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Richesse du proverbe


Richesse du proverbe, études réunies par François Suard et Claude Buridant. Vol. 1: Le Proverbe au Moyen Age; vol. 2: Typologie et fonctions. Lille: Université de Lille III, 1984, Pp. XIII, 162 and 275.

These two volumes make available to paremiologists communications presented at the Colloque de Parémiologie held at Lille, March 6-8, 1981. The first volume contains papers on medieval topics, the second includes papers not only on the typology and function of proverbs, but also on proverbs in the classical and modern world. (The two volumes are independent of each other and can be purchased separately.) Both volumes begin with an "Avant-Propos" by Buridant, in which he addresses the problem of the definition of the proverb. Buridant suggests the directions the subsequent articles follow the proverb as ethnologic source and the role of paroemia in discourse. He also invites readers to continue paremiological research, especially on precise problems and on the vitality of twentieth-century French proverbs.1 I summarize the articles in the order in which they appear in the two volums.

The first is Anne-Marie Bautier's "Peuples, provinces et villes dans la littérature proverbiale latine du Moyen Age" which is more list than analysis, though there is some useful examination of the oral transmission of proverbs. A second contribution by Claude Buridant, "Les Proverbes et la prédication au Moyen Age," is subtitled "De l'utilisation des proverbes vulgaires dans les sermons," and is an analysis of the sources of proverbs for authors of sermons, reflections on the coining of proverbs, the uses of proverbs in sermons, all as an illumination of the mentalité of the medieval preacher and his audience.

Juliette De Caluwé-Dor, in "Les Proverbes de Hendyng: Héroïsme païen, Charité chrétienne et Réalisme bourgeois," provides a brief introduction to the Middle English Proverbs of Hendyng, followed by a modern French translation of same. Pierre Demarolle's "Autour de la "Ballade des proverbes": Aspects logiques de la poésie de Françoise Villon," analyzes Villon's poem, placing emphasis on the importance of the intellectual environment for the poem to be understood by its audience. Jean-Claude Faucon's "La Sagesse populaire au service du roi: De l'utilisation des proverbes par un chroniqueur du XIVe siècle," is an analysis of proverbs in the verse chronicle by Cuvelier on the life of Bertrand du Guesclin where the use of proverbs reassures the audience, for whom proverbs are perceived as a sort of consolation--a fixed point in a world turned upside down by the Hundred Years' War.

Eric Hicks' "Proverbe et polémique dans le Roman de la Rose de Jean de Meun" shows the importance of proverbs in dialogue to cut short arguments or to elevate a speaker's estimation of himself. Antoinette Saly in "Les Proverbes dans le Meliacin de Girart d'Amiens: Aspect et fonction" sees proverbs as indicative of the temperament, taste and style of the author and his audience; more interesting is her discussion of latent proverbs, proverbs assimilated into the text, but whose source is still recognizable.

In "La Fonction des proverbes dans les chansons de geste des XIVe, et XVe siècles" François Suard speaks of the importance of proverbs in the chansons de geste from the twelfth century on. As the genre changes in time, so does its use of proverbial material; nonetheless, proverbs maintain the aura of "reality" as opposed to the "fiction" of romance. The title describes accurately the content of Alain-Julien Surdel's essay, "Typologie et stylistique des locutions sententieuses dans Le Mystère de S. Didier de Langres de Guillaume Flamant (1482)."

Volume II, Typologie du proverbe has a more varied collection of essays. Claude Balavoine in "Les Principes de la parémiographie érasmienne" discusses Erasmus' definition and collection of adages, his commentary on and method of organization of the material; the whole as an example of humanist culture. The "Proposition d'une méthodologie d'analyse des logiques d'un corpus proverbial" of Fernando Belo offers a philosophico-semantic theorization of proverbs based on Portuguese examples.

