November 23, 2004

Arctic folk at loss for words again

The idiocy of journalists writing stories about people not having words for things continues. Robins, for instance. Ben Zimmer tells me that the stuff about not having words for robins in Arctic languages was being reported by the BBC several years ago; Senator McCain needed no researchers: he was merely picking up on an already established story. And David Chiang points out a Reuters article from yesterday, by environment correspondent Alister Doyle, headlined "As Ice Thaws, Arctic Peoples at Loss for Words". In it, the chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (of Inuit descent, I presume) directly contradicts herself. Doyle begins thus:

What are the words used by indigenous peoples in the Arctic for "hornet," "robin," "elk," "barn owl" or "salmon?" If you don't know, you're not alone.

Many indigenous languages have no words for legions of new animals, insects and plants advancing north as global warming thaws the polar ice and lets forests creep over tundra.

"We can't even describe what we're seeing," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference which says it represents 155,000 people in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia.

In the Inuit language Inuktitut, robins are known just as the "bird with the red breast," she said.

Let P = We can't describe robins. Let Q = We call robins "the bird with the red breast." Clearly, P  flatly contradicts Q. Of course you can describe what you're seeing, certainly in Inuktitut, a language in which a single word meaning "little bird with red breast" could be constructed in an instant, but also in English, where bird names like "spoonbill", "redwing", and "woodpecker" were obviously invented that way (as Ray Girvan points out to me). Yet she utters her contradictory nonsense anyway. Why? Is she out of her mind?

Well, no more than the journalists who prompt for such drivel by asking questions designed to elicit it. When indigenous Arctic birdwatcher Roger Kuptana of Sachs Harbor told the BBC interviewer Bob Carty about having seen a robin, Carty immediately prompted, "What's the word in your language for 'robin'?", so he could get Kuptana to say that there wasn't one (listen to it here).

These linked ideas about language use being a matter of having appropriate words to name things, and seeing or experiencing being impossible without the words to act as mediators, add up to a claim about language that is just palpably insane. You can immediately refute it from your own experience. When my partner Barbara first moved from Ohio to California she noticed the beautiful dark green foliage and bright blue blooms of ceanothus by the side of Route 17, and asked me what it was. I am not good on plant names. "That, Barbara," I told her very solidly and authoritatively, "is California bluebush." The invented pseudo-name did fine until she had had time to visit a few nurseries and find out its real name (often misspelled "cyanothus", as Google, and the URL of the picture link above, will confirm). You don't need real names for new things if you have command of a human language.

Or take the point Mark recently made about the complete lack of dedicated vocabulary (so far) for "the processes, categories or roles involved in academic outsourcing." He seems to be right. But does that mean I cannot describe what goes on when students cheat in my Unix course? How about "student who paid someone to write a piece of code for him so he could pass his programming course" for student academic outsourcers? Or how about using "student academic outsourcers"? Or "snivelling little cheating weasels"?

You get the point. I won't go on about it. But I tell you, this continual harping on the "no word for it in their language" meme strikes me as one of the two most irrational features of everyday attitudes to language (the other, of course, being willingness to believe in rules of English grammar that simply never existed). Sheila Watt-Cloutier is probably a perfectly sensible person most of the time. But ask her about naming things, and suddenly she loses her wits, and so does the journalist who is scribbling down what she says. Oh! A bird for which I don't have currently have an indigenous species name! Waaaah! I am struck dumb! Waaaahhh! I am mute! Glubble glubble glubble...

The late philosopher Jerry Katz maintained that natural languages were inherently without expressive limits: that because of their expressive power and the possibility of paraphrasing when the lexicon provided no short way of making reference to a concept, there were no limits at all on what could be said in a natural language: the set of propositions that could conceivably be expressed in some language or other and the set of English sentence meanings were the same set. It seems very likely to me that Katz was right. But this whole do-they-have-a-word-for-it thing seems to be tacitly predicated on the unargued assumption that he was wrong.

And as for bringing it into discussions of global warming: of all the stupid things about to be worried about! If the more alarming statements of the global warming problem are right, the problem with the spread of warmer climate northward and the melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets is not that circumpolar nomads will not have distinct lexical roots for each new species of flora or fauna that makes its way to the shores of the Arctic ocean. It's that whole nations like Kiribati and Tuvalu will be submerged and entire populations of hundreds of thousands of people will have to become immigrants to Australia which won't want them; it's that Holland and Bangladesh may be completely inundated, and Florida may shrink to a fraction of its present land area, and parts of the Middle East may become uninhabitable... This is big, people! Whole countries disappearing like Atlantis. Why in god's name do ecojournalists have this passion to write instead vapid stories about running short of words?

Still, I wish there was a lexeme in my language that meant "ridiculous prospect of scribbling morons coming up with pathetic trivia about lexical deficits instead of researching stories of genuine scientific interest." I could really use that.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 23, 2004 12:18 PM