Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Two Stories on Language Ownership

Posted by Neal on March 22, 2008

Back in 2006, maybe you read the news stories about the Mapuche tribe in Chile suing Microsoft for translating Windows into their native language, Mapudungun, and the issue of language as intellectual property. You might also have come across the story on the linguistics blogs, but if not, here are a few good articles or blog posts on it:

  • A news article on Engadget gives the basic story.
  • Jangari of matjjin-nehen takes a crack at defining the circumstances in which speakers of a language can claim ownership of it in this post.
  • In this blog post, Jane Simpson of the University of Sydney links to some Language Log posts and relates the issue to language ownership in Australian Aboriginal languages.

So what reminded me of this old news? Some even older news about language ownership that I only just learned. Longtime readers may remember that Doug and Adam like playing with Bionicles. Now and again I’d ask Doug and Adam why something like Ronaka (I just made that up) would be a plausible name for a Bionicle character, while Floogie or Shumpt would not.

Now, Doug’s friend Holt has clued me in to the fact that Bionicle names, especially in the early series, were taken from Polynesian languages, with Maori being a particular favorite. After I read his blog post, I did a bit of searching and found out that a few years before Doug and Adam got interested in Bionicle, the company that makes them (i.e. Lego) even got into some PR trouble for misappropriating Maori names. Some other sources on this controversy:

  • A Wikipedia article that gives some examples of Polynesian names used for Bionicle characters, and briefly summarizes the legal action
  • A paper by Rosemary Coombe and Andrew Herman on intellectual property, which devotes one section to a narrative of the Bionicle case.

4 Responses to “Two Stories on Language Ownership”

  1. Holt said

    Mr. Whitman,
    INITIALIZING SHYNESS SEQUENCE! 10, 9, 8, other numbers.
    Umm, what should I say?
    I still don’t know what to say.
    Thank you for linking to MY BLOG. Yeah. END OF COMMENT.

  2. Viola said

    Thank you for supporting Holt’s writing career. It’s pretty neat how he has managed to get these HTML’s down, and yet he doesn’t understand the concept of Teach Yourself Visually HTML that I borrowed from the library. Hmmm…same outcome, different process.
    So….with much contemplation I’ve developed a mental promise to myself (a creed of sorts) that I will henceforth email to you and Doug as per the “far out” conversation we had the other day regarding the computer. You can expect the email within a day or two. Cheers!

  3. Holt said

    Yeah, most of it I got from BZPower. The only thing is, BZPower uses [these] instead of
    But, to the subject, I remember something that I forgot to put in my above comment.
    There is a Bionicle named Roodaka! 😀

  4. […] readers may remember Doug’s friend Holt from this one post back in 2008. You may also remember Ken, who once told Doug “I’ma kill you!” and […]

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