A choice of words

Day 14 Fri 17th Jan 2014

Prior to the trip to Patagonia, other commitments had smothered any serious attempts to study Spanish or learn Welsh.  Greater command of the languages undoubtedly would have helped with some awkward conversational pauses and enhanced my appreciation of all things Patagonian.  Such is life.  But some of the linguistic confusions that have arisen during the trip couldn’t have been foreseen anyway.

Take the seemingly simple concept of ‘flood’.  Regardless of language, everyone knows what these are, right?  But as more interviews take place, it dawns on us that there is a subtle distinction in the words used to describe floods.  In interviews, I have been probing Spanish-speaking people’s recollection of floods by using the word ‘inundación’, but some people have tended to use ‘caudal’, ‘corriente’ and ‘crecida’ to describe river flows.  Discussions with local Argentine contacts indicates that ‘caudal’ tends to be the catch-all word for ‘flow’, and ‘corriente’ or ‘crecida’ tend to be used for higher-than-normal flows that don’t spill over the banks.  Although this is by no means a hard-and-fast rule, it makes sense: ‘crecida’ is derived from ‘crecer’ (‘to grow’), so essentially refers to the river flow engorging.  I like this idea.  As we intended, an ‘inundación’ is indeed a larger, bank-topping and floodplain-smothering flow event.

The English and Welsh language seems to be more impoverished in this respect.  In damp western Europe, most rivers carry water between their banks year round.  ‘Flood’ (‘llif’ in Welsh) tends to be a very loose term for anything higher than a ‘normal’ river flow, usually coming into use when the water level gets close to, or overtops, the river banks.  Other English language regional expressions for floods (e.g. ‘spate’, ‘freshet’) don’t really add many nuances.  But even this use of ‘flood’ isn’t consistent across the English-speaking world.  In arid-zone regions of Australia or the southwest USA, many rivers remain dry for months or even years, and usually only carry water after erratic, heavy rainfall.  In these ephemeral rivers, a ‘flood’ is used to describe any flow event, regardless of how close it gets to the bank tops.

So on the face of it, the Spanish language seems to have an advantage here: more words are available to distinguish between different types of river floods.  This could be very useful in investigating people’s memory of past floods: perhaps an ‘inundación’ is the kind of event that lingers longest in the memory, whereas a ‘corriente’ or ‘crecida’ is more quickly forgotten.  It’s a nice theory and seems to be partly borne out by the messy memories of the floods along the Río Percy as it passes by Trefelin [see ‘Messy memories by the Messy River’ blog].  The ungauged 1939 flood that swamped much of the town and surrounding floodplain was an ‘inundación’ by anyone’s reckoning.  This flood is still remembered by many older interviewees, and its depiction in a large photograph in the town’s impressively restored old mill (‘Molino Andes’) may help this flood to form part of the inherited memory of younger residents.  The gauged (500 m3/s) 1977 flood is also a well-remembered ‘inundación’ that impacted on the town.  The September 2013 flood – a mere baby at ‘only’ 150 m3/s – did escape its banks in places and managed to wet the ground floors of some floodplain-encroaching buildings at the town’s northern edge, but the bulk of the overtopping and swamping occurred south of town towards the lower end of Cwm Hyfryd.  Photographs taken from a helicopter by an interviewee confirm that the flood patterns were not as uniform as is commonly depicted in hydraulic textbooks.  Even a newspaper’s incorrect attribution of one of these photographs to ‘un sector ribereño de Trevelin’ (‘riverside sector of Trefelin’) instead of the Río Futaleufú located some 10 km distant, does not seem to have unduly influenced most local residents’ description of this event as only a ‘crecida’, if indeed they bother to mention it at all.

It’s a moot point whether the September 2013 flood is best described as a ‘corriente’, ‘crecida’ or an ‘inundación’.  As our interviewee’s photographs show, parts of Cwm Hyfryd did only experience the former, while other parts clearly were subject to an ‘inundación’.  Whatever word is used, it was still a significant event that affected lives and caused damage.  The more significant point is that by contrast with some floods in past decades, this Sept 2013 flood clearly pales in significance, and thus for many people has faded from the memory almost as quickly as the floodwaters came and went.

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