Power, open access and language rights

Whether languages can be property has generated further discussion, on Language Log, and on several anthropology blogs (thanks Kimberly!). Two themes emerged: power, and the potential conflict with open access.


Some background. As an English speaker, I am guiltily thankful that, unlike most speakers of small languages, I didn’t need to learn another language (especially one with a lousy writing system) in order to read, talk and write about the things I want to understand. I am also thankful that the only constraints on me using English are how much I want you to understand me, and how much I don’t want to get sued. No one queries my right to speak English. This isn’t an issue. It’s separate from the right to freedom of expression which is often attacked, however, and so it’s good that many countries have signed up to the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 19 of which says:

1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

“(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;” weakens the right to freedom of expression because companies with buckets of money use it (or its local like) to sue the pants off talkative people with less money. And governments use (b) with increasing and depressing frequency. So, powerful groups can constrain our current explicit right to freedom of expression.
Does Article 19 imply that everyone has the right to learn and speak any language? Not as far as I can tell. We have the freedom to express opinions but not specifically in any given language (unless a language is a medium?). Caveat (a) seems to allow for blocking the use of a particular language – if that language is thought to belong to other people, and if those people claim that their right to say who can use it is violated by outsiders using that language.
So what’s wrong with creating property rights in language anyway? The obvious answer is that once language is treated as a property, theft becomes possible. As Mark Liberman suggests on Language Log, a dictator can arises, and declare people “to be no longer members of the ‘group’ — and then forbidding them to use their language for any further criticism or protest.” A Stalin, a Hitler could have done so. We can’t avoid Mark’s point just by saying that Russia and Germany under Stalin and Hitler were large countries, since abuse of power is clearly not restricted to large societies. It happens even in small societies where people come to own a language through being born of parents who are recognised as owning that language (birthright if you like). What’s ‘recognition’ in a society without paperwork? And yes, arguments about birthright do happen. Who was your real father? Your father didn’t come from this country; he came from that place way off. But in small societies there’s a brake on dictatorship and on excommunication which makes Mark’s worst case scenario less likely. In such societies most people are family, and most depend on each other for survival at some time. That makes it hard for dictators.
We’re down to a balance of probabilities – the probability of hurt through treating language as a property, and the probability of hurt through treating it as something which cannot be owned. If the international community decides that no language can be owned, then that is theft of the property rights of peoples living in a small society who believe that their language is their intellectual property. If a community decides that languages can be owned, then that allows for people to suffer the loss of the right to speak a language.
Then the question arises – who decides that language is a property? Stentor Danielson at Debitage says “We want to let the Mapuche decide when and how their language may be used, rather than presume to decide on their behalf what would be good for them.” But who speaks for the Mapuche, Danielson then asks? Could it be that most Mapuche actually don’t think of language as a property at all? The history of Indigenous peoples is littered with things other people gave them that they never asked for. (And conversely with things taken away from them that they never knew could be taken away).
It’s clear that some societies do treat language as property. But it’s also clear that short-term gains may lead some members of a society to claim language as a property, even though most members don’t share this view. And this is dangerous because, potentially, it leads to the loss of language documentation, and thus of some of the heritage of the descendants of the whole society.
This leads to the other theme, the potential for conflict with open access, that is, with the belief that information should be free, which is raised in Kerim’s post on Savage Minds and the comments and linked articles related to the American Anthropological Association‘s decision not to support open access anthropology. Yes, many of us want open access for published material. But we feel quite queasy about making public the raw material behind the published material, the field-notes, field-tapes and so on, even though that raw material may be essential for verifying our published claims.
The queasiness has many sources, among which are reluctance to expose one’s horrible recordings, the requirements of ethics committees (no identifying of individuals), and sometimes of our language teachers. This queasiness has spread to other institutions which have little to do with the language teachers. There are signs that archives are starting to refuse Indigenous ethnographic material on the grounds that the depositor doesn’t have “community” (who speaks for the community?) approval to deposit it. And that they may refuse to make any material available on the web, because in the future some community member might possibly object to it as a violation of intellectual property. And that’s, I’m afraid, where some of the language-as-property movement may lead. Much more language material will be lost. The come-back is for the ethnographer to spend a lot of time trying to get informed consent, and getting it documented, to increasingly onerous levels. Not an easy ask. And this does not deal with recordings created in the days before documentation of consent became mandatory. The difficulty of documenting informed consent will increase if the speakers feel that their rights over their language are not respected. So we go round and round.

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