A new study suggests that some fairy tales may be as old as mankind since well-known stories including Beauty and the Beast and Little Red Riding Hood have been passed on from one generation to another for thousands of years.
The new research dispels the common misconception that some popular folk tales such as Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin are modern-day inventions. Researchers at Durham University in England and New University of Lisbon in Portugal found that some stories may be ‘as old as time.’
The team based their conclusions on statistical links made between the wording in fairy tales and language of ancient populations in Asia and Europe. Study authors also found what seems to be the oldest fairy tale there is: The Smith and the Devil, which could have its origins 6,000 years ago.
Jamie Tehrani, co-author of the study, said that some stories could be much older than their literary evidence. An example of literary evidence is the work of Grimm brothers who didn’t invent the stories, but they picked them from people who passed them on to their kids verbally and gave those stories a written form.
For her work, Tehrani teamed up with Sara Graça da Silva, a Portuguese linguist. The team handpicked 275 fairy tales of a larger sample of 2,000 stories. They chose these stories because of the common magical elements in them such as supernatural powers and mythical creatures.
Researchers used statistics to spot significant links between these stories and language used by groups of people across the world. In the end, scientists found that only 76 tales could provide meaningful hints on their age.
Study authors made use of family trees of languages to trace the stories back to times when they had no physical evidence. They also analyzed the history of languages in areas across Europe and Asia to find more links.
Therani noted that the findings pointed out that we inherit much of our culture rather than invent it with each new generation. The researchers likened the process to the inheritance of genetic information from older generations.
Of the 76 scrutinized fairy tales, four stories were the most likely to be as old as the Proto-Indo-European language, a 6,000-year-old language from which many modern-day languages stem. Nevertheless, only one folktale met all the statistical criteria to be deemed as old as time – The Smith and the Devil.
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