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( Lyotard, Jean Francois | Knowledge )




This paper will explore the sociolinguistic and metaphoric development of young children's thought and language processes as revealed through their informal discussions of proverbs. Groups of children aged 6 through 9 were engaged by this investigator in open-ended, yet focused, conversation which enabled them to apply their own life experiences to the base meanings of proverbs, and thus to abstract them differently and more effectively than standard proverb tests permit. Among the study's significant findings were (1) that working-class black and middle-class white children were able to reason metaphorically and abstractly, comprehend and coin proverbs at an age eralier than reported in the literature; (2) that this finding is methodologically dependent; and (3) that this discursive form of social interaction has important implications for teaching, for diagnosis, and for evaluation.

The present paper derives from my dissertation, The Proverb Moves the Mind: Proverb Abstraction Through Social Interaction (1982). It will examine social knowledge as an important stimulant to abstraction, and consider the sources, subjects, and themes of the rich contextual illustrations created by children to interpret and argue proverb meaning. The children's fertility in drawing, from even the smallest corners of their lives, appropriate applications of the hugest concerns of proverbs, suggests a level of communicative and metaphoric competence with which they are seldom credited.

I should like to show how that brief and pithy folk form, the proverb (to which young children are likely to have had little exposure), can, through the magical linkage of metophor and life event, provoke serious reasoning - - analytic, abstractive, and analogical. Each is a process likely to culminate in skills of immense importance to self-functioning, and certainly to school and life success. My thesis, built of a series of live interrelated issues, is:

  1. That proverbs function for young children discussing them, as triggers or entry points to a sociolinguistic use of events in their lives, and thus demonstrate their capacity to use language sociolinguistically.
  2. That proverbs provoke problem-solving.
  3. That issues in proverbs' base meanings stimulate dialogue and interaction, which emerge as Contextual Illustration, and testify to young children's communicative and reasoning competence.
  4. That the combination of Contextual Illustration, issues generated by the proverb tenor, and a discursive form of social interaction act to stimulate divergent thinking, a prized corollary of the creative non-standard response.
  5. That the debate and discussion of proverb meaning generated among heterogeneously grouped children, i.e., abstract and concrete thinkers, is to the benefit of both, but of special value to the latter whose thought processes are often expanded by interaction with more able peers.

Examining each of these points in turn through excerpts of dialogue and portions of transcript, I shall, in conclusion, look at some of the implications for future research within the proverb itself. But first a few facts.

The Study

The original study was built on a assumption born of many years of work with young children and their teachers: that children have untapped capacity for abstractive thought at an age earlier than assumed, and that there is a relationship between abstraction and its verbalization requiring metalinguistic ability. Further, that neither standardized tests nor workbook activities (both of which predominate in many schools) test or tap metalinguistic ability and, therefore, scarcely demonstrate children's capacity for divergent or metaphoric thinking. But by building inquiry into an expressive language mode, one would have the opportunity to both assess and develop diverse reasoning skills, among them: analysis, generalization, abstraction, deduction, inference, paraphrase, and critical thinking. Only one method could satisfy these dual demands -- a discursive approach in an informal, open-ended setting in which small groups of children were free to explore their own ideas, test the truth of the meanings they thought up, apply them contextually and experientially, while continually being challenged to do more of the same.


Theoretical support for this approach came from the work of Lev Vygotsky (1978) who saw that it is "through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (p. 86) that the potential level of a child's development is most likely to be reached. The dialectical process between Teaching Strategy and Child Response is fed by the discussion and debate of proverbs and interlaced with deliberately provocative and often demanding questions. What emerges is far different from what most one-to-one interviews yield: more wandering, more waste, but also far more richness. As a response vehicle, it is also much broader based, vis a vis its allowance for correct response, than any standardized test or response form. But perhaps its major virtue among its many is that, being process-oriented, it lets us get in there to see the workings of the watch while it helps to make the watch work.

