#FolkloreThursday: Fixed-phrase vs. Free-phrase

#FolkloreThursday: Fixed-phrase vs. Free-phrase February 2, 2017

Ever heard a tongue-twister? Then you’ve heard fixed-phrase folklore before. Here’s what it means in terms of other verbal arts genres.

Photo in public domain. From Unsplash by Mark Rasmuson.
Photo in public domain. From Unsplash by Mark Rasmuson.

In folklore studies, we consider a large swath of folklore to be verbal arts, or transmitted in/through language and sound. Since we’re attuned not only to text and context but also texture, we ask: what makes verbal folklore unique in terms of its linguistic patterns? How are words arranged in ways that contribute to the meaning?

Thus, we distinguish between fixed-phrase and free-phrase folklore.

Fixed-phrase folklore is usually repeated word-for-word, without variation on that level. Examples include folk speech items (where the word itself is the item of folklore, like “hella”) as well as proverbs. Nursery rhymes and folk songs might also fit in this category, since “Rock a bye baby” usually stays the same, unless it’s a parody.

Free-phrase folklore can be expressed in any kind of language and still be coherent. If I’m telling a folktale, I can use a lot of different words to convey the plot. There are probably going to be some consistencies across tellings (such as opening and closing formulas like “Once upon a time” and “They lived happily ever after”), but as far as the rest of the narrative, I can describe things the way I want to. It’s similar with jokes; sometimes the punchline requires precise phrasing, but mostly you can tell a narrative joke in any fashion you want.

We utilize this distinction to help us track tradition and variation at work. If a proverb, for example, has been mostly fixed-phrase in the past, but suddenly leaps into free-phrase expression? That’s something we’d want to study. Different languages utilize poetic devices differently, so we might find each genre lining up differently with fixed- vs. free-phrase patterns.

Describing verbal folklore genres in terms of their linguistic patterns helps us classify folklore in terms of its content, structure, and style. It’s rarely an ironclad way to go (because language, folklore, and culture are slippery like that), but it gives us a useful place to start.

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