Fieldwork today or cultural theft ? or theory or...

Mark P. Line mline at
Tue Feb 11 21:01:01 UTC 1997

Trond Trosterud wrote:
> We should all listen very carefully to Peter, because he is able to see
> the linguistic community from outside in a way that insiders are not.
> That being said, I see a flaw in the premises of the discussion:
> Language / grammar is not a property like land or money.

In some cultures, land and money are not property, either.

"Language/grammar is not a property like land or money" is an
ethnocentric statement, just as Peter's position is ethnocentric.
Comparing the two at the emic level is like asking whether Quechua has
nicer phonemes than Russian. (Depends on whom you ask. Duh.)

Any useful comparison would have to involve the etic examination of
Peter's beliefs and actions and how they relate to his culture and of your
beliefs and actions and how they relate to your culture, and an
extrapolation of conflicts that may arise (have arisen) when members of
these two emic worlds collide.

Merely making the bald, Western statement that language isn't property
does little towards understanding those conflicts, I think. If language
_is_ property for the Maori, then our first step is to learn to live with
that fact. The second step is to learn to avoid conflicts and to mitigate
existing ones.

> If I take your language, you still have it, if I borrow your word, you
> still have it.

Let us assume for a moment that you are a biotechnologist, and you've just
discovered (in your employer's laboratories, with a staff of 18) a way to
create an enzyme that, when ingested by humans, provides virtual immunity
to the common cold.

Let us say that, while getting a tour of your lab, I am able to use my
nifty little spy camera to photograph your notes on how to make the drug.

Let us say that I use that information to produce and market the drug.

Let us say that your company causes a PI to infiltrate my company, and she
finds out how I was able to beat your company to market. Your company
prosecutes me, and I am found guilty of THEFT.

During the trial, my defense attorney argues that nothing was stolen,
because your company still had everything in its possession after I left
your lab that it did before I came.

The prosecutor, judge and jury almost die laughing. They find me guilty
despite the great sense of humor my attorney has shown, and I'm still in
federal prison today.

Your argument, then, that "if I take your language, you still have it"
does not hold water. Prima facie, the concept of theft -- even the WESTERN
concept of theft -- can apply to language and culture just as easily as it
can to any other valued information, such as a biotechnological process.

> The
> problem is thus rather that linguistic minorities are "stealing" the
> languages and grammars of their majorities when they give up their own
> language.

How many Maori were _allowed_ to _avoid_ using English? And this pattern
is repeated all over the world. Cherokees. Kurds. You name it.

Give me a friggin' break. "Stealing" the majority language. Sheesh.

> So, when Peter writes
> >I will try to clarify. We Maori both culturally and legally "own" our
> >language, and have control over how it is taught in schools and who
> >teaches it.
> [...]
> But you cannot prevent me from learning Maori,
> writing bad-taste novels in (good or bad) Maori, making claims about the
> grammatical structure and sociolinguistics of Maori.

"I can do anything I want with your language, and there's nothing you can
do to stop me."

How sensitive.

[Apart from the fact that it's probably incorrect. Really ribald abuse
could conceivably provoke an international incident, where language rights
are part of national law as they are in NZ.]

> You also cannot prevent your neighbour from being my informant.

It is conceivable that his neighbor could be prosecuted for being your
informant, if that particular action has been placed under legal sanction
(it probably hasn't, yet).

> What you can and should do
> (and what you are doing right now) is to initiate debates about the
> ethical standards for such work.

How does one go about constructing culture-independent ethical standards?

Or do you simply assume that the majority culture will dictate the ethics,
and that minorities must be expected to follow suit? "Your position is
flawed, Peter: language is not property like land or money. We know this,
we're White Men. We are your friends. We will not harm you. raakdaak. haak
dak raaaaakDAAAAAAAAAAK raakhaak DAAAAAK dakraaak."

[Those who haven't seen Tim Burton's new film _Mars Attacks_ will find
that last bit rather unintelligible.]

> Speakers of endangered languages should certainly concider linguistics
> as a career alternative. When the country in question decides to change
> its bad practice and introduce some linguistic human rights, the job
> possibilities are in fact exellent. This should be encouraged, by grants
> etc. Again this policy stands not in conflict with a policy urging
> majority-lg linguists leave campus and do field work.

The distinction you seem to be missing in your discussion of this topic
(indigenous linguists) is that of salvage vs. protection. As a linguist,
you're probably very interested in salvaging descriptively as many
languages as possible, before they become extinct. That's nice, but it
mainly serves the progress of linguistic science, not the condition of the
people whose language is becoming extinct (except for the symbolic quality
of a little knowledge about the language their people once spoke).

All of my concern for endangered languages has to do with identifying,
reversing and protecting against further speaker attrition, for the sake
of linguistic/cultural diversity on the planet (not in dusty libraries).
Because I am sensitive to different people's feelings (some of them driven
by majority-culture brainwashing) about their L1, I'm only interested in
participating in such projects that target a take-over by the linguistic
community itself of its own language planning, including mitigation of and
protection against speaker attrition.

If I had a choice between (a) salvaging three unrelated languages in the
form of a reference grammar, dictionary and text collection, and (b)
effectively helping one linguistic community to reverse the process of
speaker attrition and take over its own language planning, then I would
choose (b). Every time. That might put me in a minority here, I dunno.

> We are on this list because we all want to do something to the
> catastrophic situation of almost all of the languages of the world (save
> the tiny group of well-studied, expanding ones). What to do, and how to
> do it is not self evident. But we are on this list to find that out, so
> let us proceed from that.

Yes. But a debate is a debate, and a collaborative inquiry is a
collaborative inquiry. I haven't seen much of anybody meeting Peter on his
own ground and trying to explore the situation collaboratively. On the
contrary, even you state above to Peter's face that his position is flawed
because "language is not property like land or money".

Peter's critics turned this into a debate, so a debate it is. I guess
you'll have to live with it, even when somebody like me shows that certain
people's arguments don't hold water.

And besides, what makes you think that a successful debate cannot be a
means towards greater understanding?

-- Mark

(Mark P. Line   ----   Bellevue, Washington   ----   mline at

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