This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Nuts and Bolts: The age of fairy tales

How old are stories? As old as speech, perhaps:

There was once a boy who wouldn't keep quiet when his family were hunting and in the end they had to leave him behind and he got eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger.

No, actually, they're even older than that: what's a puppy's game of chase-the-tail but the story of a hunt?

Two academics have made a claim that some fairy stories can be traced back thousands of years. Jamie Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University, and Sara Graça da Silva, of the New University of Lisbon, have used statistical analysis (I don't understand how it worked, but they've done it in rather the same way that a linguist traces the origins of a word) to trace back the origins of stories involving magic. 

Apparently they studied the relationship between folktales and language, as well as the relationships between one folktale and another, and also the way in which folktales may have been transmitted to neighbouring peoples (by some common language, presumably. Or puppet shows?). They looked at the way many European and Asian languages seem to have developed from a common ancestor-language, too.

The story that seemed from the study to be the oldest was 'The Smith and the Devil'. That, the authors of the study tell us, dates back 6,000 years to a Proto-Indo-European language.

But, but, but...

I write and read a lot of children's stories. I live in a house stuffed with thousands of books, and through my computer I have access to more or less every folktale even written.

But, as it happens, I don't know the story of The Smith and The Devil.

Perhaps The Smith and the Devil has come down to us over hundreds of generations - but, you know, it would have been ever so easy just to make something up. We make up stories all the time.

Here's my attempt at a story called The Smith and The Devil. It might be completely different from the ancient one. We'll see.

One day the devil came across a man who was very angry because the wheel of his cart had broken.

If I give you the power to make your wheels strong, will you give me your soul? asked the devil.

The man agreed, and so the devil conjured up a fine forge complete with a large heap of ore, and showed the man how to use it.

But the first thing the man made was a nail, and he nailed the devil to the wall of the hut and went on his way, leaving the devil screaming after him.


Okay, I've looked it up, now, and HERE is the real thing.

Well, there was only one obvious story about The Smith and the Devil, wasn't there?

My feeling is that people that hasn't changed over the last 6000 years, and that's why our stories seem to have tumbled down through the centuries to us.

But of course I can't prove it.

Word To Use Today: smith. This word is Old English and is related to the Greek smilē, carving knife.

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