March 03, 2004

General Motors Purchases Algonquian Languages

Claire Bowern's joking suggestion that corporate sponsorship for linguistic fieldwork could be obtained by selling the right to name languages and use words from them as product names recalls this item, which apeared in the Watley Review last June. It begins:

General Motors (GM) has announced the purchase of exclusive rights to the entire Algonquian language family, including such well-known tongues as Cheyenne, Cree, and Mohican, in a $1.6 billion dollar deal.
and goes on to explain that:
GM acquired the languages in an apparent effort to secure the rights to potentially thousands of cool-sounding names for automobiles. With one of the least creative management structures in the automotive industry, GM has for years produced cars with increasingly lame names that have hurt sales.

As Mark Liberman comments, corporate sponsorship, of a somewhat different form, may actually be worth pursuing. But there is more to this story. Last August or September I sent links to this item to several native friends in British Columbia, who in turn passed it on to others. I soon received queries, one of them from the Maritimes, from people concerned and outraged because they thought that it was a real news story! [Just in case anybody has missed this, the Watley Review is satire. This is NOT a real news story.] The history of exploitation of native people is such that even very sophisticated native people consider the purchase of rights to a native language family within the realm of possibility. (One of the people who wrote me concerned that the story was true is a lawyer with many years experience in politics.) This just goes to show how tricky the politics of work on endangered languages can be.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 3, 2004 01:31 PM