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

Trond Trosterud trondt at
Thu Feb 13 11:58:24 UTC 1997

Content-Type: text/plain; charset="iso-8859-1"
Content-Length: 10470

Answering Marks comments:

>> = Trond (me)
>  = Mark (or Peter, and then explicitly stated) )

>> 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.
>Yes, those are some of the values which Western culture attaches to
>proprietary information, e.g. chemical processes.
>Now, what are some of the values which Maori culture attaches to
>proprietary information, e.g. their own language?

I do not know, yet, how the Maori think of property and language, and I
also do not know how they are to react if I write, say, a Maori-German
dictionary, but yes, I would have asked if I had such plans (University of
Bergen in Norway gives Maori courses, so that would be a place to start).

What Peter said was:

>Often indigenous communities haven't yet realized their languages are in
>fact cultural capital (...) and can be treated as commodities in western

Here he talks about how the capitalist society values language. My
experience is that the PRICE (in money, stock rate) on that commodity (in
the form of reference grammars, the "formula") is rather low. If a minority
community succeedes in forcing its government to admit them ling human
rights (as in NZ), then teacher's salaries, text book industry, etc. can
certainly be measured in money. But the first-step publications of the
linguists (analyzing phoneme inventory, making written lg, grammars, OTish
HPSG analyses, etc.) will not be a direct part of that business. BTW, In
Northern Norway, (it could also be Norwegians) working in the
municipalities' administration that speak S.i move ones step up in the
salary ladder, if they also write S.i they move up two. The S.i language
council administers this system, and at the moment want to abandon it, they
find it too costy and want to spend the money on other things (school
books, dictionaries, translations, interpreters, lg courses etc.).

He also said (in the "(...)" above (on language):
>in my opinion the most valuable possession a community owns

Here I certainly agree, if "value" is understood not as measured in money,
but as "important for the members of the community". But yes, they can make
an education industry if the government takes its reponses seriously (it
still is marginal as compared to the education sector of the rest of the
sciety, and they certainly should have one).

Peter again:

>The Maori version
>of the treaty guaranteed Maori would have continued access and protection
>of  our "taonga"( "taonga" roughly translate to "treasured possession",
>i.e. land, fisheries, scared sites etc etc.) We were able to convince the
>courts to rule that our language is also considered a "taonga".
>No, we argue that we "own" our culture and language. We also "own" the right
>to define how the rest of the world see's us. In the past we suffered much
>from non-Maori misrepresenting us.

Here we move closer. But I still do not know how they will administer their
taonga. They may say "hands off our language, we want to write our grammars
ourselves". I certainly hope they will insist on writing their own school
textbooks (cf. Britain's "aid" to Africa: pouring in surplus primary school
text books, in English, vith a London world view). So, to talk about the
linguistics profession: In Bergen (Norway) they teach Maori, in Oslo (also
Norway) they write Tokelau grammars. The Maori want to have this activity
on their conditions. What are the activities they do not want, and and why?

Peter again:

>Naturally we cautious about what is written about us and our attempts to
>our language.
>Negative international press could damage the whole movement.

This is something very different from writing reference grammars and
getting kudos (what does that word mean?). Here we talk #politics#. If
someone is positive, non-hostile towards you, but still damages your cause
politically out of ignorance and foolishness, you should certainly talk
reason to her/him. If the linguists in question really wanted to hurt the
Maoris, it is harder, but I suspect their intentions were good, and the
task thus not hopeless.

Mark again (the rest of the citations are Marks (>) and mine (>>):

>You seem to be arguing now that nobody can contaminate or destroy the
>Maori language and culture, therefore the concept of property cannot
>apply. But there are a couple of objections to that argument: first, the
>conclusion doesn't follow from the premise; second, the premise is false.

No, I do not argue for that premise.

On "destroying culture": here Peter tells that "We Maori here in New
Zealand are now very westernised. Our culture is rapidly changing". TV,
school systems, money economy usually are the main enemies here.

