November 19, 2005

Snowclone blindness

Journalists and others often make an ethnographic or political point by observing that a particular language or culture "has N words for X", where N is either zero or some number viewed as excessively large. This trope has been around at least since the 18th century, when it was the supposed 500 Arabic words for lion, rather than the usual modern counts of Eskimo words for snow or for robin. As Geoff Pullum periodically reminds us, these rhetorical flights are hardly ever true in linguistic terms, and their logic would be suspect even if the facts were correct.

Over the past few weeks, a number of readers have sent in examples of the arctic form of the trope, which I've laid out below. The last example is especially interesting: the mind-clouding power of this rhetorical device apparently led an eminent scientist to say something completely illogical about his area of specialization. And he said it in a television interview, embedded in a passage that is long enough that we can be sure that he hasn't been journalistically misrepresented.

On the large-number side, Linda Seebach sent in the Independent's review of The Meaning of Tingo:

Everyone knows that Inuit-speaking races can call on 30-odd words for snow. Adam Jacot de Boinod first became entranced by language when he discovered 27 words for "moustache" in an Albanian dictionary - and another 27 for "eyebrows". A world of bushy machismo and stolid dignity sprang to life before his eyes.

In the "no word for X" category, Ray Girvan sent a link to a BBC News piece on global warming, explaining that

I just *knew* the moment I saw the topic that they'd do it again.

Sure enough. About halfway through: "He says that their language, which has evolved over thousands of years, has no word for the new climate".

Hugo Quene submitted a link to a profile in Salon:

Sheila Watt-Cloutier's people, who have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years, recognized the threat posed by global warming long before science confirmed their observations. When robins and barn owls began showing up in the North's frozen reaches, the Inuit had no name for them.

And finally, the promised (and puzzling) finale. Matthew Hutson sent a link to a Discovery Channel special on disappearing Arctic ice ("Examining the Arctic Melt"), observing that

About 6 minutes into the first online segment, someone says that the Inuit never had a word for sunburn, but now they do.

True enough. The segment is about an important topic: the loss of arctic ice because of climate change. The speaker is David Barber, Canada Research Chair in Arctic System Science at the University of Manitoba. What he says is:

It's remarkable when a society like the Inuit, in northern Canada, develop a word for sunburn. They never had a word for that before, and now they have a word for it.

I'm reluctant to suppose that Prof. Barber doesn't know what he's talking about, but this surprises me. First, though I'm not sure about the implications for Inuit lexicography, excess UV exposure has been an issue in the arctic as long as there have been living things there. And second, while greenhouse gases are apparently raising mean global temperature, their effect on UV levels must be trivial at best.

Any skier knows that the sunshine reflected from snow as well as received directly can be dangerous, causing not only sunburn of the skin but also snow blindness. This problem is increased in polar regions, where the summer sun shines all day long. From a description of the diary of one of the members of Shakleton's 1914 expedition:

On 12 November, Hussey records his first wash since leaving the Endurance, and the effects of polar sunburn: 'My nose & face are peeling as though I'd been at Margate for a month'.

Arctic invertebrates have had to adapt to the problems of polar sunburn. And this article on "Skin Color as an Adaptation" notes that the Inuit have the skin color typical of people living at much lower latitudes:

Nature has selected for people with darker skin in tropical latitudes, especially in nonforested regions, where ultraviolet radiation from the sun is usually the most intense. Melanin acts as a protective biological shield against ultraviolet radiation. By doing this, it helps to prevent sunburn damage that could result in DNA changes and, subsequently, melanoma ...

People who live in far northern latitudes ... have an advantage if their skin has little shielding pigmentation. Nature selects for less melanin when ultraviolet radiation is weak. In such an environment, very dark skin is a disadvantage because it can prevent people from producing enough vitamin D, potentially resulting in rickets disease in children and osteoporosis in adults. ...

The Inuit people of the American Subarctic are an exception. They have moderately heavy skin pigmentation despite the far northern latitude at which they live. While this is a disadvantage for vitamin D production, they apparently made up for it by eating fish and sea mammal blubber that are high in D. In addition, the Inuit have been in the far north for only about 5,000 years. This may not have been enough time for significantly lower melanin production to have been selected for by nature.

