Researchers have found evidence that folktales like Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin are a lot older than previously believed. In fact, some of our oldest folktales may be thousands of years old, dating all the way back to the Bronze Age (approximately 5,000-2,500 years ago). But how do researchers know how old a folktale is when they don’t have a written copy that dates back to when the story was first told? They look at the evolution of language through changes in grammar and phonetical structure (how a word is pronounced), and this allows them to estimate when a folktale emerged.
A team of scientists analyzed 275 folktales that included magic or magical beings, and chose 76 that they thought could be dated through their use of language. According to the team, 4 of the tales had elements of an ancient language called Proto-Indo-European, a language that dates back to the beginning of the Bronze Age and possibly as much as 6,000 years ago. Whether these tales are this old is not certain; however, at least one of them — the folktale The Smith and the Devil (a story about a metal worker who makes a deal with evil for special skills) — can be confidently dated all the way back to the Bronze Age. Stories we are more familiar with, like Beauty and the Beast, use slightly more modern language, and were estimated to be between 3,000-4,000 years old.
Looking at language allows researchers to learn more about how our culture evolved than would be possible with just physical artifacts. So next time you sit down to watch Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, think about how many times that story has been told and passed down from generation to generation before you get to hear it (or watch it) now.
Jan 20, 2016