At the core of Vygotsky's thesis is his belief that the developmental process is out of synch with the learning process, that is "on dealy," as it were, and that this non-coincidental sequence creates zones of proximal development. Vygotsky defines the Zone of Proximal Development as the distance between actual and potential developmental levels as assessed not by independent, but by collaborative problem-solving when stimulated by the aforementioned adults and peers. Contrary to the view of much of contemporary Western psychology, this adult-peer assistance is not perceived by Vygotsky as a crutch, but as a spur to the child's problem-solving performance, the result of which yields a better index of his/her mental development than does solo performance. His unrelenting search for what he calls the "psychological structure" (i.e., processes) underlying behavioral organization has been a stimulus to inquiry into the verbal thought of the children who informed this study.


...And Practice

Proverb discussions were held with a total of 48 children: 28 children (15 boys; 13 girls) between the ages of 6 and 9 in a nearly all-black public school in Brooklyn, N. Y.; and 20 children (10 boys; 10 girls) in a nearly all-white third grade of a Manhattan private school. Most of the discussions occurred with the black groups (22) and only 3 with the white. Because of the imbalance in the number of discussion sessions, what seems to be an equally distributed population actually isn't. Many more black (20) than white (6) children repeated sessions, thereby affording the former far more opportunity for rehearsal than the latter.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

For the reader to participate in the discussion that follows, it will be useful to share the common language of definition. A Glossary of coding terms used in the analysis of the children's Abstraction Strategies, and the Teaching Strategies that generated them, follows.


ABSTRACTION STRATEGIES (5 of the 7 used to abstract proverb meaning in the excerpts that follow):

Concrete Explanation (C.E.) is a literal definition or explanation with no shift in semantic domain, in which the explanation usually offers a rationale for heeding the event referred to by the proverb, or warns of the consequences for failing to do so.

Paraphrase (Para.) is a restatement of the proverb with increased explicitness without enlarging the reference or shifting the semantic domain. Because it puts the proverb into other words, it presupposes abstractive ability, but is neither a full abstraction of the base meaning, nor a Concrete Explanation.

Contextual Illustration (C.I.) is an illustration of the proverb meaning by means of an naecdotal application generally drawn from the child's experience. It is often quite elaborated and always involves a shift in semantic domain.
Summary Abstraction (S.A.) is an abstraction of the proverb meaning in the form of a summary statement which, because it is a generalized application of the proverb to many relevant situations, has a wider span of reference than the single example of the C.I.

Metaphoric Generation (M.G.) is the act of either creating an original proverb through Coinage (Coin.) or Spawn (a variation which models the actual proverb); or by correctly applying one through Appropriate Use of the Proverb (Approp. Use) in a variety of contextually relevant ways. 

TEACHING STRATEGIES (Here, too, a selective list referring, without definition, to only those strategies used below and whose code names are likely to be unclear.)

Confirming (Confrmg.)
Initiating Collaboration (Initiatg. Collab.)
Shift in Semantic Domain (Shift in Seman. Dom.)
Paraphrasing Child's Contextual Illustration (Para. Ch's. C.I.)
Source of Connection (Source of Conn.)
Supporting Specific Child (Supptg. Specif. Ch.)
Orchestrating (Orchstrg.)
Telescopic Reduction (Tel. Reduct.)
Umbrella Question (Umbrel. Ques.) 


My interest here is (1) to demonstrate how these young children have drawn upon the rich communicative resources of their spech community, and (2) to examine the sociocultural base of this organization through their use of personal experience, family facts, television, and the street. My concern is with the nature of their thought and language processes, rather than with the quantification of responses, with the careful analysis of select cases, rather than with a survey of all the evidence. This was facilitated in the original study by using the open-ended interviews as primary data, the qualitative and supportive evidence thus represented by the quantity of confirming examples. Therefore, though denied the definitive results of standard task-oriented stimulus-response research, we are enabled by such a process-oriented analysis to participate in and benefit from insights that come from presentation of the new data, and to analyze for ourselves the cross-fertilization resulting from the multiple interactions.

The child's use of a Contextual Illustration is a far more complete performance than that of a Summary Abstraction because it reveals a kind of social appropriateness and demonstrates that the child knows how to use the proverb contextually. I suspect that one of the earmarks of this sociolinguistic usage is its constant pragmatism; another is its high degree of personalization.