The Inuit's skin color is certainly appropriate for summer sunburn protection in the situation they have been living in, as this discussion of UV in polar regions by Jack Williams suggests (from the Answers Archive of the Weather section at USA Today):

... sunburn and snow blindness were problems during the polar summer because ice reflects both visible light and ultraviolet energy. This more than makes up for the lower intensity of sunlight in the polar regions than in the tropics, where the sun is always nearly overhead at noon.

Here's something that makes you hurt when you think about it: While doing research for my latest book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Arctic and Antarctic, which was published in June 2003, I found accounts of early explorers getting the roofs of their mouths sunburned from sunlight reflected from the snow as they pulled sleds, with their mouths open, gasping for air.

When I went to Antarctica in January 1999, I was told to bring plenty of high-powered sunblock, and good sunglasses with UV protection.

Williams discusses "ozone hole" effects, and says that they exist but are secondary -- in any case, the Discovery Channel segment containing Barber's commentary was about global warming, not ozone layer issues.

Excess UV exposure traditionally been a problem for the Inuit, as suggested by this passage from Jean Malaurie's wonderful memoir The Last Kings of Thule. The year is 1950, and the author is doing geomorphological fieldwork in Greenland.

I did some useful snow cartography of slopes and took measurements of scree slopes. But however reassuring the brilliant sun might be, the moving ice and flowing rivulets kept reminded us of the danger of being cut off from our base in Greenland if the sea should suddenly become an expanse of free water. Not one day could be lost, so morning and night we made trips right and left. We saw the star-shaped footprints of the qupannaaq, some gulls, many polar hares, but not the slightest trace of musk ox or reindeer. Qaaqqutisaq's health prevented my keeping up the pace I would have liked. At each geomorphological station, he would lie, face down, on the floor of his sledge, his head in his arms. On the morning of June 4, after fourteen hours of uninterrupted work along the southeastern coast, he took me aside and complained of a headache and pain in his eyes. All he could see in front of him was a sort of halo. Although he had been wearing sunglasses, he was the first of us to suffer from the painful affliction of snow blindness. He begged me not to let that stop me: "Just let me sleep," he said, leaning against the napariaq, "and let's not go back to the camp until the work is finished." Before we rejoined the group, his wife suggested the powerful but painful remedy commonly used by the Canadian Eskimos and sometimes by those of Thule -- a few drops of oil in the eyes -- but he refused vehemently.

I don't know whether the Inuit traditionally had a word for sunburn, but the phenomenon has clearly been around for them to talk about, for as long as they have lived in the arctic. And in any case, global warming and the melting of arctic ice doesn't cause greater amounts of sunburn, unless there's some aspect of this situation that I'm not seeing. So why did Barber make this probably false and surely illogical point, right out loud on a major television program?

One clue: Barber's interview is not the only place where this idea can be found. In a statement by Kelly Reinhardt and Tooker Gomberg, (said to have been) delivered on 10/25/2000:

Yesterday we burned our Canadian passports in outrage at the behaviour of the Canadian Government at the World Conference on Climate Change in Den Haag, Netherlands. We are investigating renouncing our Canadian citizenship.

Canada emerged from the UN Climate Conference in Den Haag as the WORST country on planet earth, according to a world-wide coalition of environmental Non-Governmental Organizations ...

Canada is already feeling extreme impacts of climate change, and should be at the head of the pack, not at the back. The arctic is in the midst of a massive meltdown. Northern people are reporting climate unknown in their oral history. The Inuit have no word for sunburn, for thunderstorms, or for robins because they have never had these experiences before in their history. [emphasis added]

And a 5/19/2000 article in the Nunatsiaq News by Jane George interviews one Graham Ashford, the director of a video project called "Inuit Observations of Climate Change":

Ashford said the video should bring home how Inuvialuit are trying cope with this new, unstable environment, and even illustrate some of the health problems that they’re suffering now. These include sunburn and allergies as a result of more light, heat and plant growth.

Leaving thunderstorms and robins out of it, it seems pretty clear that sunburn has a long history among arctic peoples, and also that climate change is not responsible for increases in UV levels. It's understandable that environmental and Inuit activists, looking for ways to dramatize the issues they care about, should seize on the idea that warmer temperatures would somehow connect with sunburn. It's less understandable that an eminent physical scientist like Barber would repeat the argument. Sometimes rhetoric clouds the mind, I guess.

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 19, 2005 06:52 PM