Volcabulary

What’s in a name? More specifically, what’s in the name of a volcanic hazard? Different names carry different meanings, conveying an emotion or communicating a threat. Volcanic vocabulary ranges from the descriptive (“the fire like a Christmas tree”), through the technical (“pyroclastic flow”), to the sensory (“roaring”).

Language is fundamental to knowledge of volcanic hazards. At many volcanoes, volcanic hazard education has focussed on transferring scientific knowledge (and technical jargon) to the public. This presents “knowledge of volcanic hazards” as a resource held by scientists and given to locals. But non-scientific knowledge is valuable, too. We should instead aim to “co-create” knowledge of volcanic hazards by exchanging knowledges between different groups of people (including scientists, local residents, and authorities). Co-creation of volcanic hazard knowledge allows us to recognize the value of knowledge gained in different ways. We should also respect alternative names for volcanic hazards to allow diverse groups of people to discuss volcanic risk. As well as creating dialogue, comparing vocabularies might reveal interesting ways that people relate to volcanoes in different countries.

This blog post is a collection of words for volcanic phenomena that I have dubbed “volcabulary“. It includes several languages and both scientific and colloquial terms. I’ve long been fascinated by volcanic language (e.g., posts here and here) but found few resources that included multiple languages – hence this post!

An excellent academic paper on technical terms for effusive eruptive activity is here. I have not found a similar paper on explosive activity. I would love to write it – but this would require a lot of work! This post is intended to start a discussion of volcabulary: what words we use and what they mean. We need more research into volcabulary of explosive volcanic phenomena, not least because these are the most dangerous hazards during an eruption (as illustrated by VolFilm). My visit to Colombia was exhilarating due to UNGRD’s flexibility with language to facilitate discussion of volcanic hazards with the public.

UNGRD advocated for the use of senses (e.g., sight, smell, taste) in volcabulary. I think senses can have a greater role to play in the way verbal speech can communicate immediate risk from explosive volcanic eruptions. This volcabulary shows how senses are richly invoked in other languages. For instance, Japanese has a wealth of volcabulary that often invokes sound.

This theme is much larger than a single blog post … but let’s begin!


Czech

– Sopka: meaning “volcano”.

French

– Nuées ardentes: literally “glowing cloud”, this term is interchangeable with pyroclastic flows, a volcanic hazard caused by explosive eruptions. These hazards are fast-moving mixtures of pulverized rock and gas that hug the ground while they escape from a volcano. The term “nuée ardente” seems to have gained popularity after the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée in Martinique (here); the term “pyroclastic flow” is more commonly used in recent literature.

– An interesting French-Icelandic translation of various Icelandic place names appears here, an excerpt from Guide des Volcans d’Europe by the famous volcanologists Katia and Maurice Kraft. Names that caught my attention are “reyk” (meaning “vapour”), “suda” (meaning “boiling”), and “eld” (meaning “fire”), all of which I’ve seen in Icelandic place names but did not realize that they included a sense of hazard!

English

Although English is prominent in technical volcabulary, it is also a rich descriptive language which borrows from many others. Consider these qualitative descriptions of two major 20th-century eruptions:

– The lateral blast of Mount St. Helen’s eruption in May 1980 was described as a “big black inky waterfall” by witnesses close to the volcano, while observers further away remembered “more than blackness – it was blackness that hid the unknown”;

– The July 1995 eruption of Soufriere Hills in Montserrat remembered vividly: “grey and black, one mighty cloud”.

Both sourced from here.

This article provides an extensive history of eruptions of Taal volcano in the Philippines, complete with dramatic descriptions of eruptive activity.

Farsi

– Atashfeshan: literally, “erupts fire”, and meaning “volcano”.

Greek

– Pyroclastic: the word comes from πῦρ (“pyr”, meaning “fire”) and κλαστός (“clastos”, meaning “broken”). “Pyroclastic” refers to rocks or hazards (flows and falls) composed of volcanic materials. There’s a surprising poetry in “fire broken into pieces”, the meaning underlying this technical term!

Hmong

– Roob hluav taws: meaning “volcano”, this term literally translates as “mountain of fire and embers”.

Icelandic

– Jökulhlaup: this term refers to glacial outburst floods related to a volcanic eruption. A good description can be found in this academic paper. The term “jökul” appears in the French-Icelandic translation above, and means “glacier”.

Italian

– Fiamme: meaning “flames”, these are a distinctive and beautiful texture found in pyroclastic flow deposits. Fiamme may be created by a process called “welding”, where the pyroclastic flow is so hot when it is laid down that it fuses into a solid mass. The term “fiamme” is somewhat debated, it seems!

Japanese

– Fun (噴): kanji that appears in both funka (噴火) (Sakurajima ash eruption) and “fumarole” (噴気孔).

– Ka (火): “fire”.

– Funka (噴火): literally, “eruption”.

– Bakuhatsu (爆発): literally, “explosion”. Can be used for both a volcanic explosion and for bombs exploding. “Bakuhatsuteki na funka” is for an explosive eruption. According to the resident volcanologist at the Sakurajima Visitor Center, eruptions at Sakurajima can be subdivided into two types: the first, funka (噴火), do not produce a signal on the infrasound monitor, and the second, bakuhatsu (爆発) does.

