December 13, 2006

Should the "owners" of a language be permitted to forbid its use to criticize them?

In a post commenting on the Mapuche lawsuit against Microsoft ("Language as property?", 11/24/2006), I asked:

Here's a question: if the use of a language has to be licensed by the tribal elders, can they withhold this permission from someone who wants to criticize them, or to say something else that they don't approve of?

At the end of a thoughtful and interesting post at Transient Languages and Cultures ("Sovereignty over languages and land", 11/25/2006), Jane Simpson responded:

I'm guessing he's thinking of a group withholding permission from an outsider to use their language to criticise them. In the Australian Indigenous societies I know, people have the unquestioned right to speak the languages accepted as their parents' languages. So "tribal elders" aren't on about licensing kids to speak their own language. But outsiders? Well, I can't see why Indigenous communities couldn't have that right. Just as copyright laws allow a map-maker or a publisher to refuse a critic permission to republish a map. Or trespass laws allow me to prevent a critic from coming onto my land, let alone erecting a billboard on it criticising me (however justifiably).

No, I was thinking of a dictator or a junta (or a democratic government) banishing critics -- declaring them to be no longer members of the "group" -- and then forbidding them to use their language for any further criticism or protest.

For example, could Vladimir Putin (or a government ministry subservient to him) have forbidden Alexander Litvinenko from writing accusatory articles in Russian, on the grounds that he was no longer a proper Russian (due to having emigrated, being a traitor, or whatever)? Could the Russian government now forbid Litvinenko's widow from using the Russian language on similar grounds?

Or if you'd like to remove the issue of group membership -- could the Russian government forbid the BBC from broadcasting or printing unsanctioned articles in Russian?

Come on, some may say, we're not talking about big languages like Russian (118 million speakers), we're talking about little languages like Mapundungun (300,000 speakers). Well, where's the cut-off? What about a medium-sized language like Belarusan (6.7 million) or Rwanda (6.5 million)? Which side of the line is Tigré on (800,000 speakers in Eritrea)?

Assume (contrary to the odds, luckily) that WIPO were to propose that languages should be treated as folkloric information subject to sui generis intellectual property rights, and that the world's governments were to ratify this proposal and integrate it into their legal codes. If you think that such laws wouldn't be used in all sorts of nefarious ways, you've got a very different perception of the uses of power, law and government in today's world than I do.

[Here's another example: Should the official custodians of the various languages of Afghanistan -- whoever they might turn out to be -- be empowered to forbid RAWA from distributing literature in those languages, or broadcasting or distributing audio recordings in those languages? Suppose the literature is printed, shipped and passed out with the assistance of various NGOs in Afghanistan, or the broadcasts are sent out on shortwave stations run by other outsiders. Isn't that very close, in legal terms, to the situation of Mapungun native speakers working with Microsoft to localize software?]

[Update -- Keith Handley writes:

Make the analysis easier by picking a language with something closer to an owner: Can the Star Trek people prevent an outsider from criticizing them in Klingon? Or can they prevent Microsoft from releasing a Klingon localizations of software?

This is an interesting case, but a somewhat different one. It's partly different because there is a single corporate entity that might in some sense be said to "own" Klingon. And if Klingon were some sort of service mark, or something like that, this might be a question that has a real answer, more or less, in current international IPR law.

But whatever the answer, there's another difference that (in my opinion) is more important. There are no monolingual Klingon speakers; there are not even any people who are more comfortable in Klingon than in any other language. So the freedom-of-speech argument has a very different force than it does in the case of a real, living language, where the power to prevent use is a very significant political power. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 13, 2006 11:32 AM