Little Red Ridinghood & Evolutionary Biology

rotThrough a note in the current issue of The Smithsonian, I was alerted to an article I missed when published last fall in the open access journal Plos One. “The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood” by Jamshid Tehrani examines the origins of the well-known story, likely most familiar from the Grimm Brothers version, “Rotkäppchen”, first published in 1812 in their Kinder- und Hausmärchen. Folklore scholars have long been interested in tracing the origins of folk tales, their evolution over time, and their geographical distribution. Traditionally, this has been done through a historical-geographic methodology, best represented by the Aarne-Uther-Thompson (ATU) index, which identifies more than two thousand international types distributed across three hundred cultures worldwide. Tehrani’s approach is quite different, borrowing techniques and tools from evolutionary biology. The article details his use of phylogenetic analysis, using cladistics, Bayesian inference and NeighborNet. These methods employ a branching model of evolution that clusters characteristics on the basis of shared derived (i.e., evolutionarily novel) traits. The NeighborNet tree is shown below.


Tehrani analyzed 58 written versions of the story taken from a variety of countries over 2000 years, comparing 72 different plot points and resulting in a family tree showing the most likely relationships. One of the main findings is that, contrary to some theories, the story most likely did not originate in China (it’s not at the base of the tree), despite similar versions of the story recorded there. Unfortunately, he was able to use only tales that had been translated into English.

The sophisticated data analysis used here is not surprising when dealing with scientific topics, but may seem unusual when applied to fairy tales. However, such techniques have been used recently in other areas, including languages and manuscript traditions. In linguistics, the best-known case may be its use in mapping the origins and spread of Indo-European. Tehranie wrote about his research in The Atlantic, explaining in layman’s terms his approach. He concludes by expanding the value of his work beyond insights into origins and varieties of folk tales:

Folktales, more than any other type of story, embody our shared fantasies, fears and experiences. Understanding which elements of them remain stable and which ones change as they get transmitted across generations and societies can therefore provide a unique window into universal and variable aspects of the human condition. As such, they represent a potentially rich point of contact between anthropologists, folklorists, literary scholars, biologists and cognitive scientists.

The Other Language

Francesca Marciano, the author of the collection "The Other Language." Credit

Francesca Marciano, the author of ‘The Other Language’

Interesting piece this week-end in the NY Times about authors writing in adopted languages, such as Francesca Marciano, the author of a collection of short stories, he Other Language. It’s hard enough to be a writer in your native tongue, but imagine writing publishable stories in a second language. Creative writing is quite different from conveying information – that’s something that can be done, even if grammar is faulty and word choice seems strange. To write well necessitates having a “feel” for the language, including the use of idiomatic expressions and of valid collocations – those chunks of languages that go together. Native speakers have internalized this kind of pragmatic language use through extensive exposure to the language over time. It’s much harder for non-native speakers to capture believably the tone and nuance of a language, including hitting the right registers – for example, what level of informality or slang to use. It’s notoriously difficult, for instance, to use profanity correctly in a foreign language. The popular view of language learning is that it involves learning new words and new rules, but anyone who has tried to function in another language/culture has experienced the reality that such knowledge is necessary but insufficient. Speaking rather than writing provides some help in the form of non-verbals – facial expressions, tone, etc. – but in writing it’s just you and the blank page.

There are famous examples of writers of English who have not grown up speaking the language, Joseph Conrad or Vladimir Nabokov (although he learned English and other languages at a young age). What’s remarkable about those two writers, is the fact that they are know as great stylists, writing in a learned language. In fact, non-native speakers (like non-native language teachers) have a critical perspective on the language that may offer new insights. The Times article quotes Chinese writer Yiyun Li, who has just published her third novel in English: “If you are a native speaker, things are automatic…For me, every time I say or write something, I have to go back and ask, ‘Is this what I want to say?’ ”. Non-native writers may feel freer to play and experiment with the new language, more so than when writing in their native language.