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8. Overheard on the Web

Mapuche is ours, not yours

(Geoff Pullum in Language Log, 24 Novem-ber 2006)

Back in 2004, prompted by Bill Poser's report of a lawsuit in which a relative of the person who coined the term googol was suing Google over a property claim on the word Google, I satirically claimed personal owner-ship of the nouns crump, ether, parsley, heli-copter, oligarchy, and rhodium, the preposi-tion of, and all derivatives of the verb snug-gle. I took it to be self-evidently hilarious that anyone could claim ownership of some ordi-nary non-trademarked dictionary word, espe-cially on grounds of a family connection (and never mind the fact that Google and googol are not the same word). Now the Mapuches seek to claim ownership of their entire lan-guage, on the basis of a tribal connection, and they regard Microsoft's localization of its software by translating messages into Mapuche as theft of the Mapuche people's stuff. It really is very hard for a satirist to keep out ahead of real life, isn't it?

A couple of correspondents have suggested to me and Mark that the press reports are crazier than reality; they claim Spanish-language accounts of what is going on reveal that the Mapuche people are objecting to pre-emption of decisions about which alphabetic writing system to adopt for their language. Quite a few have been on offer, and the Microsoft decision to go for one of them, known as Azmfuche, was taken without general agree-ment by the Mapuche but will now be defini-tive.But my general impression is that even the Spanish sources reveal plenty of funda-mentally misguided political ranting on the part of the Mapuches. A language is not something that could be or should be con-trolled by a people or its political leadership, and making software available in a certain writing system or language is not a threat to, or a theft of, cultural patrimony. Not even if it does encourage a tendency toward standardi-zation in some particular direction. So far I still see this story as having a tinge of the ridiculous about it. For some serious and informed discussion of the issue that takes a more sympathetic view, see the posting by Jane Simpson "Sovereignty over Languages and Land", Paradisec web-site for transient languaes and cultures, 25 November 2006. as well as discussion on the Spanish-language sites El Morro Cotudo and Zona Impacto - Mapuches en el cyberespacio.

Sovereignty over languages and land

(Jane Simpson et al. in Univ. Sydney Tran-sient Languages and Cultures, 25 November 2006) Assertion of intellectual property rights over languages is happening. Here's an FAQ in a public archive for Australian Aboriginal ma-terial (ASEDA, AIATSIS).

Q: Why do speakers restrict access to material in their languages?

A: Many speakers of endangered languages consider that their language is their intellec-tual property, passed down to them from their ancestors. If it is made freely available to others, then their rights in that language can be diminished. Usually they do not want strangers to use words and sentences of their languages in an inappropriate way, and want to be consulted prior to public use.

At Language Log, Mark Liberman has a couple of comments on Tom's recent post about this with respect to the Mapuche peo-ple's complaint against Microsoft, and fol-lowing Geoffrey Pullum's post on the same topic.

If this idea were really to be accepted into the system governing the usual laws of property, I suspect that the consequences would surprise and displease many of those who start out supporting it . For some discussion, see "The Algonquian morpheme auction" (3/3/2004). To the bad consequences... The "usual laws of property" is the soft spot. What are they? We're dealing here with people who by and large have customary ways of behaving, sometimes called customary law, rather than written statutes. Bringing customary law into a legal system is tricky (cf. the Australian Government report The Recognition of Aboriginal Customary Laws)—but possi-ble.

Take the example of land held in common by Indigenous people. In Australia, recognising Aboriginal title to land required passing an Act (Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Terri-tory) Act 1976) which allowed Aboriginal Land Trusts to "hold title to land in the Northern Territory for the benefit of Aborigi-nals entitled by Aboriginal tradition to the use or occupation of the land concerned". This in effect created a special land title, Aboriginal freehold title, one which is owned in common by the members of the Aboriginal Land Trust. The land held by the trust cannot legally be bought or sold. A similar process could be developed to look after property rights held in common for lan-guages. So the bad consequence mentioned in "The Algonquian morpheme auction" — Disney owns my language! — could be blocked. But the costs would be huge, both in developing the process, and then later, since bringing customary law into the seductive embrace of the state will probably just fatten the litigious and their helpers (as noted in an earlier Language Log post).

Mark Liberman then asks:

Here's a question: if the use of a language has to be licensed by the tribal elders, can they withhold this permission from someone who wants to criticize them, or to say something else that they don't approve of?

I'm guessing he's thinking of a group with-holding permission from an outsider to use their language to criticise them. In the Austra-lian Indigenous societies I know, people have the unquestioned right to speak the languages accepted as their parents' languages. So "tribal elders" aren't on about licensing kids to speak their own language. But outsiders? Well, I can't see why Indigenous communities could-n't have that right. Just as copyright laws al-low a map-maker or a publisher to refuse a critic permission to republish a map. Or tres-pass laws allow me to prevent a critic from coming onto my land, let alone erecting a billboard on it criticising me (however justi-fiably).

