Towards a cognitive morphology of the folktale

Propp and other formalists had many things figured out quite right. Then the structuralists came and elevated emergent properties to the level of meaning creation. This post is an analogy in the sense that it compares the idea of the 'morphology of the folktale' but takes the source domain from cognitive morphology rather than traditional semi-structuralist morphology.

At the centre of this concept is the idea of morphology or any form being entirely subjugated to the needs of creating meaning. (Now, this subjugation is only partial because any formal element of language can itself be hypostasized and become part of meaning. And this has been confusing formal linguists for decades now - see my forthcoming analogy on linguistic structures as spandrels). Traditionally, morphology has been seen as separate (almost modular) from the concerns of meaning as it is normally conceived (i.e. something associate with autosemantic rather than synsemantic elements). On this view, morphemes are only interesting in as much as they help differentiate the meanings of lexemes in certain contexts. Cognitive linguistics and construction grammar (Lakoff, Langacker, Croft and others) have largely dispensed with the autosemantic/synsemantic distinction. Language is mostly a structured (in a non-structuralist sense) collection of constructions that are integrated to create meaning. Both lexemes, morphemes, phonemes and syntactic structures all have what can be called 'constructional meaning'. For most morphemes, this meaning is schematic while lexemes usually possess more richly imagistic content. The distinction, however, is one of scale. :"(This doesn't necessarily mean that a purely formal description of a language's morphology is always inappropriate. However, such a description will only be partial and discounts a lof of the real complexities behind meaning creation.)": At any rate, the importance of meaning is paramount (and it bears reminding ourselves that the formal properties of an element can also form a part of its meaning).

Now, what would the fold tale look like with this "new morphology"? :"(I put "new morphology" in quotation marks to indicate, that while new in many respects, this semantic or cognitive view of morphology has been present in linguistics for a long time.)": Propp has this to say on how the tale can be described:

“[F]ive categories of elements define not only the construction of a tale, but the tale as a whole.â€?:

  1. Functions of dramatis personae (e.g. villain, donor, hero, princess, false hero, etc.)
  2. Conjuntive elements (ex machina, announcement of misfortune, chance disclosure – mother calls hero loudly, etc.)
  3. Motivations (reasons and aims of personages)
  4. Forms of appearance of dramatis personae (the flying arrival of dragon, chance meeting with donor)
  5. Attributive elements or accessories (witch’s hut or her clay leg)

It is surprising, how far this simple formula can take us in describing a vast world of narrative (just like 15 tones can describe a vast world of music), although it was designed simply to describe a fairly limited corpus of Russian fairy tales. However, these elements are mostly defined through their narrative function, i.e. what role they serve in individual narrative "moves". Propp is aware of the actual meanings of the folk tale but his morphology achieves classification through largely formal means. Meaning is always present (how could it not be) but kept in the background as an axiomatic distinguishing feature of elements which needs not be mentioned.

The shortcomings of this approach may seem obvious to us nearly a century later. For instance, the authors of the online Proppian fairy tale generator mention elements neglected by him which were necessary to produce cohesive tales: "Propp’s analysis also fails to recognize the importance of such story components as tone, mood, characterization, and writing style just to name a few." But the most important shortcoming is the absence of meaning, that is concern for why these stories are being told so universally. :"(Propp-like analysis can of course be applied to almost any narrative - I once analyzed a popular novel solely through his narrative functions. Many other narratives [from Dostoyevsky to Buffy or Die Hard] would easily submit to the same treatment with only the slightest of modifications, e.g. in the dramatis personae.)": All of the elements play not only a structural role within the fairtale but also a cognitive one and a social one. These roles are probably important in how elements can be combined to form a narratively cohesive and mythically coherent narrative. A cognitively defined narrative element would then be a construction comprising a pairing of form and meaning (these being just opposite poles on a continuum). These constructions would then represent mental spaces which are blended in the narrative to form a new whole which can then in turn be integrated with broader social meanings. This approach might lose quite a bit of the simplicity of formalist and structuralist accounts but should account for more of the complexity of narrative. I do not have any specific examples at the moment, but hopefully, some will appear.