I’m late on the bandwagon with Microsoft and Mapuzungun/Mapudungun. I don’t have anything much to add to Jane‘s and Tom‘s posts on Mapuche people’s complaints about Microsoft creating software for their language, except I was pretty disappointed by how dismissive Geoff Pullum was (before he updated the post) of the idea that different cultures might have different ideas about linguistic group ownership. I don’t have any more information than anyone else about the real story (why Mapuche people are angry about it) but the reactions of English speakers are interesting to look at.
There are many cultural differences (perceived and actual) that we are happy pointing out. Greetings, for example, or marriage customs. Lexicalisation of the concept of frozen water is another hot topic. Some are even a source of pride.
However, we are much more judgemental about some other types of cultural/linguistic differences. One is turn-taking in conversation. The amount of time someone pauses while still retaining the floor in a conversation varies a lot from language to language and culture to culture. In US English, it’s about 2 seconds. In Navajo, it’s much longer (about 8 seconds). Speakers are mostly unawre of this, and not surprisingly, when native speaker of American English talk to native speakers of Navajo, an 8-second pause sounds to an English speaker like giving up the floor. Thus Indians get stereotyped as taciturn and gringos get stereotyped as always interrupting.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that groups have different cultural norms on information management. There aren’t all that many restrictions on information for English speakers, in general. There’s Government security clearance (“that’s Top Secret”) and there are some religious constraints (such as Freemason rituals being closed to non-members), and there are still passive gender-based information restrictions too. I’m thinking in particular of not teaching girls to do metal-work and not teaching boys sewing at school. In these cases they aren’t active restrictions, of course, but theyhave consequences in terms of information management within communities.
In some societies, restrictions on knowledge may extend to who can speak a language. As Jane says, in Australia these restrictions are based on who has birth-rights to the language through belonging to a particular group, and they come with responsibilities for cultural and land management too. For Yolŋu, there are also linguistic aspect to this. For example, there are certain words which will only be uttered by a certain person during a ceremony. There’s a long description of this in Ian Keen’s Knowledge and Secrecy in Aboriginal Religion. There are also situations where information is withhelf from those who are deemed not to have the experience, intelligence or maturity to appreciate it.
This has implications for linguistics. As my colleague Robert Englebretson pointed out to me, why is it that Microsoft can work on a language without asking but a linguist has to get not only community approval but also IRB approval? If someone did an OpenOffice or Firefox localisation of a fieldwork language as part of their time in a community, they’d have to get permission. We don’t question that. It’s part of informed consent. So why should the Microsoft situation be different? Another consequence of information management and withholding is in elicitation. A linguist who is not fluent in the language might be deemed incapable of appreciating the “full” language, so the consultant will give them a type of foreigner talk.
At the risk of being one of these social scientists with an “enormously strong intuitive revulsion against saying anything that might be perceived as even remotely critical of another ethnic, racial, or cultural group or its cultural products,” linguists run the risk of being kicked out of (or barred from) endangered language communities if they don’t appreciate issues like this. Part of our code of professional ethics involves respecting such issues in our fieldwork.