"SaY" it with a Story: How 'Once Upon A Time ...' is different in different cultures
From Korea to Germany to Nigeria, every culture has its own version of ‘once upon a time’ – and most are more interesting than the English
In Tamil, folk stories and fairytales, the sort that grandparents tell grandchildren before bed, often begin, “In that only place…”. In another Indian language, Telugu, stories start “Having been said and said and said…”. In English, of course, it is “Once upon a time…”.
Chitra Soundar, an Indian-British author and storyteller, was thinking about her grandmother’s stories, which always began with the classic Tamil opener, when she asked people on Twitter to share how stories began in their languages.
Like “ once upon a time “ in English, in Tamil we used to start stories with “in that only place...” ஒரே ஒரு ஊரிலே... what are the conventions in other cultures? #storystarters
She received more than 100 suggestions from dozens of languages – from Farsi to Basque, Creole to Korean – with some people sharing contributions from places and in languages she had never heard of, as well as some less traditional options, such as “In a galaxy far, far away…”.
The results had Soundar, who spends her life thinking about and telling stories, “geeking out”.
In Korean, a typical fairytale begins: “Once, in the old days, when tigers smoked...”. In Catalan, spoken in the north-east of Spain, a story may start with, “Once upon a time in a corner of the world where everybody had a nose…” or, “Once upon a time, when the beasts spoke and people were silent…”.
In some parts of the Caribbean, stories begin with call and response with the audience, with the narrator saying in Creole, “E dit kwik?” (I say creek) to which the audience replies “kwak” (crack).
Meanwhile, according to the Paris Review, in Yoruba – spoken in Nigeria among other countries – stories begin with the gleeful announcement: “Here is a story! Story it is.” In Chile, the story begins with an instruction: “Listen to tell it and tell it to teach it.”
Endings are similarly varied. German fairytales typically end: “And if they didn’t die, they’re still alive today.” In Iceland: “The cat in the vale, lost its tail, end of fairytale”. Russian story-telling sometimes involves the narrator suddenly appearing in the story right at its close, with the declaration: “I was at the wedding, I drank mead and wine there; it ran down my moustache, but didn’t go into my mouth!”
Soundar says she particularly loved seeing examples of similarities across different cultures. Polish fairytales often begin, “Za siódmą górą za siódmym lasem…” (“Beyond seven mountains, beyond seven forests…”), which is similar to some Indian stories, she says. “They say seven forests and seven mountains, and we say seven rivers and seven seas. It’s travelled so much and it’s beautiful to see how people refer to time and place.”
Such cross-pollination of language is not at all surprising, says Dr Lucia Sorbera, the chair of the department of Arabic language and cultures at the University of Sydney.
“Borders are a very recent invention, historically,” says Sorbera. From the 12th to 16th centuries, there was a particularly rich exchange between Asia, north Africa, Europe and the Middle East. “[There was] a big network of scholars, poets and especially intellectuals who were travelling from court to court to make a life. This allowed the circulation of knowledge and language.”
Many Arabic stories, including a large number from the famous collection of Arabic folktales One Thousand and One Nights, begin “Once upon a time…”, though Sorbera cannot vouch for which language started the expression. The other common story-opener in Arabic is “There was and there was not…”, which is also echoed in Farsi, Maltese and Romani.
In Māori storytelling, the conventions are more formal.
“Our traditional conventions are you start off with a genealogy from earth and sky, and as you come down the genealogy you get to a certain ancestor and when you get to that ancestor you begin the story about that person,” says Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, a director at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
He gives an example: “Earth and sky came together and had a child called Tāne, the forest, Tāne then had another child called Mumuwhango and Mumuwhango had another child and that child was said to have been raised upon the ocean … one day the child was on the ocean and met a group of dolphins.
“What’s important in Māori storytelling is the constant reconnecting of people with the natural world,” Royal says. “Genealogies are genealogies of the world, of the birds and the bees and the fish and the trees as well as the humans, and all of that is woven together in this web of relationships. The storytelling is as much about those genealogies as it is about the adventures of those individual characters.”
Soundar says she also loves watching people unpacking and translating a story-opener that was so familiar to them that they had never thought about it closely. A contributor from the Philippines wrote the traditional story-opener and said: “I had never thought of it but roughly translated it means ‘In the first of times…’. I habitually interpreted it as ‘Once upon a time…’, but that is not what it says.”
Even Sorbera, who has made Arabic literature her life’s work, had never really considered what was conveyed by “There was and there was not…”. Asked what the phrase means, she pauses for a long time.
“You know, I never thought about that. I’ve read those stories, and heard those expressions, first as a child, and like everyone I have an emotional attachment to these expressions, so maybe even when I found them as an adult reader I never questioned them.”
Eventually she says: “I think of myself as a child listening to this expression, it gives a sense of magic.”
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