Catherine Bloc-Duraffour's "Traitement de la logique des rôles narratifs dans les proverbes italiens" provides a structural analysis of proverbs, culminating in an organization of the récit of Italian proverbs. Evelyne Brouzeng discusses in her "Stylistique comparée de la traduction de proverbes anglais et français" the need to find equivalent proverbs for use in translation, a problem complicated by the differing form of proverbs in different languages. She comments that equivalent proverbs in two languages can shed light on the nature of the language in question.

Pierre Cazier's contribution, "Les Sentences d'Isidore de Séville, genre littéraire et procédés stylistiques," demonstrates that Isidore used proverbial material as the framework of the Sentences. Cazier argues that the late-classical author referred to the auctoritas of proverbs to augment his pedagogic efforts. Charles Guiraud in his "Structure linguistique des proverbes latins" shows that there are semantic differences between classical Latin and Greek proverbs and that proverbs found in Latin literature seem fairly distant from their popular source. In "Le Concept de paromia: proverbium dans la haute et la basse antiquité," Anna Maria Ieraci-Bio examines the definitions of proverbs in the classical world in order to understand the significance of proverbs in Greco-Roman Antiquity.

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Proverbs, Sayings and Popular Wisdom - Audio Proverbs in English and Romance Languages, Proverb Studies, Proverb Collections, International Proverb Bibliographies


De Proverbio – Latin for ‘About the Proverb’ – is a website devoted to proverbs in several languages. It was founded in January 1995 at the University of Tasmania, Australia. De Proverbio was the world’s first refereed electronic journal of international proverb studies. It’s inspiration was Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship edited by Prof. Wolfgang Mieder at the University of Vermont. The Yearbook continued the tradition of Proverbium: Bulletin d’Information sur les Recherches Parémiologiques, published occasionally from 1965 to 1975 by the Society for Finnish Literature, Helsinki.

Recently, the website has added audio proverbs in six languages, read by native speakers.  Also available for the lovers of languages and their proverbial richess is a page of multilingual proverb crosswords.

Proverbs and Their Definition

From time immemorial proverbs have fascinated people of all ages and from all walks of life. As it happened throughout centuries, common people today still avail themselves of the proverb’s rich oral tradition to convey their culture and values, while scholars collect and study them from a wide range of angles: linguistic, social, psychological, political, historical and so on.

Proverbs by James Chapman - cat
A cat in mittens won’t catch mice

The problem of proverb definition is still open. However, it is broadly accepted that proverbs were born from man’s experience. And that they generally express, in a very succinct way, common-sense truths. They give sound advice and reflect the human condition. But, as we know, human nature is both good and bad and the latter is often mirrored by discriminatory proverbs, be they against women, different nationalities or particular social groups. For a thorough discussion of proverb definition, see Popular Views of the Proverb by Prof. Wolfgang Mieder. Another article which sheds some light on the proverb definition is The Wisdom of Many and the Wit of One by Archer Taylor.

Proverbs and Their Origin

As to the origin of proverbs we tend to assume that they were born in times when human society began to self-impose rules and embrace principles necessary for communal living. Research can trace them back only to the time when language was recorded by means of some type of writing. The Sumerian civilisation of more than five thousand years ago is the oldest known civilisation to have made use of proverbs, some of which have been passed on through its cuneiform inscriptions.

One such proverb, in its Latin version, is Canis festinans caecos parit catulos. It spread to other languages. The English translation is The hasty bitch brings forth blind whelps. In French, it became La chienne dans sa hâte a mis bas des chiots aveugles. In the Italian La gatta frettolosa fece i gattini ciechi, the bitch has been replaced by the cat. The Portuguese version is Cadelas apressadas parem cães tortos, and the Romanian, Căţeaua de pripă îşi naşte căţeii fără ochi.

Proverbs and Their Use

Apart from use on a wide scale in day-to-day speech, there is ample evidence that proverbs were essential tools in teaching and learning. The pedagogical use of proverbs was encountered first in Sumerian society and subsequently this use became widespread throughout Medieval Europe.

