Free Markets: Language, Commodification, and Art
“It’s Fluent in Every Language” (Visa)
“Any time, Anywhere, Any Language” (MasterCard)
“Sell Your Language at Any Price” (Rainer Ganahl)
In our times, when basically anything can be commodified—including human livers and tongues—we are confronted with the following question: Are languages commodities, or do they resist commodification?
Commodification is a process in which something enters freely or is coerced into a relationship of exchange, a transaction enabled by an instrument of payment within a relatively short period of time. Parties in this exchange identify themselves as owners. Assuming that language is primarily a mode of verbal exchange and interaction, I would like to ask the following questions: Can an author, a linguist, a state, a nation, or even a transnational company own an entire single language or even groups of languages? Can spoken languages be copyrighted as computer languages are copyrighted? Clearly, the answer to both these questions is no. As with cloud formations, languages cannot be owned. In spite of the fact that clouds develop in specific areas that are geographically and legally defined by ownership, they cannot be owned, purchased, sold, or stocked. One can commodify oxygen and stabilize or destabilize climate conditions within a confined space—think of climate and cloud machines—but one cannot turn cloud formations into a commodity as such.1 It is the same with language: words, sentences, texts, and books are endlessly produced, copyrighted, bought, and sold, but you cannot own a language as such, since language is a sort of “atmosphere” in which words are produced. Of course, to push this reasoning even further, according to Ludwig Wittgenstein there are only language “games” and there is no language as such.2 There are recent indications that perhaps these games can be commodified, sold, and translated in the same way that both cities and nations are about to begin selling their water resources.3 One case in point is that the corporate world has been registering (“trademarking”) more and more sentences taken from common speech—for example, Nike’s “Just do it,” Apple’s “Think different,” and Microsoft’s “Where do you want to go today?”
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- For climate machines, I am thinking of air conditioners; for cloud machines, I am thinking of the use of “clouds” of white ice on performance stages. Clouds can be imagined as a sign system apart from their meteorological context, but only in specific cases, as when smoke is produced for the transmission of information.
- For his Sprachspiel (language game) theory, see Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974).
- It may seem ironic to meld language rights with environmental concerns, yet they face the same essential threats of commodification, pollution, scarcity, and disappearance. Drinking water and clean air are like languages in that they are “just there” and constitute our common natural and cultural property. They seem—when encountered—so immeasurable, enormous, and omnipresent that the thought of their destruction would be absurd.