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.