Statistical analysis of language evolution helps estimate storytelling dates
ONCE UPON A TIME Some folktales such as “Rumpelstiltskin” (left) and “Beauty and the Beast” (right) may have been told in some form for thousands of years, statistical analysis shows.
“Beauty and the Beast” is practically “a tale as old as time.” So are a few other folktales, new research shows.
Statistical ties between a set of folktales and languages from parts of Europe and Asia have helped researchers date the origins of some stories to thousands of years ago. The roots of the oldest one — a folktale called “The Smith and the Devil” — stretch back to the Bronze Age. The findings, reported January 20 in Royal Society Open Science, may dispel the thought that some well-known folktales such as “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Beauty and the Beast” are recent inventions.
“These stories are far older than the first literary evidence for them,” says coauthor Jamie Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University in England.
When linguists study a language’s evolution, they trace grammatical and phonetical structure through time. “What we were interested in doing is seeing if you could do that for other elements of culture,” Tehrani says.
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