November 24, 2006

Mapuche is ours, not yours

Back in 2004, prompted by Bill Poser's report of a lawsuit in which a relative of the person who coined the term googol was suing Google over a property claim on the word Google, I satirically claimed personal ownership of the nouns crump, ether, parsley, helicopter, oligarchy, and rhodium, the preposition of, and all derivatives of the verb snuggle. I took it to be self-evidently hilarious that anyone could claim ownership of some ordinary non-trademarked dictionary word, especially on grounds of a family connection (and never mind the fact that Google and googol are not the same word). Now the Mapuches seek to claim ownership of their entire language, on the basis of a tribal connection, and they regard Microsoft's localization of its software by translating messages into Mapuche as theft of the Mapuche people's stuff. It really is very hard for a satirist to keep out ahead of real life, isn't it?

A couple of correspondents have suggested to me and Mark that the press reports are crazier than reality; they claim Spanish-language accounts of what is going on reveal that the Mapuche people are objecting to pre-emption of decisions about which alphabetic writing system to adopt for their language. Quite a few have been on offer, and the Microsoft decision to go for one of them, known as Azmfuche, was taken without general agreement by the Mapuche but will now be definitive. Published reports of the situation include this one and this one, and one page that does discuss the orthographic issue is here. But my general impression is that even the Spanish sources reveal plenty of fundamentally misguided political ranting on the part of the Mapuches. A language is not something that could be or should be controlled by a people or its political leadership, and making software available in a certain writing system or language is not a threat to, or a theft of, cultural patrimony. Not even if it does encourage a tendency toward standardization in some particular direction. So far I still see this story as having a tinge of the ridiculous about it. For some serious and informed discussion of the issue that takes a more sympathetic view, see this post by Jane Simpson.

Thanks to Henry Heller and Luis Casillas for informed correspondence about the Spanish sources.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 24, 2006 06:30 PM