The theme of family relationships is a prominent one in the children's discussions. Issues such as parental control and self-control, for example, mingle freely with the metaphoric messages of choice and moderation in this excerpt from 7-year-old Debbie's description of her dilemma when dealing with the proverb: 

  1. You can't have your cake and eat it too.
    1. It means that if you buy you cake, sneak or steal your cake, and you wanna eat it right away so nobody know that you stole it... and then if you want [to keep] your cake, you can't eat it now (i.e., that desire must be curbed if theft is involved, or else you'll give yourself away -- and a practical resolution]. If your mother gonna throw it out and you say, "I want it mommy!" and then you want to eat it now. But your mother says, "Well, I'm gonna throw it out if you wanna eat it right away and get a stomachache!" (Transcript 6 [hereafter T.], p.3)

    The reason Debbie missed the "moderation" message was because she was so busy proving the "no win" nature of what must have been a very real reminiscence triggered by the proverb. Complete with psychological overtones, it serves here as a highly personalized anecdote through which she demonstrates the absence of real choice in the presence of external control. Not an abstraction, it is nonetheless an example of how the Contextual Illustration serves as a venting and rehearsal ground for ideas.

    Sometimes the concerns and issues involving family are studded with serious ethical questions having to do with the work ethic, violations of family privacy, and behavioral taboos. Such was the case in 6-year-old Steven's hypothetical (?) explanation of the proverb:

  2. Talk does not cook rice.
    1. Not if you had a job, right? And like a office man come in and the boss said, "I leave him in there to see how you work." See now, if the boss go out and you just be talkin' to him and you gotta take a lot of stuff down, then you gonna never get it done. And that job stays open until midnight, and you gonna talk to the guy until midnight, you get fired! Or else you don't get a raise until you're ninety!... That's how my father had... see 'cause like he was a talker!

      [Debbie intercepted him sharply]: Keep to your own business! [And when asked by the Investigator why, she said with conviction]: Because if you tell your father's business and then you go out the room and let everybody hear the tape -- what the children said -- and then everybody gonna know his father's business!!

      [To which Steven replied]: Can I tell you somethin, Debbie? I'm lying. (T.7, pp. 5-6)

    Obviously lying is a less serious infraction than violating family privacy! This is a remarkable exposition of complex ideas through a deeply personal and, no doubt, true situation chosen by this 6-year-old to capture the meaning of a subtle proverb. He has made the shift from one behavioral domain (the kitchen) to another (the job) with such ease, and painted the scene with such elaborate detail that it is equally easy to get caught in the web of his tale and forget the very details he uses to build his case. The web becomes a snare when Debbie uses it to score him for his serious breach of ethics, and Steven, with typical bravura (i.e., defensiveness), denies it. And so, another role played by the Contextual Illustration is that of a reactive arena for life-sized issues.

    In this next excerpt a mother's influence is felt, this time in an advisory capacity:

  3. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

    Richard, aged 7 at the time, agrees.

    1. Yeah, because if you have one bird in your hand, you would like it more than the other two because you already have one and you should be satisfied with the one you have. And you could play with the bird that you already had but with the other two birds, they might be too smart and you can't catch them. And you can't do anything with them. Like my mother say, I should be satisfied with what I got. (T. 16, p. 3)

    Notice how thoroughly pragmatic Richard is. Take what you can get (what you've already got). Don't overreach. Selling us on the advantages of his approaching decision by laying out the practical features, he finally arrives (last sentence) at both his positive evaluation of the proverb situation and an abstraction of the proverb's base meaning. How? Through a process that synthesizes those particular experiences and events in his own life which fit his evaluation and comprehension of the proverb's base meaning.

    The themes proliferate -- the Contextual Illustrations serving as abundant conveyors of personal behavioral standards which sometimes talk of the children's need for independence, of the virtues of patience, caution, satisfaction with what one has, and warn of the consequences of bad behavior. With respect to their families, they thought and talked about their parent's work lives, especially jobs -- keeping and losing them, getting better ones; the work ethic and the punishment incurred when it is violated; sick relatives -- caring for them and the consequences of their death (which at least one child saw as the choice of either becoming a "rich angel" or "going down to the devil and getting stuck with a fork!"); a brother's chronic stealing and the role of the other as informer (vis a vis "Do unto others..."). Clearly, families matter.


