Elevation and fog-cloud similarity in Tibeto-Burman languages

Hongdi DING, Sicong DONG

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlespeer-review


Lexically, 52.99% of the Tibeto-Burman languages, the non-Sinitic branches of the Sino-Tibetan language family, treat fog as something identical or similar to cloud, based on our database of 234 Tibeto-Burman varieties; there are three lexical relations of such fog-cloud similarity in Tibeto-Burman languages, namely cloud colexified with fog, cloud as a hypernym of fog, and cloud as a formative of fog. The rest of the Tibeto-Burman languages use semantically disconnected words to describe fog and cloud. The high proportion of fog-cloud similarity in Tibeto-Burman languages, compared with that of the non-Tibeto-Burman languages spoken alongside the Trans-Himalayan region (i.e., 10.80%, a result based on our database of 213 non-Tibeto-Burman varieties), has its historical reason, namely the relics of Proto-Tibeto-Burman. However, other than the phylogenetic factors, an underlying reason can be attributed to the environmental influence. The present findings indicate that fog-cloud similarity is more likely to happen at higher elevations, particularly between the range of 1000 m to 3000 m above sea level. After reviewing the meteorological features, it is found that the Tibeto-Burman region has ideal conditions for the formation of low cloud, namely with high humidity and through orographic uplift due to the mountainous environment. Since Tibeto-Burman speakers live in high elevations, low cloud, the dominant cloud of the region, may surround them or beneath their view. Therefore, they may find it difficult or not necessary to distinguish fog from low cloud. Our conclusion is also supported by the languages of other families and regions, such as the Daghestanian languages of the Caucasus region and the languages of the Central Andes. Moreover, the present findings agree with the theory of efficient communication. That is, languages displaying fog-cloud similarity are adaptive to higher elevations with less communicative need to distinguish between the two concepts by using completely different and unrelated linguistic forms; on the contrary, languages displaying fog-cloud divergence have stronger need to do so, resulting as well from their adaptation to the extra-linguistic environment. Finally, tropical climates, another possible predictor for fog-cloud similarity, are identified as a future research direction. Copyright © 2023 The Author(s).

Original languageEnglish
Article number375
JournalHumanities and Social Sciences Communications
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023


Ding, H., & Dong, S. (2023). Elevation and fog-cloud similarity in Tibeto-Burman languages. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 10, Article 375. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-023-01877-7


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