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

Mark P. Line mline at
Thu Feb 13 02:48:22 UTC 1997

Neal Oliver wrote:
> Mark P. Line <mline at> wrote:
> >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.

In other words, the WESTERN concept of property precludes the inclusion of
things, like natural languages, for which the owning community can consist
of any humans who happened to become native speakers of the language, for
which no non-disclosure agreement or employment contract is required, and
which is not subject to copyright.

So what?

Why do you assume that the WESTERN concept of property has any role to
play in the Maori position concerning their ownership of the Maori

> - Applying western legal concepts to enforce ownership of a language
>   is tantamount to licensing it.

That is something the Maori _also_ do (plug into Western legal concepts),
but their position of ownership does not derive from NZ law.

>   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.

There's a treaty which protects the Maori rights to ownership of their
treasured possessions, and there's case law (as I've understood it) which
establishes that the Maori language is one of their treasured possessions
in the sense of the treaty.

> I claim that this will in fact endanger
>   the language even more. As a language user, I would choose to use
>   a "public domain" language.

Maybe you would. But then, you're not Maori. Maybe the Maori already have
that possibility covered and believe that, ceteris paribus, an ethnic
Maori will choose to use (or learn and then use) Maori. Right?

> >> 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.

Perhaps. Sometimes, you have to fight fire with fire. If that's what the
Maori thought they were doing, and if the majority of the community was
not being oppressed by the power of the few, then I don't see why they
shouldn't have every right to do so.

> >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?

They only have the authority the individuals allow them, which is
trivially true of all authority (as opposed to power by physical coercion,
for example).

Do you assume that Maori leaders are self-appointed? Do you assume that
there is no consensus among the Maori about the ownership of their

> 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.

There would be a lot of whiners from this crowd, no doubt, but I reckon
the international legal community would eventually support this scenario.

> 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.

Yes. If a linguistic community chooses to place this kind of activity
under sanction and to cast it in terms of Western property law, then what
of it?

If I were still living in Germany, the people who cause me to get
cold-called by telemarketers who know all kinds of demographic particulars
about me and my wife would already be rotting in jail (Datenschutzgesetz,
which places severe constraints on the dissemination of personal data).
Different people have different sanctions for different things. (Duh.)

> 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?

I wouldn't defend it, I would ignore it. I would agitate for a
constitutionality hearing on the "English only" law, independently of the
actions of the hypothetical 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

I disagree.

The critical, objective fact in this scenario is that, although the
criterion of INVENTION is relevant to Western property law, it is
obviously not relevant to the Maori concept of property as it applies to
their own language.

> Any group claiming
> authority over a language such as language FOO in the scenario must have
> done so by force.

Why? Why is it not conceivable that a linguistic community such as the
Maori might claim authority over their own language by _consensus_?

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

I don't object, as long as the subjects of investigation are consenting
participants in the activity and have full access to the results. It
wouldn't be my top priority, though.

> >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.

Apparently not. I think most people here would go for (a) in most cases.

-- Mark

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

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