On July 7 UNESCO announced this year's additions to the list of World Heritage sites. Among the newly added locations we find the mountain range of Qinghai Hoh Xil

Qinghai Hoh Xil

Qinghai is a large province in western China.

Hoh Xil means "Blue Ridge" in Mongolian. (A friend tells me the 'X' should really be transliterated as an 'H'. And that the 'X' character makes an 'H' sound in Mongolian.)

This extensive area of alpine mountains and steppe systems is situated more than 4,500 m above sea level...

Wait a minute. "alpine". UNESCO just described the Qinghai Hoh Xil mountain range in terms of a European mountain range. But before we get to that, is it appropriate to use the term 'alpine' to describe any range besides the Alps?

I'll save you the suspense: yeah probably.

According to various etymology dictionaries the word 'alpine' is indeed associated with descriptions of the Alps. Early names for the mountain range are simple adjectives:

perhaps from altus "high," or albus "white" or from a Celtic word (according to Servius the grammarian), or a borrowing from a non-Indo-European language

So there is a good chance that the name 'Alps' comes originally from their description. Some shepherd saw a mountain range that was tall and white and said "Let s call it tall" or "Let's call it white". If this is true, then perhaps it's appropriate to describe similar ranges in this manner.

But the existence of an applicable etymology alone does not justify a word's usage. Speakers must be conscious of the etymology. So what do current users of the adjective 'alpine' mean when they use the term? My guess, they don't think of the Latin roots of 'altus' or 'albus'. Instead they associate the term directly with a mountain which rises above the tree line. It is unclear if they even associate the term with the eponymous mountain range itself.

But if 'alpine' means higher and whiter, then the Hoh Xil range is still more alpine than the Alps. (The Hoh Xil range has a higher average elevation than the European one. Not that this is a good definition of mountain height, but that is for another time.) If you're an academic this is a problem. Hoh Xil is not an alpine range, but rather a Hoh Xil range. The mountain range's essential properties are captured in relation to Europe. Ideally the mountain would stand for itself.

Does this matter? To you or me, not really. But it might matter to an international organization tasked with recognizing important cultural sites around the world... like say... UNESCO.