Grimm brothers vindicated – Fairy tales go back to ancient beginnings of Indo-European language

The Royal Society has a new paper

Sara Graça da Silva, Jamshid J. Tehrani, Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales

The Smith and the Devil - Russian folk tale or something much older?

The Smith and the Devil – Russian folk tale or something much older?

The BBC reports:

In the 19th Century, authors the Brothers Grimm believed many of the fairy tales they popularised were rooted in a shared cultural history dating back to the birth of the Indo-European language family.

Later thinkers challenged that view, saying some stories were much younger and had been passed into oral tradition having first been written down by writers from the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Durham University anthropologist Dr Jamie Tehrani, who worked with folklorist Sara Graca Da Silva, from the New University of Lisbon, said: “We can come firmly down on the side of Wilhelm Grimm. Some of these stories go back much further than the earliest literary record and indeed further back than Classical mythology – some versions of these stories appear in Latin and Greek texts – but our findings suggest they are much older than that.” ……

….. 

It also used a tree of Indo-European languages to trace the descent of shared tales to see how far they could be demonstrated to go back in time.

Dr Tehrani said Jack And The Beanstalk was rooted in a group of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, and could be traced back to when Eastern and Western Indo-European languages split more than 5,000 years ago.

Analysis showed Beauty And The Beast and Rumpelstiltskin to be about 4,000 years old. And a folk tale called The Smith And The Devil, about a blacksmith selling his soul in a pact with the Devil in order to gain supernatural abilities, was estimated to go back 6,000 years to the bronze age. Dr Tehrani said: “We find it pretty remarkable these stories have survived without being written. They have been told since before even English, French and Italian existed. “They were probably told in an extinct Indo-European language.”

Tale telling around a camp-fire must have been one of the major contributors for the evolution of language. But what is a little surprising is that the oral tradition can be so persistent, and for so long. That suggests that orally transmitted tales from ancient cultures should probably be given much more weight. The origin of many concepts, which are often dated to the beginning of written records, are probably much older than thought.

Abstract

Ancient population expansions and dispersals often leave enduring signatures in the cultural traditions of their descendants, as well as in their genes and languages. The international folktale record has long been regarded as a rich context in which to explore these legacies. To date, investigations in this area have been complicated by a lack of historical data and the impact of more recent waves of diffusion. In this study, we introduce new methods for tackling these problems by applying comparative phylogenetic methods and autologistic modelling to analyse the relationships between folktales, population histories and geographical distances in Indo-European-speaking societies. We find strong correlations between the distributions of a number of folktales and phylogenetic, but not spatial, associations among populations that are consistent with vertical processes of cultural inheritance. Moreover, we show that these oral traditions probably originated long before the emergence of the literary record, and find evidence that one tale (‘The Smith and the Devil’) can be traced back to the Bronze Age. On a broader level, the kinds of stories told in ancestral societies can provide important insights into their culture, furnishing new perspectives on linguistic, genetic and archaeological reconstructions of human prehistory.

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One Response to “Grimm brothers vindicated – Fairy tales go back to ancient beginnings of Indo-European language”

  1. Bernie Says:

    Well… Many of these issues are not really new: 
    1/ strong correlations between the distributions of a number of folktales and phylogenetic, but not spatial, associations among populations that are consistent with vertical processes of cultural inheritance.
    2/ oral traditions probably originated long before the emergence of the literary record,
    3/ statistical evidence that many tales can be traced back to the Neolithic or further
    4/ stories told in ancestral societies can provide important insights into their culture, furnishing new perspectives on linguistic, genetic and archaeological reconstructions of human prehistory.
    See: https://www.academia.edu/14783820/2015._Une_nouvelle_m%C3%A9thode_rapide_et_efficace_pour_reconstruire_les_premi%C3%A8res_migrations_de_lhumanit%C3%A9._-_Mythologie_fran%C3%A7aise_259_juin_66-82 (peer reviewed paper, where Julien d’Huy get the same results) and, for an early phylogenetic approach of folktales (before the publication of the first Tehrani’s paper on this subject): https://unive-paris1.academia.edu/JuliendHuy
    It is a shame that journalists speak english only and / or may not do real researches for their paper!

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