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.


6 responses to “Mapuche

  1. Just in case you wanted to see anymore examples of the typical comments from westerners on this, Engadget has a post with about 50 comments, though most are the same (I suspect it’s a site geared in favour of Microsoft).
    I am especially appalled by those that start with “I am Chilean” as though they are more qualified to editorialise, and then proceed to claim just like everyone else that the Mapuche just want money.

    The most common theme in the anti-Mapudungun narrative is the notion that ‘language cannot be owned’. Of course, when we’re dealing with indigenous languages from, say, Australia, the situation is different. But there is a very problematic flaw in this: where is the boundary between languages that can be considered intellectual property and those that cannot? What property of a language determines whether or not you need to seek approval to use it? I suspect it has something to do with speech-community size, but that’s just an intuition.

  2. The reason this issue is likely to attract particular hostility from techie people is clear: a large and active segment of the “techie community” is currently engaged in fighting what they see as the creeping expansion of intellectual property rights beyond all reasonable bounds. Issues like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the fact that the term of copyright has been increasing at an average of more than one year per year for some time, and the RIAA’s punitive lawsuits against music sharers are major concerns for a lot of people online; an effort to assert intellectual property rights over a language, which would strikes even most uninterested English-speakers are bizarre, will seem to them like an outrageous new development in the trend they’re fighting.

    Cultural differences aside, it strikes me as an idea that could very easily be abused. Imagine if, say, the Nepalese government, in its capacity as the legal representative of the Nepali people, claimed ownership of the Nepali language – insisting that nobody could teach Nepali to a foreigner without its consent, and demanding that foreign firms get its permission to translate their software, or subtitle their videos, or publish their press releases in Nepali. If such a claim had any standing in international law, it would constitute an enormous restriction on the right of all Nepalis who disagreed with the government in question to free speech.

    Or to look at this differently: if some Mapudungun agree to translate the software for Microsoft, do authorities within the tribe (and which community? and who counts as an authority?) have the right to stop that person from doing so? If so, what penalties do they have the right to impose, and on whom? Whether this is conceived of as a matter of politeness or one of law makes a big difference.

  3. I agree with everything you say, although I’m not sure that the example of Nepali is analogous, since Nepali is a national language. On the other hand, if I’m not mistaken something a bit similar already happens in Bhutan.

    The question in your third paragraph is very relevant to linguists too – currently in Australia, for example, linguists must get the permission of both the local governing body and the people who will be working on the language. This is problematic when the council is run by a different council or language group. But the question remains – why must linguists go through all these IRB/permission hoops in order to work on the language, when a large corporation like Microsoft does not? How are the two enterprises different in this regard?

  4. I was kind of steering clear of that question, not being too familiar with the politics behind it, but my uninformed reaction would indeed be: why on earth do linguists have to go through all these IRB/permission hoops in order to work on the language? And what is the IRB anyway? I don’t think any similar procedure exists in the UK, so I’d be interested to hear more about these rules and how they came into being (and how they’re enforced.)

  5. (Of course, your last paragraph – “linguists run the risk of being kicked out of (or barred from) endangered language communities if they don’t appreciate issues like this” – gives a good motivation for putting up at least some hoops for people to jump through – but this sounds like something a lot stronger than a professional code of conduct…)

  6. IRB is “Internal Review Board”, aka getting permission to do research on human subjects. The UK does have something similar, although it might be that not all linguistic research is covered by it. The University of Edinburgh’s linguistics department has a nice summary here:

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