fieldwork/cultural theft

Allan Wechsler awechsle at
Wed Feb 5 18:19:25 UTC 1997

Before we complacently reassure ourselves that, pace Peter Keegan,
linguists are usually benign or indifferent influences, let's consider
fieldwork from an economic and game-theoretic viewpoint.  I will

A linguist, say a doctoral student, arrives in a mythical community in
the Philippines hoping to gather data for a descriptive grammar of
Xach.  Let's say Xach is a fairly endangered language, with a few
dozen elderly speakers and five or six middle-aged ones; all the
youngsters speak (say) only Cebuano.

Now endangered languages are usually found embedded in endangered
cultures, and furthermore the individual _people_ are often poor and
marginalized.  What happens when we let the market set the value of
the Xach language?

If one potential Xach teacher says "I'll teach you Xach if you agree
to renovate our school, provide us with Xach teaching materials, and
pay me sixty dollars an hour." while another will do it for occasional
packs of cigarettes, who is the linguist likely to choose?  The
linguist has limited cash, of which a good bit has already been spent
on a Spanish-Cebuano interpreter from a nearby town.  Even with the
greatest possible respect for the plight of the community, a linguist
can only offer what has been budgeted.

In essence, the Xach community has been placed in competition with
each other.  If the entire community showed solidarity in holding out
for a better price for their language, then the linguist might be
forced to return to her funders, saying "We underestimated the cost of
consultants' fees.".  But remember that these people are poor.  The
required level of solidarity is unlikely.  _Somebody_ is going to
defect for ten dollars an hour.  And the defector is not going to earn
the gratitude of the community for it, as Frances Karttunen points out.

Even if the community can successfully hold out for a better price,
the problem will recur one level up the funding hierarchy.  Say the
linguist goes back to her funders to plead the Xach case.  Laboring
under their own budgetary constraints, the funders might respond
"Hmmm.  Perhaps you would do better studying Pelek or Trau.".  Now the
communities are in competition.  Imagine two equally accessible
villages with poorly-documented, endangered languages.  The villagers
in one are willing to teach their language for five bucks an hour.
The other village has summoned the community resolve to hold out for
fifteen.  Which language will get documented first?  Does this not
constitute exploitation?

Now suppose that all the endangered language communities in the world
could somehow make common cause and realize that those loony linguists
really wanted their languages badly.  If they formed a strong union,
how much could they improve their lot?  What are these languages
really worth to Western scholarship?  This is the cultural capital
Keegan is referring to, something closer to the actual worth of a
language than the paltry fee required by the most desperate member of
a desperate community.  Especially when confined to a small number of
speakers, a language starts to look a lot more like a _thing_, a
possession, intellectual property.  Suppose the linguist's grammar of
Xach becomes a minor classic and every linguist and library wants a
copy.  Has the Xach teacher sold all her intellectual property rights,
plus those of the rest of the community, for the original consultancy
fee?  Or due some rights persist, so that the Xach community is owed
royalties on income generated by their language?  I know what the law
says.  But my heart doesn't agree.

Unfortunately, pace Keegan, the question is quite moot.  If all
endangered language communities held out for the true value of their
languages, none of them would get documented.  The price would go up
some but not much.  The buck only gets passed one level back in the
funding chain.  "Gee, documenting languages is getting expensive.  I
think we can only afford two projects this year instead of three."
Considered as agents of Western Imperialism, descriptive linguists are
the wrong group to shake down.  And even if the Xach retained legally
protected intellectual property interests in the grammar of their
language, the bit in the last paragraph about a minor classic sought
by every scholar is so much air.  It would never happen.  Descriptive
linguists almost never make enough on royalties to pay for a month's
rent, much less a renovated school in a Xach village.

Maori, with its hundred thousand speakers and its hard-won legal
status, might have held out for better if they had infinite solidarity
and played their cards right from the beginning: I can understand
Keegan's bitterness that the Maori have not been paid a fair price for
their language.  But the Xach (who despite their mythicalness are more
representative of the language endangerment problem than are the
Maori) are without a shadow of a hope.  Even with infinite solidarity,
Xach just isn't worth all that much on the open market.

Endangered languages, as yet, are seen as precious only by their
speakers, who cannot convince others of their value, and linguists,
who cannot afford to pay what they are worth.  Although I think I
understand his feelings, it still hurt when Peter Keegan aimed his
anger at linguists, who despite their human flaws and self-interest,
generally _wish_ they could do the right thing.


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