x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A common origin of languages

An age-old story about a blacksmith’s deal with the Devil suggests that the main family of communication systems dates back to the Bronze Age.

An illustration of St Dunstan, the patron saint of goldsmiths, seizing the Devil by the nose with red-hot pincers when the latter interrupts him as he makes a golden chalice. Ann Ronan Pictures / Getty Images
An illustration of St Dunstan, the patron saint of goldsmiths, seizing the Devil by the nose with red-hot pincers when the latter interrupts him as he makes a golden chalice. Ann Ronan Pictures / Getty Images

Once upon a time, in a land far away, an ancient storyteller spun a fairy tale that would for thousands of years captivate those who heard it.

It is a simple yarn, the story of how a blacksmith strikes a bargain with the Devil, trading his soul for the ability to meld any two materials together.

Over the years, the details of the tale have evolved – more modern versions include the legends of the 19th-century Italian violinist Niccolo Paganini and the 20th-century US blues guitarist Robert Johnson, both of whom were reputed to have struck deals with Satan in exchange for their virtuosity.

But woven into the basic DNA of the story was evidence that has at last been decoded, perhaps finally resolving one of the last great linguistic disputes – exactly when and where the world’s main family of languages originated.

The evidence, revealed last week in a paper published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, was unearthed by Jamshid Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University in Britain.

The son of an Iranian father and a British mother, Dr Tehrani grew up in Dubai, and it was there that he became intrigued by a Middle Eastern folktale about a wolf that disguises itself as a nanny goat so that it can eat her kids.

Could that story, he wondered, be the origin of the European fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood?

It was the beginning of a fascination that led to a career as an anthropologist and an exhaustive investigation of folk tales that has now yielded some startling conclusions.

“I was interested in how it was that this tale had spread across the world and what the relationships were between the different variants,” Dr Tehrani says.

In a breakthrough paper published in 2013 in the journal PLOS One, he identified the origins of Little Red Riding Hood as somewhere between Europe and the Middle East, rather than in East Asia, which until then was the prevailing theory.

Interesting enough, but the true value of the discovery, Dr Tehrani reported, was that it showed that “phylogenetic methods”, normally used by evolutionary biologists, “provide a powerful set of tools for testing hypotheses about cross-cultural relationships among folktales, and point towards exciting new directions for research into the transmission and evolution of oral narratives”.

Now, Dr Tehrani and his co-author, from the New University of Lisbon, have gone much farther, applying the same sophisticated analysis to an entire body of fairy tales. What they found was that, far from originating in the 16th or 17th centuries, as previously thought, many fairy tales date back thousands of years.

Beauty and the Beast, for example, is about 4,000 years old, and the origins of Jack and the Beanstalk can be traced back 5,000 years.

But the most extraordinary conclusion is that the story of The Smith and the Devil dates back 6,000 years to the Bronze Age and the birth of the vast Indo-European language group, which today dominates the world.

“I was inspired by a theory that was put forward by Wilhelm Grimm, who was one half of the Brothers Grimm,” Dr Tehrani says. In the 19th century, the German academics Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected and committed to paper such popular, orally transmitted folk tales as Cinderella and Snow White.

“They speculated that the similarities we find between stories in western and eastern Europe and parts of Asia, such as India and Iran, might all be traced back to an original source population from which these populations had also inherited their languages,” Dr Tehrani says.

At about the same time, linguists were discovering relationships between many languages. They theorized that there was an original Indo-European form from whose roots had sprung various branches, including the Romance, Slavic and Germanic languages, and those of India and Persia.

“Grimm suggested that maybe the same thing was going on with folk tales, that they could all be traced back to an original proto-corpus of folk tales, and that they’d been inherited by these related populations from their common ancestor,” Dr Tehrani says.

Although the Grimms lacked the techniques to prove the theory, “we set out to test it using evolutionary biological methods which were developed to deal with exactly that kind of problem, but not looking at folk tales but biological species”.

There are about 440 living Indo-European languages, each of which can be traced back thousands of years to a common ancestor, the so-called Proto-Indo-European language (or PIE).

