Eskimos again, this time seeing the invisible

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"As Eskimos do with snow," wrote Emma Brockes yesterday in a New York Times review of Alan Hollinghurst's new novel (and the hairs rose on the back of my neck as I saw those words), "the English see gradations of social inadequacy invisible to the rest of the world; Mr. Hollinghurst separates them with a very sharp knife."

If Emma Brockes were one of the sharper knives in the journalistic cutlery drawer she might have avoided becoming the 4,285th writer since the 21st century began who has used in print some variant of the original snowclone. (I didn't count to get that figure of 4,285, I just chose a number at random. Why the hell not? People make up the number of words for snow found in Eskimoan languages that they know absolutely nothing about. I might as well just make stuff up like everybody else.)

I notice that Brockes' version of the familiar Eskimological claim deals in visual cognition rather than linguistics (though the two are closely intertwined). The usual citation of a surprisingly large (and randomly chosen) number of snow words is absent; instead she actually claims to know about Arctic nomads' perceptions of gradations that non-Eskimos cannot see. Where does she get this fascinating fact about perceiving the imperceptible?

Apparently, from credulous acceptance of an urban myth that goes back to the writings of an amateur linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf. (It goes back earlier than that, too, but Whorf is the most relevant source here.) Whorf was a student of the great anthropological linguist Edward Sapir at Yale, and did some interesting linguistic work, despite never holding a permanent academic post (he worked for a fire insurance company as an accident investigator). But toward the end of his life he was asked to do some popular articles for MIT's Technology Review on his ideas about the relations between language and thought. In some of those articles, I'm afraid, he began to make stuff up. This is the passage I think of as Whorf's worst:

We have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow—whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and operationally different, different things to contend with; he uses different words for them and for other kinds of snow.

To the first sentence, I would say (as many times before), no we don't. Among the single-word terms for snow and snow-related states in English are snow, slush, sleet, and blizzard, to name but four. And as for the second sentence, I'd say evidence, please. Whorf never worked on an Eskimoan language. There are probably a few speakers of some of the eight or nine Inuit, Inuktitut, or Yup'ik languages in New York, where Whorf did a bit of informant work with a speaker of Hopi. But there is no record of him doing even a half day of fieldwork with an Eskimo. Where does he get off, making assertions about what is "sensuously and operationally different" for these people he has never consulted or even met?

Yet somehow this utterly unsubstantiated myth about Eskimo consciousness stuck. In fact it spawned an all-too-well substantiated claim about the consciousness of linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and journalists. Feature writers use it as an off-the-shelf cliché in newspaper and magazine articles all the time. It gets taught in introductory lectures and textbooks throughout the humanities and social sciences.

At the end of 2011 we still see it being trotted out every week or two (here's another recent case), almost thirty years after Laura Martin first gave her remarkable paper to an American Anthropological Association meeting, pointing out the chain letter of unintentional hoaxes that had been going on for decades in academia. Seven or eight thousand pages of Language Log citations and lots of other mentions (in Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, for example) have done nothing to convince the journalism profession either that the alleged factoid is bullshit or that continuing to use the tired snowclone based on it is lazy and dumb.

Emma Brockes has been charged with writing irresponsibly before: six years ago an article of hers was removed from the Guardian website because the Readers' Editor made the judgment that it contained falsehoods about what Noam Chomsky had said in an interview (the matter is hotly disputed; see this letter opposing the Guardian's action). It normally takes a fairly serious transgression of journalistic standards to get a whole article completely pulled. But a casual unsupported assertion about Inuit people perceiving distinctions to the rest of us are blind? That won't cause any trouble at the New York Times (which has published several different figures for the number of snow words in "Eskimo", and has ignored the letters of correction that have been sent). Don't worry about it: it's only language and cognition we're talking about — just make stuff up.

[Thanks to Ron Irving for the reference and Jonathan Ginzburg for information about the 2005 dispute. The reader comments below will be invisible to you, but an Eskimo could perceive them easily.]

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