    With respect to other social relationships, the primary one to which all children repeatedly referred was friendship. Distinctly different concerns were reflected by the middle and lower-class groups, but all spoke deeply and intensely of their need for reciprocity in friedship, responsibility and trust, love, generosity, and sharing; worry about self-centeredness, rejection, and betrayal.

  4. Break one link and the whole chain falls apart was an extraordinarily popular vehicle for these 7- and 8-year-old concerns:
    1. OOOh! [said Vincent] I think I know! Like you have some friends and you break off, and you still have more friends left. [But Mike could not agree.] Yes, but there is some way it could fall apart. Let's say all the other kids like the kid that you break off with, the best. And if you don't like him, they don't like you either 'cause you don't like their friends. So the whole relationship of all the kids breaks apart.

      [A persuasive argument, but Mike's twin, Josh, was dubious]: Yeah, but it's very rare for that to happen. [Karen saw it from yet another perspective]:

      If we had a group of people who were really good friends, and we did a lot of things together, and we stood up for ourselves and stood up for our friends, and if we were suddenly spilt in half -- I mean, you know, parted -- we probably couldn't manage. (T.10, p.2; T.19, pp.4-5)

    The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

    The Street

    Especially prominent among the lower-class group were frequent references to fighting and stealing, almost always accompanied by moralizing, strategies for handling, or practical solutions to the problems caused thereby. We can attribute much of this to TV exposure, yet streetwise children living in poor neighborhoods are often victims themselves, and there is no question but that their many references to bike thefts, informing, and punishment come from experiences they themselves had and learned to cope with.

  5. The rain does not all fall on one roof provoked this fine example from Richard:
    1. I know! I know! I was getting ready to say... I mean, like this could mean trouble. Like trouble doesn't have to fall upon just one person. You could be doing something and then all of a sudden, trouble could be lurking upon two people, four, or even how many!

      Like if two people have a bike, you could be riding through the park. Then about two boys with two knives come up there, and then that would be trouble fallin' on not just one person, but both of the people. (T. 15. Prov. #4)

    Being a victim of crime is one thing; being a witness to it has its own frightening and sobering consequences.

  6. One does not have to learn how to fall into a pit. All it takes is the first step, the others take care of themselves.
    1. [Vincent has just delivered an elaborate Contextual Illustration in which a witness to a murder and burglary becomes the victim of the criminals he has reported. Just prior to this, Richard offered one in which a socially conscious bystander to a beating gets beaten himself. People ignoring his cries for help say: "No way! You wasn't minding your own business and you got into there, so now you're gonna have to get yourself out."]

      [Not understanding Vincent's connection between the two, the Investigator said]: "Now I'm lost here, because I'm not sure how you hook that up to the proverb.

      Said Vincent: Like the same thing that Richard said: Mind your own business! If you don't, it leads to lots of trouble. (T. 15, p. 4)

    Whether learning to cope or protectively detach, the lessons of the street -- suspicion and caution -- are well learned by our inner-city young.

  7. If the fish had not opened its mouth, it would not have been caught.
    1. [Said Richard, now aged 8]: I think it means you shouldn't fall for everything... [S.A.] If you see something that somebody is offering you (C.I.1] -- the fish didn't see the man up there -- but if you see somebody offering you something, you shouldn't take it. [C.E.] [He develops his point with a story of his being offered candy by a girl, refusing it, being given it again, and throwing it down a street drain because he didn't know what was in it!] [C.I.2]

    Notable here is how Richard launched the definition with a crisp Summary Abstraction, forgetting the "fish" and starting instead with "you." Using the Concrete Explanation of the fish to generalize his advice, he then draws upon the surety of experience to strengthen the equation.

