Watch where you put that accent

Reporter Lisa Morehouse, “North Coast Native Tribes Unsure on Marine Life Protection Act”, on KQED’s California Report on June 22:

They argue that tríbal knòwledge shouldn’t be discarded in favor of Wéstern scìence.

(Tribal members are concerned that setting up protected areas “will limit food gathering and ceremonial and spiritual uses of the coast”.)

The default accent pattern for Adj+N combinations is afterstress (though there are many special cases), that is, accent on the N (trìbal knówledge, Wèstern scíence). But discourse functions, like emphasis or contrast, can override this default. So the forestress in tríbal knòwledge and Wéstern scìence above sets up implicit contrasts, between outsider’s knowledge and tribal knowledge, between Western science and  (something like) “the science of tribal tradition”.

The way the sentence was read then treats tribal lore as a kind of science, entirely parallel to “Western science” — as an “alternative way of knowing”.

We’ve been here before; see my postings “Experience and evidence” (of 12/17/09) and “More on experience and evidence” (of 1/19/10). The focus there was on “alternative belief systems” (alternative to science) based on “personal experience, impressions, anecdotes, and speculations”.

Alternative belief systems can also build on “theoretical” reasoning (without the support of experiment or the assessment of systematically collected data) about causes and effects. Think the doctrine of signatures or the doctrine of humors in the maintenance of health and the treatment of disease.

Alternative belief systems can also be based on the accumulated wisdom of a culture, passed down as cultural custom and lore.

(You don’t have to deny that alternative belief systems can incorporate potentially useful elements to resist treating them as “another kind of truth”.)

Such lore can range from the relatively trivial to the fundamental. On the relatively trivial side I give you the widespread practice, in the U.S. at least, of eating stewed prunes or prune juice, on the grounds that they are naturally laxative and so can serve as a gentle way to avoid or treat constipation. The practice involves prunes (dried plums) specifically, for reasons I’ve never understood, since other dried fruits (for instance, dried apricots and dried figs, which I happen to prefer to prunes) have similar virtues. But prunes get all the press. Constipated? Have some stewed prunes or prune juice, that will do the trick.

Systems of everyday advice — on (among other things) nutrition and diet, health and medicine, exercise and fitness, child rearing, sexual practices, and of course linguistic usages — incorporate elements of all three sorts of alternative belief systems. I’ll post in a while on diet advice and advice on exercise and athletic performance from this point of view.

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