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

Neal Oliver n.oliver at
Wed Feb 12 10:39:28 UTC 1997

Mark P. Line <mline at> wrote:

>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.

>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.
Where this argument departs from the parallel of western notions of
intellectual property is that:

- The owning community is in fact any human, even little children,
  who achieve sufficient exposure to the language to learn it. No
    non-disclosure agreement or employment contract is required. The
      only copyrighted languages I am aware of are Loglan and Klingon.

      - Applying western legal concepts to enforce ownership of a language
        is tantamount to licensing it. Let's suppose you can find a court
	  to enforce such a license. If there is in fact a duly-constituted
	    NZ authority over the Maori language for which Peter speaks, then
	      this would be an example. I claim that this will in fact
	  the language even more. As a language user, I would choose to use
	    a "public domain" language. As a protector of endangered
	  I would wish Peter good luck, and hope he gets it all documented in


>> 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).
Condoning this kind of prosecution (call it by the more accurate term
"persecution") is carrying cultural relativism to an absurdity.

>> 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?
This question cuts to the heart of the argument on this thread: What
authority do the leaders of an arbitrarily-defined community have on an
individual? Particularly if the leaders are self-appointed?

Such a question _affects_ the practice of linguistics, but it is not a
linguistic question.

>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.]

[Should we try to document the grammar of the Martian language used in the
movie? :-)]

Consider the following hypothetical case:

A group of speakers of endangered language FOO form a corporation, copyright
the language, and sue any speaker who publishes any teaching materials for
FOO in a "majority" language. A native speaker, who did not learn the
language through the agency of any member of that corporation, publishes a
dictionary and is sued for copyright infringement.

The claimant in this suit would presumably argue that the "compelling
interest in language survival" gives them the right to enforce the copyright.

Now let's suppose that the electorate of this country pass a "majority
language only" law, of the kind we've all seen in various countries. It
states that language FOO may not be used in business or governmental
interactions, on signs, in the education of children. The corporation sues
to have the law overturned.

On what basis would you defend the actions of this corporation?

The critical, objective, fact in this scenario is that there _is_no_group_
in a position to claim the invention of a human language (modern Hebrew is
at most a partial exception - we know who "Speaker Zero" is - but even that
was built on thousands of years of "prior art"). Any group claiming
authority over a language such as language FOO in the scenario must have
done so by force. On what ethical basis do you prefer the use of force at
some times, and not at others?

>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).

Don't forget - there are some languages that are beyond anything but
documentation. Presumably you would not object to that activity.

>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.

This is a worthy goal. I support you all the way. I might even offer to
help. If my assistance were turned down because I was an outsider, I would
wish the community good luck, and would fight against any language-basd
oppression of the community, but I would not feel responsible if they were
to fail and the language would die out.

>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.

This is an unfair rhetorical remark.
>> 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".

Let's test this. Peter, what could the subscribers to this list do to
improve the lot of the Maori language?
Neal Oliver
n.oliver at

Chances that an evil character in a Disney animated movie
speaks with a foreign accent: 1:2.
Harper's Index, Funny Times, February 1997

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