“Between a Rock and Reclaimed Land”: A Structural Comparison between Singaporean and Mauritian Petrifaction Myths

Author: Gerald Choa Kai Kit (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore)
Speaker: Gerald Choa Kai Kit
Topic: Anthropological Linguistics
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2020 General Session


This paper investigates how the folktale motif of “transformation of human into stone”, or more succinctly, petrifaction, is utilised in two stories belonging to different oral cultures, the Mauritian myth of the Pieter Both mountain and the Singaporean Malay iteration of Si-Tanggang. While both stories feature a character who is petrified as punishment for his misdeeds, the Singaporean retelling of Si-Tanggang makes no mention of any specific location or geographical feature, unlike both the Mauritian folktale, and more strikingly, other versions of Si-Tanggang recounted elsewhere in the Malay Archipelago. To discover possible reasons as to why the Singaporean story may have lost its function as a folk explanation for natural phenomena, a comparative analysis of the two stories was conducted in three areas: form – the structure of each narrative understood through the lens of the framework established by Vladimir Propp in Morphology of the folktale (1968), field – the choice of words and use of cultural symbols in each story, and function – the social purpose of each tale within their respective oral culture. The comparison revealed that the divergences between the form and field of each story despite their common central motif reflects that between Singapore and Mauritius, storytelling as a cultural practice differs in its moralistic, nationalistic and ecological functions. The loss of any explicit geographical link in the Singaporean iteration of Si-Tanggang may hence be explained by how storytelling in Singapore has largely shed its ecological function. These observations also suggest that structural comparisons of folktales can help further our understanding of each individual oral culture, and in particular, how they have been shaped by historical and sociocultural forces.

Keywords: Anthropological linguistics, Comparative folkloristics, Malay folktales, Mauritian folktales, Singapore, Mauritius