1902 Encyclopedia > The Alps > The Alps - Introduction; Origin of the Name

The Alps
(Part 1)


(a) The Alps - Introduction; Origin of the Name

Taking a general view of the earth’s surface, the continent of Europe appears to be no more than a great peninsula extending westward from the much vaster continent of Asia. Its shores are deeply indented by two inland seas connected by narrow straits with the Atlantic Ocean, and these in their turn are divided into gulfs that penetrate still ore deeply into the land, and form a number of secondary peninsulas, Mediterranean Sea, by its branches --- Gulf of Genoa, the Adriatic, and the Egean Sea --- forms the Iberian, the Italian, and the Greek peninsulas; and the Baltic Sea, extending northward into the Gulf of Bothnia, forms on one side the great Scandinavian peninsula, and on the other that of Denmark. Save the last, all these peninsulas of Europe are essentially mountain regions, traversed by lofty chains that occupy a large portion of their surface. But in height and importance these are much surpassed by a great mountain zone stretching from the south-east of France to the frontiers of Hungary, and between Italy and the plains of southern Germany, which is collectively known as the Alps, and which must be considered as the most important feature in the physical geography of our continent. Of the influence of this mountain system on the climate of the surrounding regions, on the distribution of animal and vegetable life, and, indirectly , on the political condition of Europe, some brief notice will here be given; but it may be well to remark that owing to the peculiar disposition of the greater masses which form this system, the Alps do not present so continuous a barrier as might be expected from a comparison with other great mountain ranges.

Thus if we take the great masses of the Himalaya in Asia, the Andres in South America, or even such lesser ranges as the Pyrenees or the Great Atlas, we find that they interpose a far more absolute limit between the regions lying on their opposite flanks than occurs in respect to the Alps. These are formed of numerous ranges divided by comparatively deep valleys, which, with many local exceptions, tend towards parallelism with the general direction of the entire mass. This, between Dauphine and the borders of Hungary, forms a broad band convex towards the north, and most of the main valleys lie between the directions west to east and south-west to north-east. But in many parts deep transverse valleys intersect the prevailing direction of the ridges, and facilitate the passage not only for purposes of human intercourse, but also for the migration of animals and plants, and for currents of air which mitigate the contrast that would otherwise be found between the climates of the opposite slopes.

The received opinion is that the name Alps is derived from a Celtic root --- alp or alb --- signifying height. This has been connected by some writers with the Latin. Alb, albus, white, referring to the color of the peaks. Strabo says that the name "A___. Alp in south Germany --- alpa in old High German --- is exclusively applied to mountain pastures. For the present the derivation must remain somewhat uncertain.

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