Folktale diffusion and ethnolinguistic variation

I’ve been stop-starting my way happily through Celtic Fairy Tales and More Celtic Fairy Tales, two late-19thC collections by the great Australian folklorist Joseph Jacobs, combined in a plump Senate paperback and handsomely illustrated by John D. Batten:

Celtic Fairy Tales, ed. by Joseph Jacobs, illustrated by John D Batten

The book is a delight, and I may return to its contents for future posts. But first, some cultural geography. In his endnotes to Celtic Fairy Tales, Jacobs writes about how stories and their elements crop up again and again around the world, different cultures having borrowed and adapted them to suit their local customs and vernacular traditions.

This process is naturally uneven, with geography and language prominent among the factors influencing the degree of overlap:

The interesting thing to notice is the remarkable similarity of Scotch and Irish folk-tales. The continuity of language and culture between these two divisions of Gaeldom has clearly brought about this identity of their folk-tales. As will be seen from the following notes, the tales found in Scotland can almost invariably be paralleled by those found in Ireland, and vice versa. This result is a striking confirmation of the general truth that the folk-lores of different countries resemble one another in proportion to their contiguity and to the continuity of language and culture between them.

So a recent study of folktale diffusion and variation, ‘Population structure and cultural geography of a folktale in Europe’, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is pleasingly timed.

The researchers* drew on theories and methods from population genetics to analyse 700 variants of a folktale (‘The kind and the unkind girls’) from 31 ethnolinguistic populations in Europe, each having an average of 23 variants. From the Abstract:

We find that geographical distance and ethnolinguistic affiliation exert significant independent effects on folktale diversity and that variation between populations supports a clustering concordant with European geography. This pattern of geographical clines and clusters parallels the pattern of human genetic diversity in Europe, although the effects of geographical distance and ethnolinguistic boundaries are stronger for folktales than genes.

Included in the paper is a NeighbourNet, pictured below, in which the closer the populations, the more similar their folktales tend to be; “box-like structures show the reticulate nature of folktale similarity, indicating extensive horizontal transmission (as opposed to vertical transmission down cultural lineages).”

[click to enlarge]

NeighbourNet of European folktale populations

Nature News, reporting on the study, played up the sex angle (as though comparative folklore were not sufficiently enticing), its subheading saying that “people would sooner have sex with strangers than tell their fables”, and so on. But it’s a useful article if you don’t want to read the full paper.

Some of Joseph Jacobs’ books, incidentally, including the two I mentioned, are available online at SurLaLune and Project Gutenberg.


* Robert M. Ross, Dept. of Cognitive Science, Macquarie University, Sydney; Simon J. Greenhill, School of Culture, History and Language, Australian National University, Canberra; and Quentin D. Atkinson, Department of Psychology, University of Auckland, New Zealand.

9 Responses to Folktale diffusion and ethnolinguistic variation

  1. Jacob says:

    Check out this book for more on recurring elements in folktales from across the world.

  2. Shaun Downey says:

    Interesting stuff.Thanks Stan

  3. Stan says:

    Jacob: Thank you. I’ve come across Propp’s work but have not studied it in any detail. On Twitter a few months ago I shared another system, the Aarne–Thompson tale type index, but Propp appears to have found significant fault with this one.

    Shaun: A pleasure. I thought it was a nice coincidence given what I’m reading.

  4. wisewebwoman says:

    I’m writing a draft of a talk I’m to have on story-telling so this is an informative post, Stan. Thanks.

  5. […] Michael Rundell picked on adverbs and Stan Carey praised serendipity. On his own blog, Stan traced the diffusion and variety of folk tales. John McIntyre considered the relationship between writer and editor and the persistence of grammar […]

  6. […] * Joseph Jacobs featured in an earlier post on folktale diffusion and ethnolinguistic variation. […]

  7. Julien says:

    There are many practical problems in the paper: see this comment cowritting with Jean-Loïc Le Quellec:

  8. Stan says:

    Julien: So there are. Thank you for this link.

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