y La Torre

    Senior Member
    English (Ireland)
    I was in secondary school when this change was announced. Our chemistry teacher rebelled :)D) and said never would he ever abide by such a silly ruling. And sulphur I continue to write to this day.
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    dephlogisticated air
    :confused: I thought that was a song out of Mary Poppins.

    Thanks for the extra dirt on the RSC* and IUPAC. I can see I'm going to have to unsubscribe from this thread before I start referring to them as 'Nazis':cool:


    * "Good old RSC ~ they're not there just for putting on crusty old plays."
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    [...] So we can all in theory use something close to the same Latin-like name for each element. [...]
    Sounds good: sulfur and sulphur are both 'something close'.;)

    By the way, it seems that sulfur hasn't always been the only AmE spelling. The city of Sulphur, Louisiana has its origins in the 1870s. The local mining company was called the Calcasieu Sulphur Mining Company, and was followed by the American Sulphur Company in the 1890s, then the Union Sulphur Company until the 1920s. As recently as 1950, a thesis paper submitted to the Louisiana State University (by an American) used the 'ph' spelling throughout, for sulphur and for derivative words such as sulphuric.

    Ws:)
     
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