Monday 20 September 2010

On highest mountains

A correspondent writes to ask about the difference between tallest and highest in such sentences as Everest and K2 are the two tallest mountains in the world, which he has found on a BBC site. He quotes Michael Swan as an example of a grammarian who says that it has to be Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe and not . . . the tallest mountain, and is understandably confused.

Usage is undoubtedly blurred, because we frequently see such listings (very common online) as 'The Tallest Buildings in the World', 'The Tallest Mountains in the World', and so on, alongside 'The Highest...' Tallest is four times more common than highest for buildings on Google. Highest is over ten times more common than tallest for mountains, but tallest still attracts a healthy 60,000 hits.

When we look for the reason, we enter a world of technical definition. Mountains are actually measured in three different ways. (1) Sea level to the peak. (2) Base to the peak. (3) Distance from the centre of the earth to the peak. The differences are significant. Under (1), the title goes to Mt Everest. Under (2) the title goes to Mauna Kea, Hawaii, which has only 4,245 m of its 30,000 m above sea level. Under (3) the title goes to Chimborazo volcano in the Andes, only 6310 m high but (thanks to the equatorial bulge caused by the earth's spin) further away from the centre than anything else. In this approach, (1) is referred to technically as the highest mountain, and (2) as the tallest mountain.

Most people would never need to refer to (3), and few to (2). We normally think of mountains as being above sea level, so this motivates the use of highest. But the fact that tallest is also a permitted collocation will have reinforced its appearance in everyday usage, resulting in the overlap noted by my correspondent.

Other domains raise similar issues. People normally talk about tallest buildings, referring to the dimension of the building from base to roof. The highest building in the world could be a single-storey house on some mountain-top somewhere. But again there is an overlap, and there are complications, well known in the field of encylopedia listings. Does the radio mast on top of a high building count as part of the height of the building or not? It can get quite controversial when competing claims are being made for the world record. And the complications reverberate linguistically when we encounter such usages as The highest part of the tallest building is well above roof level.


The Ridger, FCD said...

This of course makes me think of "The Englishman who Went Up a Hill And Came Down a Mountain", where they built a cairn on the mountain, er hill, to raise its elevation.

Adam said...

The other day a Turkish friend commented on how 'high' my son had gotten since he'd last seen him. I didn't take offence.

Anonymous said...

Wow! This definitely helps when my pupils ask me the difference between highest and tallest. Thank you.

David Crosbie said...

For me the difference between High and tall is that you can see the sides of tall things.

A plateau can only be high and a tree can only be tall. But a mountain is something between the two.

If you commission a photograph of a mountain, you'll probably get a picture of the summit and some upper slopes. That's the default image,as if were. But an exception depiction might take in the whole mountain from base to summit. That's what I might call a tall mountain

For me, it's not just the measurement from base to peak, but rather the visible outline from base to peak.

BRANKKO said...

Mount Elbrus (5,633 meters or 18,481 ft) is the highest mountain in Europe.
It's not in European Union, but it's still on European continent :)

DC said...

A controversial point, which is best directed to the quotation source, not to this blog.

Ebi Tahasoni said...

I never knew you had such an extensive online appearance professor. You have always been an inspiration to me and my students. Your Encyclopedia of the English Language has been my on my bedside table for years (and not as a part of the decoration!) and I believe you were among those linguists who advocated -in the good sense of the word, of course- a certain level of lenience towards such usage points.

I do agree that one should take notice of usage when controversy might arise, but I see no such point here. Tallest or Highest, it reminds me of an article on BBC Magazine a couple of years ago about the phrase “5 items or less” in British supermarkets…

Paul said...

I think you meant to say that Mauna Kea is over 30,000 feet, not metres, unless the Pacific ocean is over 25km deep...


DC said...

Thank you! Yes, 10,000 m, I meant (or 33,000 ft).

Paul Clapham said...

When I first read this I was on vacation in Slovenia so I didn't have time to do much except think "I don't believe I make that distinction between a high mountain and a tall mountain".

However I did have the experience while on a tour of a former mercury mine there where one of the tourists bumped his head on the top of the tunnel and the tour leader, whose English was really good, jokingly said that the tourist was "too high".

And that was because Slovene has a single word "visok" which covers both "tall" and "high" in English.

(Yes, I realize that doesn't mean that Slovenes can't make the distinction if necessary, just as English-speakers can make the distinction between the three separate concepts covered by the word "free". For which Slovenes have three different words.)

But anyway the post started me thinking about things which could be tall. People, yes. Trees, yes. Lakes, no. Mountains, sure, okay, they can be tall. But I think the alleged distinction between tall mountains and high mountains fails (for me at least) because there isn't a corresponding distinction between "tallness" and "height". I don't say "My tallness is 170 cm", I say "My height is 170 cm". Likewise we talk about the height of some towering eucalyptus in Australia which might be the tallest tree in the world, not its tallness.

So given that, it becomes hard (for me) to support a distinction between height and tallness for mountains.

Chris Elston said...

I suggest that 'high' expresses altitude or level, and that 'tall' expresses upward extent - or in words my students more readily comprehend "reaching high". (Consequently, with a tall object, the height measurement will usually exceed the width measurement; hence, as David Crosbie observes, we can usually see the sides of the object.)
A further factor in the choice of words may be the point of the communication. For example, a tower may to most people be perceived as 'tall' (upward extent), but 'high' (altitude)to the speaker thinking of the spectacular view from the restaurant at the top.

Essam Abulkhaire said...

Thank you very much indeed for this informative and enlightening post.

As a teacher of English as a foreign language and a speaker of Arabic myself, I used to answer my students' questions about such issues that it's a matter of collocations. Because I introduce them to the notion of collocations as early as I can in the course, they usually find my answer satisfying. I think the issue is easier for us as foreign language speakers to solve than to native speakers.

But allow me Professor Crystal to ask if that is academic and linguistic enough in my context.

Thanks for the space.

DC said...

I agree that collocation will help to explain usage differences in a huge number of cases, as earlier comments have suggested. But the highest/tallest distinction can't be entirely explained by collocations. This is also a matter of reference, i.e. real-world knowledge, as the examples in my post illustrate.