Three differences are important here - a dif-ference between rights held by an individual and rights held by a group, a difference over which rights can be traded and which are inalienable, and a difference as to whether a right-holder has the right to license other people to enjoy some part of that right. Indi-viduals—so Australians, North Americans and some other groups believe—have rights to control access to land and re-publication, and to buy and sell those rights, or licences to them. We allow people to assert rights to some words as trademarks, and to license others to use the trademarked words. As for groups, leaving aside companies and trusts which act as pseudo-individuals, we (well, most of us) think it reasonable for groups—our governments—to assert a basic right to control access to our countries (sovereignty), and we're pretty wary about selling off this right. Some Indigenous groups don't recognise indi-vidual rights to trade in land, or to trademark words, or to sing another person's song. They do assert rights as a group to control access to their land and to their languages, but probably not to trade those rights. Sover-eignty over languages as well as land. But in actual practice, probably the best way of get-ting rights over language recognised (unless money is involved, as it can be) is to rely on what customary law relies on - politeness, and educating outsiders as to what is polite. Which is the flipside of Mark Liberman's comment "Whatever the outcome, linguists' best protection against such problems is to be solidly based in the speech communities in question".


Very interesting defense of the possibility of having property rights over languages. I won-der, however, if the subject of that right can be the group, to the exclusion of the individ-ual. It is obvious that an “outsider” cannot speak a language if he or she does not learn it from at least one individual that speaks it. And once s/he learns it, why would s/he be considered an outsider anymore (provided that things like racial exclusion are not in your bag of reasons)? Furthermore, things could get even more complicated. I bet, for instance, that Microsoft did not ask its em-ployees to learn Mapudungu but it hired at least one native speaker of Mapudungu (not an outsider) in order to translate Windows to that language. I think we all can agree that that translation must count as that speaker’s utterances. How come does anybody could have rights over the possibility that a person speaks his/her own language? Language can-not be equated to land. It is easy to see why could be dangerous to grant individual rights to sell pieces of a collective land (at the end, it could destroy a community). But it is hard for me to see what the risks are with language. At the end, those claims are just a manifesta-tion of prescriptive discourse, which have always had a magical flavor (in both Western and Non-Western societies), and whose final goal is to install a tool for the negotiation of power, that is, a political tool. And with re-spect to indigenous people, that could even be a good thing, but we need to address the ac-tual political and social motivations (their call for recognition and empowerment) rather than falsify the nature of language.

Posted by: Miguel Rodríguez-Mondoñedo | November 27, 2006 09:29 AM

Language as property: In some societies the right to speak for a language is deemed a property that is inherited from your parents - along with rights to use particular tracts of country and associated creation stories and songs. So even if I learned to speak Waru-mungu really well, I'd still be an outsider, because I have not inherited the right to the language. It would be another matter if I were properly 'adopted' and lived in a Warumungu family and took on the rights and responsibili-ties that come with adoption.

Bound up with language as property are the ideas of respect for ownership, and denial of access to the language. Respect seems to matter to speakers of many small languages, regardless of how strong the language is. It's their language; they have the right to say how it's spelled, what the words of the language are, when and where it's used in public. De-nial of access is far less common—probably because mostly people want to use languages they know well to talk to other people in. Perhaps the most famous group who have denied a type of access to their language are the Pueblo Indian group who speak Towa (Jemez) and who do not want their language written down. In Australia my impression is that when languages are strong and children speak them, the speakers usually welcome outsiders learning their languages, and en-courage them to do so (as Raymattja Marika has done by producing Yolngu language ma-terials). When a language is moribund and is not needed for communication, then descen-dants of speakers may be upset about what they have lost, and resent outsiders learning it. And in such situations passions rise if they believe outsiders are making money from their language—e.g. non-Indigenous tour guides showing tourists Indigenous places, and providing Indigenous names for plants and animals, and sharing Indigenous tradi-tional ecological knowledge with the tourists.

Groups always have trouble with balancing the rights of individuals and the rights of groups. In any society some individual could go against the wishes of the group and do something that the group doesn't approve of - e.g building an unapproved extension to a house, or teaching outsiders a language. And there's always a problem determining who the group is.

Posted by: Jane Simpson | November 27, 2006 12:55 PM

I recall a situation, years ago, when a friend of mine, a professor of Urdu and Hindi in the United States, received death threats for teaching a class in Arabic language. That's it, no assertion of insults to the Prophet or any-thing, just that it was a sacred language and no non-Muslim should be allowed to teach it.

More to the point, the only people who would use Microsoft's translation would be speakers of the language, so clearly speakers of the language have complete control over whether it is used or not. It cannot destroy the lan-guage, it can't even reduce the use of another variety of the language, any more than the availability of a Spanish version of the soft-ware does. If the community is worried that individuals would adopt this unapproved version of the language, aren't they just as worried that individuals would adopt Spanish or English? I fail to see how any harm is done to the language or the culture or to any prop-erty rights, individual or collective, in either.

