[Illustrations, footnotes and references available in PDF version]
The scare: Andrew Revkin, an environment writer at the New York Times, reported in 2004 that Senator John McCain, to illustrate his concern at the rapid pace of warming in the Arctic, had said: “The Inuit language for 10,000 years never had a word for ‘robin’, and now there are robins all over their villages.” The Senator, now the Republican candidate for US President, was implying that with warmer weather the robins have been moving northward into territories they have never before occupied.
Revkin wrote: “Mr. McCain said yesterday that the evidence, which he called ‘alarming’, was clearer than ever. With several other senators, he visited the Arctic fringe in Norway and Iceland in late summer. ‘It was remarkable,’ he said, ‘going up on a small ship next to this glacier and seeing where it had been just 10 short years ago and how quickly it’s receded.’ Particularly disturbing, he went on, is the rapid pace of warming. ‘The Inuit language for 10,000 years never had a word for “robin”,’ he said, ‘and now there are robins all over their villages.’”
Senator McCain was not the first to say that there was no Inuit word for ‘robin’. Three years earlier, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had produced a radio program entitled No Word for “Robin”: Climate Change in the Canadian Arctic. The BBC World Service had also broadcast the program, but, like McCain and Revkin, without checking the facts.
The truth: In 1953 Laurence Irving, of the Arctic Health Research Center of the U.S. Public Health Service in Anchorage, Alaska, spent a season living among the Nunamiut Inuits in the Brooks Range of Northern Alaska, comparing the English and Inuit names for the 103 bird species he saw. He reported his belief that the Inuit names were not recent additions to the language, but were derived from names long in use among the Nunamiut. Among the birds seen by Irving was the robin, which he listed as “NM” – “nesting” and “migrant”. Also, contrary to the CBC, BBC, New York Times, and Senator McCain, there is indeed a Nunamiut word for “robin”. It is “koyapigaktoruk” – thought to be an onomatopoeia on the sound of the robin’s song.
Irving (1953) also mentions Stefansson (1913), an earlier compilation of Eskimo names for birds, “the most complete list of Eskimo bird names for this part of Alaska so far published”, which describes where robins had previously been sighted in the Canadian Arctic. Accompanying the descriptions of each location are the phonetic words for “robin” in several other Eskimo tongues, including “Kre-ku-ak’tu-yok” (Mackenzie Eskimo) and “Shab’wak” (Alaskan Eskimo).
The SPPI is grateful to our old friends at World Climate Report for unearthing the truth about the Inuit words for ‘robin’.
Though it is often assumed that Arctic temperatures are currently at record levels, and that manmade “global warming” is to blame, the truth is that it was warmer in the Arctic in the 1940s than today:
Mean Arctic temperature anomalies, 1940 to 2006. Source: IPCC.
BBC. 2001. No Word for “Robin”: Climate Change in the Canadian Arctic. World Service radio program, 11 May. http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/sci_tech/highlights/010510_canadianarctic.shtml
Irving, L. 1953. The Naming of Birds by Nunamiut Eskimo. Arctic, 6: 35-43, March.
Stefansson, V. 1913. My Life with the Eskimo, p.493: http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/1417923954#.