Telling tales

Earlier this week I went to a Christmas show entitled Beasts and Beauties in Kendal. It wasn’t a traditional Christmas pantomime, though did include some pantomimesque elements, but rather a series of eight fairy/folk tales from around Europe, including:

The Emperor’s New Clothes or Kejserens nye Klæder by Hans Christian Andersen (Danish)
Bluebeard or La Barbe bleue by Charles Perrault (French)
The Juniper Tree or Von dem Machandelboom a story collected by the Brothers Grimm in Low German
The Girl and the North Wind (Norwegian). This one was originally The Lad who went to the North Wind or Gutten som gikk til nordavinden

It was all in English in various accents with occasional words in the other languages, and was well put together and acted.

It’s interesting to see the original texts of these tales and to discover the ways they start, which tend to be formulaic – the equivalents of the English ‘Once upon a time’. For example stories might start with ‘For mange Aar siden …’ in Danish, ‘Il était une fois …’ in French, ‘Dat is nu all lang heer …‘ in Low German, ‘Det var engang …‘ in Norwegian,

Such stories are usually referred to as fairy tales/stories or folk tales/stories. The word tale comes from the Old English talu (story, tale), from the Old Germanic *talō, from the Proto-Indo-European root *del- (to recount, count), which is also the root of talk, tell, tall and teller, which arrived via Old Norse, as well as the Dutch word taal (speech), the German word zahl (number) and the Danish tale (speech) [source].

9 thoughts on “Telling tales

  1. Even in Japanese, it appears to be common to start folktales the same way: “Mukashi-mukashi…” (Literally, “A long, long time ago…” but usually translated as “Once upon a time…”)

  2. Yes Petréa, Japanese stories begin with “ima wa mukashi (desu)”, 今は昔, “now it’s a past thing”. This is the title of a book by Akutagawa comprising Rashômon. Mukashi-mukashi the Europeans were optimistic about their future …

  3. Simon, a chara,

    I’m a little surprised that, as a new speaker of Welsh, you didn’t mention “Un tro” for “Once upon a time”

    Also there’s the striking co-incidence of Japanese 昔々(mukashi mukashi) and Irish “Fadó fadó” (both meaning “long ago, long ago”) as formulaic introductions to fairy tales.

    I wonder if there are also standard formulations in other languages corresponding to the English “…and they all lived happily ever afterwards”.

  4. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of formulaic fairytale stock introductory phrases in various languages eg.
    Polish – Dawno, dawno temu… ‘long, long time ago’ …i żyli długo i szczęśliwie. ‘and they lived long and happily’.
    French – Il était une fois… …ils vécurent heureux et eurent beaucoup d’enfants. ‘and they lived happily and had many children’.
    Irish – Fadó, fadó, fadó a bhí ann… ‘A long, long, long time ago it was…’

    I think we’d all recognise the Scots version of ‘once upon a time’ especially at this time of year – ‘In days of auld lang syne’.
    The Welsh version is Amser maith yn ôl (mewn gwlad bell, bell i ffwrdd.) – ‘Once upon a time (in a land far, far away)’ but of course there are variations.

  5. Older etymology dictionaries make the assumption that ‘talk’ isn’t derived from a Germanic word, isn’t related to either ‘tell’ and ‘tale’ and is in fact a word of Lithuanian origin which has come into English via Scandinavian?
    The dictionary links ‘talk’ with Middle English ‘talken’, Swedish ‘tolka’, Danish ‘tolke’ and Icelandic ‘túlka’ meaning to interpret, explain, plead. With Swedish/Danish/MH German ‘tolk’, Icelandic ‘túlkr’ meaning an ‘interpreter’, ‘speaker’. Lithuanian ‘tulkas’ (interpreter) from ‘tulkoti’ to interpret with ‘per tulkas kalbeti’ to preach by means of an interpreter.
    Therefore ‘talk’ is claimed to be the only word in English of Lithuanian origin due to some intercourse between the Scandinavians and Lithuanians probably of a religious nature.
    Modern etymology dictionaries now don’t mention this older etymological claim for the source of the word ‘talk’ so it’s probably been disclaimed and rectified.

  6. German fairy tales begin with “Es war einmal…” (“Once there was…”) and end in “…und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie noch heute.” (“…and if they haven’t died, they are still alive today.”)

  7. Occitan uses an introductory phrase fairly similar in meaning to the French one: “Un còp èra…” (once there was) and tends to end stories in general with “E tric e trac (/cric e crac), mon conte es acabat !” (and crick and crack, my tale is finished!).

  8. In Tamil, the formulaic opening phrase (predominantly used when recounting children’s bedtime stories) is: ‘ஒரே ஒரு ஊரிலே’ (orE oru UrilE) literally meaning, ‘In just one particular locality/country/town…’. I’m not sure if there are any stock endings, though. Would be interesting to find out.

  9. In Spanish, the stock beginning is “Érase una vez”, which means pretty much the same as the French “Il était une fois”.

    I saw a Spanish book once that played on the traditional opening by starting with “Érase dos veces” (which may also have been the book’s title; it was a long time ago and I don’t really recall now), but I didn’t get a chance to read the rest of the book to see how this played into the story.

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