ETHNOGRAPHY

K. DAVID HARRISON

Ethnography: Indigenous knowledge systems

Linguistic Anthropology has always been concerned with traditional knowledge systems, for example knowledge of weather patterns, medicinal uses of plants, topography, animal behavior, etc. My research looks specifically at the ways these knowlege systems, or as I call them, "technologies" are embedded within linguistic systems.

For example, nomadic Tuvan yak herders have a complex, hierarchal system for classifying yaks according to (1) fur color, (2) body pattern, (3) head marking, and (4) individual traits. Mastering the system of yak-naming allows a herder to efficiently pick out or refer to a specific yak from a herd of hundres. It is a linguistic technology in that by learning a set of labels and their proper use, the speaker also acquires (with little or no effort) a hierarchal classification scheme.

I've also documented the use of special songs sung to yaks, horses, camels and other animals by Tuvan nomads in Mongolia. These songs are intended to pacify and modify the animals' behavior, and thus serve as a tool to manage natural resources. Domestication songs represent yet another type of indigenous knowledge embedded within a linguistic system.