– Ryu (): “flow”. Appears in kasairyu (火砕流), or “pyroclastic flow”, dosekiryu (土石流), or “debris flow”, kazandeiryu (火山泥流) or “volcanic mudflow”, yoganryu (溶岩流), or “lava flow”. Also in rahaaru (ラハール), or “lahar”. This last term is phonetic.

– While there are distinct terms for various volcanic flows, most people don’t differentiate between the technical terms for debris flow, lahar, and other volcanic flows. They are collectively called “sediment disaster” or “earth/sand disaster” (土砂災害).

– Various hazards: kazanbai (火山灰) or hai (灰), meaning “ash”. Kazanreki (火山礫) or reki (礫), meaning “lapilli”. Funseki (噴石), meaning “volcanic bombs”.

– There is a specific term around Sakurajima for a large amount of kazanbai (火山灰 ), or “volcanic ash”. Because volcanic ash is a big part of daily life, dokabai (ドカ灰) is “a huge amount of ash”. People will say “Lots of ash today, be careful” just like the English comment on rain.

Javanese

– Lahar: from ꦮ꧀ꦭꦲꦂ, a lahar is a violent flow of volcanic debris and water (source). Isn’t it interesting that both Japanese and Javanese derive the name of this hazard from the sound it makes?

– Various uses of onomatopoeia have been reported at Mt. Merapi, including ‘njebluj’ for the sound of an explosion and a volcanic plume sounding like ‘krembul-krembul’, as well as a volcanic flow described as: “‘gemlugur’ and then ‘murup’. Gemlugur is the noise of rock fall and murup is the flames, embers” (source).

Maori

– Ngāwhā: geothermal hot pools or geysers (source).

– Interestingly, although New Zealand’s North Island has experienced major eruptive activity within the last 2,000 years, this seems to have had relatively little influence on early Maori culture. Few specific terms for volcanic hazards appear in Maori language (source).

– Moving more into knowledge, here is a fascinating paper that attempts to recognize and reconcile Maori and Western knowledges in geosciences.

Mongolian

– Galt uul (галт уул): literally “fire mountain”, meaning “volcano”.

Spanish

– Bola de fuego: literally, “ball of fire”. Used by a resident near Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala. Likely refers to a volcanic bomb!

– Lava: while “lava” in English refers to molten rock (magma) expelled on Earth’s surface, at some volcanoes in Latin America “lava” is an umbrella term that can refer to any of: lava flows, lahars, pyroclastic flows, volcanic bombs, and incandescent fire fountaining.

– Various sounds and onomatopoeia describe activity at Volcán de Fuego, Guatemala. “Tronidos” or “thunder” describe the rumbles of Fuego’s summit explosions; “bullo” is a boiling or seething noise that locals generally use to invoke Fuego’s activity; and “Fum!” was a frequent word that older locals on the volcano’s west flanks used to describe 20th-century eruptions of Fuego. Source: my 2019 research! More information soon.

– A rich volcabulary found at Volcán Tungurahua, Ecuador. This includes “bramidos” (“roaring”) to describe smaller explosions, and “caída de ceniza con tamaño de grano como el de azucar” (“ashfall with grains like sugar”) to describe increasingly intense explosions in February 2014 (source).

– Pyroclastic flows can be described by various words, including “humazón” (large cloud of smoke) among local residents of Volcán de Fuego, Guatemala; “flujos piroclasticos” (direct translation of English term, a common technical term); “avalanchas calientes” (literally, “hot avalanches”, used by authorities in Colombia when discussing volcanic risk with indigenous communities).

Tagalog

– Nasisiraan ng ulo: this Tagalog term is inspired by the fickleness of a hazardous word; discussion of this and many other Tagalog terms relating to a culture of natural hazard are discussed here.

– An infographic showing an elegant blend of Tagalog and English to communicate volcanic hazards can be found here.

Urdu

– Aatish fishaani dhamaka: meaning “volcanic explosion”, from “aatish fishaani” (volcanic) and “dhamaka” (explosion).


Local and scientific knowledge of volcanic hazards are both necessary to understanding explosive volcanic eruptions. Mutual respect of experience between these people is also essential. Knowledge of volcanic hazards and risks should be co-created between scientists, authorities, and local residents. This can be achieved by mutual appreciation of experience as told through language.

https://gc.copernicus.org/preprints/gc-2020-16/
Figure from Kerlow et al. (in review) showing languages currently spoken around the Ring of Fire. Source: https://gc.copernicus.org/preprints/gc-2020-16/

This post was inspired by a Twitter thread asking about volcanic vocabulary in other languages! It would not have been possible without many people who took the time to respond. Thanks to: @Listlad, @jfsaraceno, @SirGeogy, @Volcanologist, @El_locoAzzari, Kerstin Stebel, @tuwshuu_answer, @touindisguise, @afiasalam, @SonnySondog7, @petroman96, @beni_n_the_jets. And a special thanks to @cantate7, who provided all the Japanese translations and elaborated thoroughly on her fascinating life at Sakurajima. Well worth a follow!

2 thoughts on “Volcabulary

  1. A really interesting discussion. What’s in a name? – SO, so much , as you write: history, culture, tradition, beliefs,, customs, folklore, identity…I could go on!!

    Like

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