Today, these closely related languages are spoken by almost three billion people, more than twice as many as the second most common group, the Sino-Tibetan languages.

The more than 360 Afro-Asiatic languages, of which Arabic is one, are spoken by an estimated 380 million people.

The countries where Indo-European languages are spoken as the original language cover a 9,000-kilometre area of the Earth – from Iceland in the north-west to Iran and northern India in the south-east.

At first glance, in a linguistic potpourri composed of such seemingly diverse tongues as German, Kashmiri, Nepali, Greek, English, Gujarati, Gaelic, Pashto, Italian, Kurdish, Russian, Spanish and Persian, the relationships are not obvious.

Linguists, however, have noted family likeness ever since Europeans first started visiting India in the 16th century, and spotted similarities between words spoken there and at home. The English word “mother”, for example, is echoed in many languages, including Sanskrit, Iranian Avestan, Lithuanian and Celtic.

But when and where did PIE, from which they are all descended, originate? For decades, there have been two rival theories.

The Kurgan Hypothesis, developed in the 1950s, holds that PIE emerged 6,000 years ago among the cattle herders of the Pontic-Caspian steppe, which stretches from north of the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.

The rival Anatolian Hypothesis, first proposed in the 1980s, says PIE came out of the Middle East, where it was spoken first among the Neolithic farming communities of Anatolia, in modern-day Turkey, about 8,000 years ago.

Early last year, genetic analysis of the DNA from the remains of 69 ancient Europeans was used to examine ancient migration patterns and came down in favour of the steppe hypothesis.

Now, Dr Tehrani’s fascinating and exhaustive analysis of fairy tales appears to have put the matter beyond doubt.

“We are fortunate in that there are already some beautiful trees of Indo-European languages available which characterise the relationships among those languages, how closely they are related to each other and so on,” Dr Tehrani says.

The next tool was the Aarne Thompson Uther Index, a catalogue of more than 2,000 international “tale types” collected since the early 20th century from more than 200 societies around the world.

The researchers looked at the category “Tales of magic”, the largest and most widely shared group of stories, which includes many of the classic fairy tales, including Beauty and the Beast and The Smith and the Devil.

“We looked at whether the sharing of folktales across populations in Eurasia was predicted by how closely related their languages are, or whether it was predicted simply by how close in space populations are to one another, whether they are geographic neighbours,” says Dr Tehrani.

The researchers found that of the 275 shared tales originally selected, there was a core group of 76 that were “better explained by the relationships among languages than by geographic relationships, which suggests that they are part of common inheritance rather than the products of trade and exchanges with neighbouring groups”. Of these, 50 were found to have been present in the last common ancestor of one or more major Indo-European language subfamilies, and 19 could be traced back to “even earlier ancestral populations”.

But only one story, The Smith and the Devil, classified as ATU 330 in the Aarne Thompson Uther Index, could be traced back all the way to the source language – Proto-Indo European.

And the theme of the story, Dr Tehrani says, “has interesting implications for our understanding of where the Indo-European language family comes from”.

“The fact that this population had a story that was about a smith and metallurgy means it’s not very plausible that the language originated in Neolithic times, because that would have been before the invention of metallurgy,” he says.

On the other hand, “metallurgy was the foundation of Bronze Age civilisation”.

Fairy tales, Dr Tehrani says, are a useful tool for cultural archaeologists because they are “reflections of the societies and the concerns of their tellers and give us insight into human fears and fantasies”. He adds: “Many contain clear moral lessons, some of which have clearly stood the test of time, and get transmitted across generations and have remained of enduring relevance despite all the massive changes that have happened in society and culture.”

And we are regenerating fairy tales today, Dr Tehrani says, that will echo far into the future, bearing the hallmarks of our own technological progress and the imprint of our fears and concerns. Look no further than the latest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens.

“[Star Wars] is just a fairy tale. One of the criticisms of the new film is that it is recycling all the original material from the 70s and 80s. But that’s the point, that’s what fairy tales do. You take familiar motifs, invert them and recombine them and then you’ve got yourself a new story, but one that echoes the stories we’ve heard before,” Dr Tehrani says. “That’s what all fairy tales do and Star Wars is a perfect example.”