Proverbs by James Chapman - book
A book is like a garden carried in the pocket

Proverbs and proverbial expressions are found in religious manuscripts of the first half of the eighth century. The aim of introducing proverbs into religious texts was to help novices to learn Latin, and this practice became widespread by the tenth century.

The use of proverbs in teaching and learning was not circumscribed to England. Relatively new research attests to the use of proverbs in teaching in the eleventh century in Liège, France. In Italy the famous medical School of Salerno of the eleventh century formulated medical precepts which later became proverbs adopted by different cultures. Post prandium stabis, post coenam ambulabis was translated After dinner sit awhile, after supper walk a mile in English. In French became Après dîner repose un peu, après souper promène une mille, while in Italian Dopo pranzo riposar un poco, dopo cena passeggiar un miglio. The Spanish version is Después de yantar reposad un poco, después de cenar pasead una milla and the Portuguese Depois de jantar, dormir; depois de cear, passos mil.

Proverbs and Their Abuse

But from use comes abuse, as a Spanish proverb says.  There is no doubt that the capacity of the proverb to convey universal truths concisely led to their abuse and manipulation.

Hitler and his Nazi regime employed proverbs as emotional slogans for propaganda purposes and encouraged the publication of anti-semitic proverb collections. For a thorough analysis of this phenomenon, please read the fascinating article “ … as if I were the master of situation.” Proverbial Manipulation in Adolf Hitler by Prof. Wolfgang Mieder.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, communist regimes of the past have not only manipulated proverbs, but also purged popular collections of features which did not reflect their political ends. The former Soviet regime is at the forefront of such actions. One type of manipulation described by Jean Breuillard in Proverbes et pouvoir politique: Le cas de l’U.R.S.S.  (published in “Richesse du proverbe”, Eds. François Suard and Claude Buridant. Lille: Université de Lille, 1984. II, 155-166). It consisted in modifying ancient proverbs like La vérité parcourt le monde (Truth spreads all over the world) into La vérité de Lénine parcourt le monde (Lenin’s truth spreads all over the world). As a result the new creation is unequivocably charged with a specific ideological message.

Manipulation did not stop at individual proverbs, it extended to entire collections. Vladimir Dal’s mid-nineteen century collection of Russian proverbs is such an example. Its first Soviet edition (1957) reduces the proverbs containing the word God from 283 to 7 only. Instead, those which express compassion for human weaknesses, such as alcoholism, disappear altogether. In more recent years, in Ceauşescu’s Romania, Proverbele românilor (published in 1877 by I. C. Hinţescu) suffered the same treatment. More than 150 proverbs were eliminated or changed in order to respond rigidly to the communist ideology.

Proverbs Across Time and Space

The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs states that foreign proverbs’ contribution to the English proverbial stock has enriched our language. Many proverbs of foreign origin were quickly absorbed into English life and have a rightful place in an English dictionary. Indeed, a close scrutiny of that dictionary reveals that more than two hundred and fifty proverbs are listed as first existing in Italian.

This is also true for other modern languages, particularly French and Spanish. The translation is not always literal. At times it is adapted to the new language and the resulting proverb is often enriched in its expression. For instance the Latin Homo sine pecunia est imago mortis (A man without money is the image of death) is rather closely translated in Italian as Uomo senza quattrini è un morto che cammina (A man without money is a dead man walking).

However, in other languages the metaphor changes, but not the meaning. In English the proverb becomes A man without money is a bow without an arrow, while in French Un homme sans argent / Est un loup sans dents (A man without money is a wolf without teeth) and an element of rhyme is introduced. The Romanian adaptation is a real poetic gem Omul fără bani e ca pasărea fără aripi; Când dă să zboare / Cade jos şi moare (A man without money is like a bird without wings; When he tries to fly / He falls down and dies). The concept is essentially the same: the man without money lacks something important…

Proverbs Today

Proverbs by James Chapman - egg and hen
The egg thinks it’s smarter than the hen

While proverbs are still used today in a traditional way, that is in speech, literature and teaching, they have found a new ever expanding use in the advertising industry and in the mass media. One example is Here today, gone tomorrow, which became Hair today, gone tomorrow in the hair-removal industry. In the mass media it has a variety of paraphrases such as Hear today, gone tomorrow or Heir today, gone tomorrow. Before the Barcelona Olympic Games the old proverb All roads lead to Rome became All roads lead to… Barcelona in many English language newspapers and magazines. A new phenomenon encountered in many languages nowadays and is undoubtedly a sign of the proverb’s resilience and vitality.