    What are the likely sources of such Contextual Illustrations as these? Most probably television, along with the aforementioned street. Combing the transcripts for these programs most frequently referred to, we find comedy shows, monsters (Godzilla, King Kong, and Dracula heading the list), cartoons, police and crime shows. Yet it is not so much the individual program as the general content of crime, cops and robbers, and bank thefts that seems to saturate the children's conversations. They talked of how bad behavior can lead you into a mess; guns and money lead to crime, and money to war (in an extraordinary sequence of Vincent's vis a vis More haste, less speed, in which, focusing on "less," he points out that we'd fare better with less of all these evils for "most wars are started for money, too!" [T. 14A, Prov. #3]) A year later, in a discussion of Don't bite off more than you can chew, he reflects his concerns about war by focusing on the element of "excess" in the proverb: "The wars around the world -- like if you fight too much, the world will be totally destroyed! If the people fight and they kill other people, there might be no people left in this world" (T. 21, Prov #7). Interestingly, the violence that has entered their young lives does not lure; rather it repels and they judge it harshly -- or lament it. Said Richard of Time passes away, but things remain: "Like in caveman times, people they used to be fighting a lot... and now, still people fight a lot" (T. 22, Prov. #1).

    The social and moral consciousness revealed in these powerful issues are not without the sophistication that can only come from children having to learn too soon about the inequities of life -- children not without their opinions about the causes of the injustices they see. Going to jail as a consequence of killing in self-defense (caused by being mugged) was a point Richard made to illustrate the injustice of the law (vis a vis Don't bite off more than you can chew). Suffering or being hurt as a result of doing a good deed was used, as we saw in Ex. 8, as an argument for minding one's own business.

    The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

    With these few (and in my view) remarkable examples, we have but tapped the surface of these children's reservoir of social knowledge. Could it have been tapped into further and for a longer period of time, it most certainly would have generated its own metaphors. With replication, it may yet.


    The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.



    The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.


    The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.


    The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

    Some Implications for Future Research

    The most impressive conclusion to be drawn from the wealth of evidence that children can abstract proverbs and think metaphorically far better and much earlier than we think they can is that we really know very little about how they manage it. What makes some children leap to the abstractive response, for example, while others require small, slow steps to get there. Of particular interest would be to repeat these proverb discussion with different populations. Variations in composition according to race, SES, cultural and ethnic group, sex, and group size might reveal response patterns different from those presently encountered. Clearly race, SES, culture, and ethnicity would be most likely to reflect sociolinguistic variability because of the attending environmental differences. I would therefore favor varying these constellations first, and would welcome response from interested colleagues.

    We might also speculate on those factors inherent in the proverb itself that could influence or shape the abstraction. For instance, what is the relationship of proverb strucutre to its abstractibility? Are certain strucutres more accessible than others? Do imperative proverbs, for example, tend to be conceived more literally than metaphorically? Does their didacticism impress their messages more readily than other grammatical patterns do? Looking back at Silverman-Weinreich's (1961) work, is it possible that some of the grammatical patterns she has identified are more conducive to abstraction than others? Could such grammatical markers as parallelism or the use of generic and abstract subjects make a difference? Could semantic markers like allegory, irony, or personification; phonic devices of rhyme, alliteration, and brevity be determinants?

    Proverbs are worth ponering; quite young children can tackle them, work through their complex analogic and metaphoric structures, and even fashion new and credible forms of their own. One has but to recognize and strengthen children's competence -- and perhaps to remember - - that watched pots do boil!


    Previously published in Proverbium 2 (1985), pp. 145-183.
    Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA). 


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    Cook-Gumperz, Jenny. (1975). The child as 'practical reasoner.' In Sociocultural Dimensions of Language Use, Mary Sanches and E. G. Blount (eds.), 137-159. New York: Academic Press.

    Kelen, Emery. (1966). Proverbs of Many Nations. New York: Lothrop,

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    Pasamanick, J. (1982). The Proverb Moves the Mind: Abstract and Metaphoric Thinking in Children 6-9. (Ph.D. dissertation, Yeshiva University) Dissertation Abstracts International, 1982, Vol. 43 (4B), p. 1279. DDJ82-20394.

    Pasamanick, J (1983) Talk does cook rice: Proverb abstraction through social interaction. International Journal of the Sociology of Lnguage, 44, 5-25.

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    Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge, Mass.: The M.I.T. Press.

Judy Pasamanick
NEH Folklore Institute
Teachers College
Columbia University
New York, New York 10027

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