Posted by: Jay Cummings | November 28, 2006 04:57 AM

Who Owns Language?

(Stentor Danielson, on Debitage, 13 Decem-ber 2006)

There's some interesting discussion going on over the Mapuche tribe's suit against Mi-crosoft, which asserts the tribe's sovereignty over its language (Mapudungan) and there-fore denies Microsoft the right to produce versions of its software in Mapudungan. This may be partly a case where a procedural violation -- the Mapuche were not consulted directly by Microsoft in the process of pro-ducing the Mapudungan versions of the soft-ware -- is being fought on the territory of the substantive outcome. But I think there's also something to the substantive case. (Indeed, here it's difficult to disentangle the two, since the Mapuche's objection seems to be not so much to the very idea of a Mapudungan ver-sion of Word as it is to Microsoft making a Mapudungan version of Word.

Defenders of Microsoft make both deonto-logical and consequentialist claims. Deon-tologically, they point out that the idea of group ownership of language is absurd within our Western system. The usual rebuttal is to argue that rights (or at least some rights, of which property rights would be the clearest case) are culturally relative. I'm more inter-ested here in the consequentialist case* -- how does Microsoft making a Mapudungan ver-sion of Word hurt the Mapuche? Or more generally, how does an outsider's use of an element of a culture harm insiders?

My answer depends on three main concepts: structuration, diversity of values, and power. Structuration refers to the fact that social in-stitutions evolve through use. A language is thus not a fixed object that can be picked up, used, and put back the way it was. The popu-lar descriptivist position in linguistics -- words and grammatical structures mean what-ever people use them to mean -- is a correct structurationist position**. By diversity of values, I mean that different people have dif-ferent ideas about what society should be like. Ceteris paribus, it's better for a given person's values to be realized than not. One's pursuit of those values will be constrained by the avail-able institutions, but they will also shape how one uses those institutions, and hence what those institutions look like when one is done with them.

Finally, power refers to the fact that different people and groups have different abilities to reshape institutions in accordance with their use of them. Problems arise when inequalities of power align with (real or potential) differ-ences in values. The minority (in power, and often numerically as well) then finds their ability to achieve their values limited, because they have limited influence over the social instutions available to them. This is a problem even when the difference is merely numerical -- while it may be fair in each instance taken in isolation for the larger group to get its way, when taken as a whole a persistent minority will end up getting outvoted every time. The solution here is autonomy -- to separate the institutions used by the majority and the mi-nority, so that the majority's use of their ver-sion does not affect the version used by the minority. This goes some way toward explain-ing the emergence of subcultures and the fierce defense of existing cultural diversity.

Thus, when Microsoft makes a Spanish ver-sion of Word, it's little threat to most of the Spanish-speaking community for two reasons. On the one hand, Microsoft's values with respect to the Spanish language are not likely to be that divergent from those of most Span-ish-speakers. Second, Microsoft's power vis-a-vis the 400 million Spanish speakers is comparatively limited -- indeed, Microsoft is largely at the mercy of the general public's usage and the prounouncements of Spanish grammarians. But both of those factors tilt against the Mapuche. It's far more likely that Microsoft will have different values from the Mapuche, and it's reasonable for an oppressed group to be especially suspicious of one of the world's biggest corporations on this count. And Microsoft's power to define Mapudungan is greatly exaggerated vis-a-vis a small and disempowered group like the Mapuche. Thus group rights to language sovereignty (and by similar arguments, rights to sovereignty over other cultural products) are absurd in the case of "big" languages like English and Spanish, but may be a legitimate defense mechanism in the case of "small" languages like Mapudun-gan. Bringing the question of power into the dis-cussion, however, raises yet another difficult problem -- establishing the legitimacy of the Mapuche's desire to limit outsiders' use of their language. We want to let the Mapuche decide when and how their language may be used, rather than presume to decide on their behalf what would be good for them. But this presents us with a Scylla and Charybdis situa-tion. On the one hand, in recognition of our own limited understanding of the situation and our disproportionate power, we want to avoid an imperialistic use of our own ideals of legitimacy to judge claims made by Mapuche individuals or groups. But on the other hand, we also want to avoid a naive assumption that Mapuche views on this issue are internally uncontested or that we can treat the traditional leadership of the tribe as legitimately speak-ing for everyone (assuming we can even rely on our own understanding of what that tradi-tional distribution of authority is). *Since I think any assertion of a right must have an underlying consequentialist justifica-tion, though of course the relativistic argu-ment could be used to deny the relevance of the sort of utilitarianism I'll apply.

**Though this should not be taken to the extreme of denying the validity of debate over the proper use of language. While Platonic sorts of arguments about the transcendental correctness of certain meanings are invalid, pragmatic arguments -- "we should use these words in this way because it allows us to make certain useful distinctions" -- are still fine. Indeed, such pragmatic arguments merely articulate what structuration tells us will be happening inevitably.