October 23, 2005

Tropical Storm Alpha

Tropical storms have been in the news lately and now, finally, there's a linguistic aspect to the news: for the first time the main list of names for tropical storms in the Atlantic region has been exhausted and it has been necessary to fall back to the secondary list: the current tropical storm is prosaically named Alpha. Tropical storm Alpha is only the 22nd tropical storm of the year; the tropical storm name list for the Atlantic contains no entries for Q,U,X,Y or Z.

The National Hurricane Center of the US National Weather Service has information about the naming of tropical storms. There are different lists of names for different regions. The lists vary in length. The Eastern North Pacific lists, for example, contain 24 names. They have entries for X,Y, and Z but like the Atlantic list have none for Q and U. The only lists to have entries for all 26 letters of the alphabet are those for the Southwest Indian Ocean. If you live there you can enjoy storms with names such as Qiqita and Quincy, Ula and Usta, Willem and Wilby, Xaoka and Xanda, Yelda and Yuri, and Zuza and Zoelle. The shortest lists are those for the Papua New Guinea region, which contain only eight names, and those for the Central North Pacific, which contain only 12 names, presumably reflecting the fact that the names are chosen from the indigenous languages of the respective regions, whose phonological inventories tend to be small.

In some ways the most interesting list is the one for the Western North Pacific. It cycles through names contributed by the various countries of the region: Cambodia, China, North Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Micronesia, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, the United States, and Vietnam. (I've expanded abbreviations and changed the official names to those commonly used in American English. The original names are in alphabetical order.) There is some interesting politics here. Hong Kong, which is part of China, is treated as a country, as is Macau, while Taiwan is excluded, presumably at the insistence of China.

According to the US National Weather Service, in the West Indies hurricanes were originally named after the saint on whose day they occurred. The current system originated in WWII when US military meteorologists began naming storms after their wives and girlfriends. Currently the names are assigned by regional committees of the World Meteorological Organization. The names of particularly severe storms, like the numbers of athletes, are retired.

Posted by Bill Poser at October 23, 2005 01:16 PM