In the question How to search for patterns/motifs in folklore or mythology, I introduced the concept of motifs/tale-types, which are essentially the folkloristic equivalent of tropes (an example of a motif/tale-type is "man steals fire from gods").

I have a followup question. As folklore/stories are transmitted through time and space (e.g. one community shares a story with another community), I think it's safe to assume that some changes will take place. For example, if a community that believes in dragons shares a story with another community that doesn't believe in dragons, it's possible that the last community might alter the story to replace a dragon with a gigantic squid. The point I'm trying to make is that the unit of motifs/tale-types seems flawed, because the unit of a motif only works if folklore remains constant as it transmits from culture to culture.

Is there a concept that would allow a folklorist to capture how folklore/stories change from place to place (and from time to time)?

  • This is actually a very specific question. Unfortunately, there is not a word that specifically captures what you are describing: the loss of a motif/trope in an oral tradition from one culture to another. There are some broad terms for how stories change from culture to culture and they are very simple. Cross-culture. Cultural exchange. Oral Adaptation/Adoptions. You have come across something talked about A LOT but not really mastered with a coin of phrase. Maybe you should coin it.
    – Sky
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 4:15

2 Answers 2


When I studied Oriental philology, we covered some topics that might fit this question:

  1. In many cases, it's not the (un)belief in aspects of the myth (such as dragons in your example) between cultures and languages, but the fact that these words mean something completely different in the myth receiving language. A good example would be the taboo on the Chinese pronunciation of the number 4 in Japanese: all numbers (as do most words) in Japanese have a Sino-Japanese word as well as a native word for them. For the number 4 the Sino-Japanese word is "shi" which is very similar to the native word for "death". Hence it is almost never used. This phenomenon is part of the domain of Sociolinguistics.

  2. What you describe as "very simple" oral adaptations & adoptions actually has several study domains within linguistics that you are perhaps unaware of:


The term I have usually seen used, in the context of fairy tales, is "contamination."

For instance, a folklorist might say (and some have said) that the Grimms' version of Little Red Riding Hood was contaminated by The Wolf and The Seven Young Kids, in that the ending was changed to save the heroine, in comparison with Perrault's version, where she dies.

This term reflects a nineteenth-century view of fairy tales surviving in pure form from prehistoric eras, which was ill-founded, but the term has outlasted the belief.

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