On "destroying language": There are two ways: You can make it disappear, or
you can change it radically. The final agents here are the community
members themselves (by stopping using it, or by revitalising it after one
generation, so that you get a Livonian, a Southern S.i etc. that are VERY
different from the language used two generations ago). If we (insider,
outsider) linguists write reference grammars for the 3rd generation to
revitalise with, we certainly participated in that change. Then, to be
explicit: The "choice" to stop using your native language does not arise in
a vacuum, of course, the destructive agents are well known to everyone on
the list, my point is just to pinpoint where the important move happens.
Contrary to this discussion, in Scandinavia the sad problem is rather that
many S.i think the school / official society should save the language /
teach their children to use it, and that their participation in the project
isn't that necessary. This philosophy is really dangerous.

>> I do not see why capitalist society's copyright laws should be relevant
>> in the case of lg and grammar.

>It is relevant because it is the way _Western_ socities deal with
>proprietary information.

But it is not the way capitalist society deals with language. English as a
foreign language teaching is a strategic weapon (for UK, US) as is the
atomic bomb, as is German for Germany, etc., and they use billions on
spreading it, but they don't sell it to you (they don't even sell the
books, they dump them in you school and give (some of) you a grant to go to
England. Cf. Robert Phillipson: "Linguistic Imperialism", Namibia is a
particular bad case in point).

>The Maori deal with proprietary information in a
>different way, but their way is no less valid for them than our way is for

Of course it is not. The Maori way just haven't been on the list yet, only
the Maori term for it ("taonga").

>That's the point I was trying to make. You cannot make the
>ethnocentric argument
(... several ethnocentric arguments listed)

I seriously try avoiding ethnocentric arguments ( = avoiding saying "you
should use my values", instead trying to evaluate each argument in its own
value setting).

>Hmm. I guess I have to learn to be more explicit. An ethical standard
>which is partly culture-independent and partly culture-dependent is not a
>culture-independent ethical standard.

ok. My main point actually was not on terminology, bur simply: Let us try
understand each other. On some points we differ, on others, not.

>Descriptive salvage of a soon-to-be-extinct language
>which the speakers do not wish to maintain only benefits that common
>heritage documentation you mentioned, not the community where the language
>used to be spoken.

You forget the next generation! Generations 1, 2, (in several cases I know
of) ARE VERY ASHAMED OF their language, because the discrimination they
have suffered was so closely linked to their language (and to poor
knowledge of the official language). I know of cases where grown-up
children suddenly realises that their mother is fluent in the language of
their ethnic group. Thus, the mother has lived for 40-50 years and never
betrayed herself. But the children and grandchildren (that never suffered
that much from the stigma) want to know about this language, and they will
go to us (the linguists) for the documentation, when their mother is dead.

Those who are into descriptive salvage for the sake of
>our common heritage can be concerned with such a case, if they like.

We do.   :-)

>So far, I've mostly seen people telling him [Peter] he's ethnocentric or
>racist or

I certainly have not, and that is part of the discussion style I reacted
against in the beginning (I thus did not ONLY have you in mind!).

>or telling him his position is flawed

That I did (cf. below) (and I am still waiting for an elaboration why he is
reluctant to share his language with others)

>because it does not conform with Western views of property rights.

actually, my concern was that it conforms too much rather than too little.
I still am afraid of some "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" phenomenon, so please, tell me there are better reasons than that.

>collaborate on achieving deeper understanding. How does your telling Peter
>that his argument is flawed (...) constitute a contribution towards such a
>collaborative search for deeper understanding?

I try again:
Peter! I see a flaw in your argument! Can you please help me out?

That was what I ment, anyway.

>> Personally, I like the debates where I later find I started out being
>> wrong, or too narrow-minded.
>Good. Maybe you'll like this one a lot. ;]

Actually, it is improving. Now we just wait for Peter.

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
Character test string, please ignore: ..............-....

Endangered-Languages-L Forum: endangered-languages-l at
Web pages
Subscribe/unsubscribe and other commands: majordomo at

More information about the Endangered-languages-l mailing list