Darwin-L Message Log 1:117 (September 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

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<1:117>From WILLS@macc.wisc.edu  Mon Sep 13 22:50:51 1993

Date: Mon, 13 Sep 93 22:51 CDT
From: Jeffrey Wills <WILLS@macc.wisc.edu>
Subject: folktales and texts
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

Self-introduction: I am a classicist and historical linguist (Indo-Europeanist)
with a general interest in the formalization of the history of language and
language-bearing artifacts.

	The interconnections between biological and linguistic history are well
known, but it is wonderful to see textual history receiving more attention. In
addition to stemmatics (manuscript history), Peter has included the history of
writs, and I would like to mention folktales/folkloric narratives.  To
non-specialists the names of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm are less associated with
Grimm's Law than with Grimm's Fairy Tales. The 19th century burst of work in
reconstructing Indo-European linguistics was accompanied by parallel (but less
formalized) work in Indo-European story and myth. The age of Victorian
collectors led to the age of Scandinavian taxonomists (shades of Linnaeus?) and
the Aarne-Thompson Motif-Index we have today. Historical linguistics has been
out of fashion for over a generation due to the Chomskian revolution, but
efforts at reconstructing folktale "histories" became suspect much earlier (not
without reason, considering previous work), but I think the questions are still
valid, even the methods are difficult.

	For the purposes of this list, I am struck by some work of C.W. von
Sydow (from his *Selected Papers on Folklore*).  He has a 1932 paper "Om
traditionsspridning" (="On the Spread of Tradition") following up on the
earlier debate between migration and inheritance theories in which he says
"scholars have failed to study the biology of tradition" and discusses "active"
and "passive" bearers. The title of his 1934 "Geography and Folk-Tale
Oicotypes" explicitly uses a botanical term. As he explains:

	"In the science of botany *oicotype* is a term used to denote a
hereditary plant-variety adapted to a certain milieu . . . through natural
selection amongst hereditary dissimilar entities of the same species. When then
in the field of traditions a widely spread tradition, such as a tale or a
legend [i.e. a sagn], forms special types through isolation inside and
suitability for certain culture districts, the term oicotype can also be used
in the science of ethnology and folklore."

In another passages he discusses the introduction of new elements into the
sequence of a folktale in a way which might remind some of hybrids and genetic
codes (the history of "sequences" themselves in folklore theory is a separate

	"If we let K signify what is common to both oicotypes, then they have
become separate from one another by the Slav adding the motives a, b, c, while
the Indo-Iranian has instead added the motives p,q,r. The old Egyptian version
has K+abc+pqr+xyz. In the whole of its composition the old Egyptian variant is
unlike anything that we know of Egyptian folktale production, and is typically
Indo-European . . . . Both oicotypes must have developed before 1300 B.C. Two
traditors, one from each direction, met and told one another the tale. One
introduced the other oicotype's peculiar features into his own version, and in
this enlarged form told the tale to an Egyptian scribe, who wrote it down with
his own additions."  --as you can see, he pictures this transmission as related
to manuscript transmission.

Before one can engage in a proper study of folktales, though, von Sydow wants a
better taxonomy (fuller than Aarne-Thomson that is).  In the 1937 "Popular
Prose Traditions and Their Classification" we read:

	"My demand for a natural scientific system is therefore not a negatively
critical demand, but concerns a purely positive study of tales. We must first
of all decide what tales are closely related and then place them in natural
groups, greater and smaller. It is these groups which ought to be studied, and
it is necessary to discover the laws which govern the different groups, their
origin and development, their use and distribution. . . . Just as a zoologist
cannot without reservation apply the scientific results obtained at from the
study of bats to elephants or whales, so the student of tradition . . .etc."
And he goes on to discuss the categorization of animal tales as his prime

	Jeffrey Wills
	Dept. of Classics, Univ. of Wisconsin

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