Fairytale Phylogeny

There’s been a lot of excitement/discussion over recent work on the phylogenetic of fairytales. Most folklorists will be excited, I think, to learn how much it relies upon older forms of folklore scholarship. In particular, some of the original work done by Jamie Tehrani used a version of motifs. I have compiled a chronology of the relevant discussion below. It includes some of the coverage given both to the initial PLoS ONE publication as well as to the later collaboration with Sara Graça da Silva published in the Royal Society Open Science series in the press. (A fuller version of this chronology to include not only important antecedent scholarship but also annotations is forthcoming.)


November 13: Jamshid Tehrani’s “The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood” appears on PLoS ONE.

November 14: Science reports on “The Evolution of Little Red Riding Hood”.

December 4: Patrice Lajoye, Julien d’Huy, and Jean-Loic Le Quellec commented on Tehrani in New Comparative Mythology.

December 11: Jamshid Tehrani responds in New Comparative Mythology.

2014 and 2015 are quiet. (At least so far as I know. I will look into this further when I get a chance.)


January 20: da Silve and Tehrani’s “Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales” appears in the Royal Society’s Open Science. The Atlantic covers the story on the same day in “The Fairy Tales That Predate Christianity” as does the BBC. (How did this happen?)

January 21: a robust conversation begins over on LanguageHat.

January 22: William Pooley documents some of the difficulties glossed over by da Silva and Tehrani that leads, he argues, prematurely to their conclusion that tales are more related by history than by geography in “Fairytale Genetics.”

January 25: The LanguageLog offers its own analysis of the problems with da Silva and Tehrani’s assumptions.

UPDATE: For those coming here from the recent 2017 Facebook group post: please note that a follow-up to this article never got posted because I began working through the methods that lie behind Tehrani’s work and got sidetracked in trying to figure out which parts I liked and which ones I was less comfortable with. That noted, Tehrani himself was very kind and generous in correspondence, and I own him a follow-up. As I also owe a follow-up to d’Huy who very kindly sent me a bibliography and other links. This is a robust sub-field!


While reviewing work I have done, I came across this short essay that I wrote for the editors of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture some years ago, and which I had submitted in good faith and assumed had been published. (I received a thank you letter and notification of the particular volume’s publication.) But I never saw the published entry, and so I decided to track it down, if only to ascertain the page numbers. To my surprise, there was another entry on gumbo where mine was supposed to have been. (And one that re-capitulates the usual food writer truisms. *Sigh.) Since I have to delete that line on my vita, I thought some good should come of the work I did so long ago. Here, then, is my version of gumbo…

When most people think of gumbo, they associate it with the Cajun and Creole peoples of south Louisiana. While the dish is most often associated with Louisiana, neither the name nor the idea for this dish itself is unique to the area. The word comes to the New World from West Africa, where the plant was known as (ki)ngombo along much of the coast, except in those areas where it was called nkruma from which the American word “okra” comes. Because of this African connection, there are also gumbos to be found in the Carolinas and in Puerto Rico.xGumbo has come to stand for Louisiana in part because it reflects and refracts so well the historical complexities out of which the dish emanates: Louisiana’s colonial period saw the immediate introduction of enslaved Africans who brought not only seeds for plants with them but ideas about what and how to prepare food. These French and African settlers were, of course, pressing outward onto a landscape already occupied by Native Americans, who called the ground sassafras they used kombo — now known as filé. Some of these native groups also had a tradition of parching ground corn. The brown meal would be carried in a pouch and then mixed with water as a subsistence food when out on long trips. Into this colonial mix of peoples and ideas came two great surges: the Acadians and the Haitians. The impact of the latter group on the culture in general and the foodways in particular of New Orleans is not to be underestimated: whites, slaves, and freed people of color doubled the population of the city overnight.

The first mentions of gumbo in the historical record appear right as the colonial period ends and the American one begins, which underlines the fact that the exact origins of Louisiana gumbo may be irretrievable. It’s form, however, appears to have been established early: a thick, brown soup served over a cereal. Since the late nineteenth century and its development as a commercial crop, rice has been at the bottom of gumbo bowls. Before that, Louisiana cleft more closely to the rest of the south and the starch that gumbo covered was corn meal mush, known at first by the Native American term for it sagamité and later by the African-influenced couche couche, This tradition is maintained in some parts of Louisiana with potato salad sometimes being scooped into a gumbo bowl to “soak up the rest of the gravy.”

The brownness of gumbo is really its essence, but how that brown is achieved varies by region and by dish. In some areas, cooks get the browning from the meat; in others from the roux. The color, consistency, and amount of roux is wildly variable, as is its place in the cooking process: some cooks begin making gumbo with making the roux, then adding seasoning vegetables, and then water. Others already have a roux made, often a large bowl of it sitting in the refrigerator, and add the roux to boiling water, dissolving it spoonful by spoonful.
Even this brief discussion of one aspect of gumbo reveals the extreme variability and flexibility of the dish. It is, like any cultural touchstone, as much a focus for arguments as it is for agreement, with differences often being distinct across regions, towns, and even families. These differences are, in point of fact, more consistent than any of the more sweeping claims sometimes made between Cajun and Creole versions of the dish. It is more likely that Cajun and Creole neighbors in Lawtell, Louisiana will make gumbo in the same way than the Creoles of Lawtell and those of New Orleans. As is the case with any number of folklore forms, gumbo reveals that there has always been a high degree of cultural integration in the south, even when social segregation was the law of the land.

Markdown Woes

I tried switching from the deprecated, but still loved and trusted, Markdown Extra plug-in by Michel Fortin to the Markdown plug-in built into WordPress’ Jetpack, but I got un-transformed text. I tried activating and de-activating all the Jetpack options. I tried de-activating and activating Jetpack itself. No love, no luck. Has anyone else found a solution to the problem of having the Jetpack Markdown module recognize extant posts as being in Markdown format?

Simpler URLs

Occasionally I think about simplifying the URLs for jl.o because I find that the date as an 8-number preface is cumbersome, but I worry about losing readers and links that have come to depend on a number of posts. It turns out there is WordPress plug-in that can manage this process, as [Tom Ewer notes on WPExplorer][]: “To easily create the redirects on your WordPress website I recommend the [Simple 301 Redirects][] plugin.”

Ewer also offers the following bit of advice for after you have made the change: “You may still have the odd broken link 404 error, so it may be worth thinking about creating a custom 404 page with information about the permalink change. That topic is for a whole other post though.”

[Tom Ewer notes on WPExplorer]: http://www.wpexplorer.com/change-permalinks-wordpress/
[Simple 301 Redirects]: http://wordpress.org/plugins/simple-301-redirects/

Daddy-Daughter Beatbox Competition

A colleague of mine passed this on:

Father challenges his daughter to beatbox competition. What a talent!!!!!

Posted by DJ Aligator on Tuesday, July 21, 2015