I read in the Herald today that archaeologists and anthropologists have discovered chicken bones in South America, in territory occupied by the Mapuche people, which predate Columbus by at least 70 years. The chicken bones are important historically, because obviously, chickens aren’t native to the Americas. DNA evidence places the ancestry of these chickens in the South-East Pacific and carbon-dating places them between 1304 and 1424. In short, the chickens were imported by the Polynesian seafarers.

How brilliant! For hundreds of years, Italians had as a source of national and ethnic pride that one of their own ‘discovered’ the New World. This shows that some of the world’s indigenous populations were also excellent seafarers and were able to navigate across the treacherous south-Pacific using nothing but traditional technology.

A while back there was a historian, I think, who professed that the Americas were first visited (after being initially colonised, of course, and not including the Vikings who decided that Scotland, Iceland and Scandinavia were much nicer) by the Chinese in traditional junks. It turned out that there was very little good evidence for his theory and, although he steadfastly holds to it, it has since been conclusively debunked.

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Why do I care about 15th Century Polynesians reaching South America?

Well, about 6 months ago I wrote about Microsoft using the Mapudungun language in their latest Word release without the consent of the Mapuche indigenous people who claim ownership of the language. As a result of that post, I have at least two ‘orphan’ tags, ‘Mapudungun’ and ‘Mapuche’, in my list of ‘categories’. This irks me.

I can now write another post, publish it under ‘Mapuche’ and successfully give an otherwise lone tag another instantiation. Ironically though, in doing so, I have added new tags, such as ‘Archaeology’ and ‘Historical Osteology’ (okay, the last one was made up). I have also set a precedent whereby I must start finding posts to fill other orphan tags.

Anyone know a good story about Highland Scottish Gaelic?

A lot of people are weighing into this debate over the Mapudungun language and whether or not Microsoft are within their rights to use it in software development. All (by which I mean ‘most’) of the editorial concerning this issue has revolved around one central notion: whether or not languages can be considered intellectual property.

The view that rejects languages as entities that can be owned has been very frequently illustrated with comments such as:

Do we “consult” germans when translating manuals of our products to german? Do we ask England for participation when we translate our products to english. No. (source)

But this is certainly one of my favourite comments thus far:

No one “owns” languages. It’s incredibly arrogant to think otherwise. God is the inventor of them all, so this tribe needs to get off their high-horse and find something else to do with their time, like open up a casino or some other money generating enterprise (and I don’t mean that disrespectfully. I’m being serious). (source)

Somewhat less dismissively, Squires, at polyglot conspiracy, outlines the biggest problem with the language-as-property argument.

But it’s hard to argue that anyone has “intellectual property” rights to a language, even if it is their community’s language – it’s not something anyone created, its use by those who use it is largely a matter of coincidence, it is neither an object nor idea, etc. (source)

True, it is impossible to point to someone, living or indeed dead, and say ‘they created this language’. A language cannot have a single creator. Although, there may be stories and legends told within the community that say ‘such-and-such made this language and gave it to us’. But I think it’s possible, without appealing to such cultural beliefs, to ascribe intellectual property rights over a language to a group of people inasmuch as language is a hereditary entity.

Yes, languages evolve rather than anyone in particular creating them. But they evolve precisely because a speech community exists in which the children of each generation are taught the language by their parents. In this respect a language is inherited from all the previous people that contributed to its development by speaking it and passing it on to their children.

This may or may not be compatible with our western concepts of property ownership (as I have no legal training whatsoever I can’t even guess one way or another), but I don’t particularly care if it isn’t. In customary law, the language belongs to them, irrespective of what the legal system of the superstratum culture has to say about it. I don’t think a speaker of an indigenous language that it is under threat would be satisfied by the argument ‘our laws let us’. Why should the Mapuche respect the fact that current intellectual property laws allow Microsoft to do as they please with a language that the Mapuche consider to be theirs? This is important; they think of it as their language, and whether or not some other legal system somewhere disagrees is not relevant to them.

I think languages can be considered intellectual property where the community that lays claim to it is comprised of the descendents of those who contributed to its evolution by teaching it to their children. Languages are formed over centuries by many people. The Mapuche people are the descendents of people who jointly created the Mapudungun language and they have therefore inherited intellectual property rights as the owners of the language.

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