Important writers of the past, among them Goethe and Voltaire, have questioned the traditional wisdom of proverbs. That led to some proverb transformations. Prof. Wolfgang Mieder coined the term anti-proverb for all forms of creative proverb changes. They can be deliberate innovations, alterations, variations, parodies. Anti-proverbs are widely spread today, some living a short time, some even making their way into recent proverb collections. A new broom sweeps clean, but the old one knows the corners and Absence makes the heart grow fonder – for somebody else are considered anti-proverbs.

Proverbs and Their Collection

Apart from studies on individual and multilingual proverbs and proverbial expressions, you will find a few e-books on our website. I will mention a Brazilian collection and a dictionary of equivalent English and Romanian proverbs. Prof. Wolfgang Mieder’s yearly bibliographies are an invaluable tool for students and researchers. Given their widespread use over the millennia, it is no wonder that scholars of the past started assembling proverbs in collections. Aristotle is believed to be among the first paremiographers (collectors of proverbs), but, unfortunately, his collection was lost. In more recent times a great impetus to the collection of proverbs was given by Erasmus. His fame spread from Venice throughout Europe after the publication in 1508 of his Adagiorum Chiliades. This collection contained 3,260 proverbs drawn from classical authors.

The success of the book led to several augmented editions culminating with that of 1536, which contains 4,151 proverbs. Erasmus’ work was translated into several European languages. While it became the model for future proverb collections in those languages, they were widely copied and translated.

One good example of such a practice is the 1591 Italian collection Giardino di Ricreatione, nel quale crescono fronde, fiori e frutti, vaghe, leggiadri e soavi, sotto nome di sei miglia proverbii, e piacevoli riboboli Italiani, colti e scelti da Giovanni Florio. And two decades later appeared in French as Le Jardin de Récréation, au quel croissent rameaux, fleurs et fruits très-beaux, gentils et souefs, soubz le nom de Six mille proverbes et plaisantes rencontres françoises, recueillis et triéez par GOMÈS DE TRIER, non seulement utiles mais délectables pour tous espritz désireux de la très-noble et copieuse langue françoise, nouvellement mis en lumière, à Amsterdam, par PAUL DE RAVESTEYN.

Proverbs and Fun

Proverbs by James Chapman - duck
If the world flooded, it wouldn’t matter to the duck

On the less academic side, you can test your knowledge of languages by solving our bilingual or multilingual crosswords. Or, you can listen to our featured proverbs in 6 languages – English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish. Also, enjoy sharing them with your friends. Some were posted on Twitter as comments to political events of the day.

Painters in Renaissance time, from Hieronymus Bosch to Pieter Bruegel, with his famous Netherlandish Proverbs, were attracted by the subject.

Modern artists like James Chapman illustrated recently proverbs from other world languages with hilarious cartoons. See some of his images on this page.

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.

These two volumes form an outstanding collection of articles on a number of wide-ranging issues of concern to paremiologists. The variety of subjects and approaches makes Richesse du proverbe a valuable work indeed, deserving of its title.


Previously published in Proverbium 2 (1985), pp. 353-358.
Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA). 

1 Cf. the catalogue on the use and vitality of French proverbs currently being developed by Monique Coppens d'Eeckenbrugge, 252 Oude Baan, B-3000 Louvain, Belgium.

Wendy Pfeffer
Classical and Modern Languages
University of Louisville
Louisville, Kentucky 40292


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The banner illustration is a fragment of Pieter Bruegel's painting "The Netherlandish Proverbs", 1559