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

Trond Trosterud trondt at
Wed Feb 12 08:52:01 UTC 1997

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Mark P. Line has a long answer to my posting. Despite much polemics and
protests from Mark, I do not see much disagreement between us. So when I in
the following leave out passages of Marks answer, it is because we agreed
upon these things from the very beginning (despite Marks way of reading my

>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.

I agree.

>> 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.
>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.

Well, the parallell should rather be "if I copy your formula, you are no
longer the only one that has it." In a capitalist world, this is important,
since I then can SELL it, get MONEY for it, etc. In ANY world, if I pollute
the river of your neighbourhood, the river is polluted, if I hunt and kill
EVERY caribou, no new caribous will be born, etc. This was my point. I do
not see why capitalist society's copyright laws should be relevant in the
case of lg and grammar. If the members of a speach community want to keep
their language for themselves, I certainly would respect that (even though
I am curious as to why, and I hope the reasons are internal (rooted in the
society) and not external ("they took our minerals and made money out of
them, now they are taking our language, but this time they will not be able
to fool us"), since this external reason does not hold, #within# the
capitalist society. Capitalistically speaking, it is wise to keep your
enzyme codes secret, but not to keep your grammars (or ASCII codes) (quite
the contrary, as a matter of fact).

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

As far as I know, large parts of ethics #are# culturally-independent. All
religions I know of (and I see religions as a subset of our ethical codes)
have the principle of mutual respect in one form or another.

Then, large parts are not. That is one reason why I am glad Peter is here,
and I really would like to hear why he, with his background, thinks the way
he does on lg. Until now both his (Peters) reference to #NZ# law and your
(Marks) example of property right of intellectual work look pretty western
to me. After all, the transition to a money economy (here in Norway appr.
100-150 years ago among Norwegians, appr. 100 years later among the S.i),
means that as much as possible is regarded as a commodity (cf. Marx'
analysis), coming under individual property right's law, etc. What I would
expect from societies not that entangeled into the money economy was
different types of answers, and yes, I will listen very carefully to these

>The distinction you seem to be missing in your discussion of this topic
>(indigenous linguists) is that of salvage vs. protection.

Actually, no. Read on.

>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,

Yes, I am a linguist and interested in that. But this is not only to the
benefit of "the progress of linguistic science". As many of our collegues
have shown, it is perfectly possible to go on making all the progress they
want with, say, the 600 really safe lgs of the world. I am more concerned
about the heritage of our species as a whole. Lg is a central factor
uniting human beings against other species, and should be treated as a
central part of our common heritage.

>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).

Actually, that is what I am doing professionally at the moment. Cf. the web
page address in the signature file below. I also want to remind you that
just as we must respect peoples wish to keep their languages for
themselves, we also must respect ther wish to abandon it. The "condition of
the people whose language is becoming extinct" thus does not need to be
equal to the condition of their language. What we can do, both in the
"abandon lg X or not" and the "inform the linguists about og X or not"
cases is to tell people about the concequences of their choices. The "third
generation phenomenon" (1st gen active speakers but abandon lg, 2nd gen
understand, 3rd gen cry in anger and want the lg back) is so common that
every community about to enter stages 1 and 2 has the right to hear about
stage 3.

>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).

For the sake of the diversity or for the speakers? A community of former
speakers of a lg can in many cases be very glad that there are dusty books
in dusty libraries about their ancestor's languages. When we document
vanishing languages, we do it for all human beings, but most of all for the
grandsons and -daughters of their speakers.

>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.

Cf. my "On supporting threatened languages" in the last newsletter of
"Terralingua" (I'll mail it to anyone interested). Ultimately, languages
can be revitalised only by their speakers, via the individual choices they
make every time they open their mouth. Reversing lg shift certainly only
can be done by the speakers, and the projects must be controled by them.
Otherwise they fail.

>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.

I probably agree with you, a choice that is made all the easier because I
know that  others would go for (a) (moral: both should be done). But let us
make it a bit harder. You want to protect the "linguistic/cultural
diversity on the planet". Take two threatened lg communities, speaking lg A
and B. Lg A is spoken by large groups elsewhere (far away, say), whereas lg
B will vanish with this speech community. From the point of view of the
communities, the speakers, the peoples involved, the cases are close to
equal (not exactly, since the A's always can visit other A-areas and learn
A as a 2nd lg), but for the diversity of the planet, you should go fof B.

I also want to stress that we should not make principles out of these
choices. Both your (a) and (b) above should be done. Either one is fine
with me. The problem is that too many are engaged in neither, but rather in
... (pick your favourite hate object, starting with producers of land

>I haven't seen much of anybody meeting Peter on his
>own ground and trying to explore the situation collaboratively.

That is true, for all of us, and I certainly want to read more postings
from him, on why he concludes the way he does.

>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".

I deliberately used capitalist examples since capitalist societies are
where most of the visiting linguists come from (all web sites are bought by
money), and did not intend to say "hey, let us do this on my terms". On the
contrary, this discussion will get really illuminating for to-become field
workers when we can read how lg is neither a resource like fish or fresh
water nor a profit-making intellectual property like genetic codes or
company logos.

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

"successful" for US, not for ME or YOU.

What I said was

>a desire to "win" the discussion and
>prove the other ones wrong, rather than achieving a deeper understanding

and by that I looked for a "successful debate" for the #participants#,
where "success" is to understand, move on, etc., and not a "successful
debate" for the "winner", the one of us that gets the last word, etc.
Personally, I like the debates where I later find I started out being
wrong, or too narrow-minded. The debates where I do not change my mind or
get new opinions are a waste of time for me personally, although perhaps
not for the other participants :-) .


Trond Trosterud                         email: trondt at
Barentssekretariatet, P.O.Box 276,              work: +47-7899-3758
N-9901 Kirkenes, Norway                          fax: +47-7899-3225       home: +47-7899-2243
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