The investigation of proverbs in their semiotic aspect
is one of the most gratifying tasks for a
P.G. Bogatyrev (1937: 366)
1. "Simple Form" Proverb: Text, Context,
Although, after all, André Jolles' book Einfache Formen has been "more stimulating than
clarifying" - as Mohr (1956: 321) put it in a survey of
echoes to it - practically any modern investigation of
so-called "simple forms" refers to this most influential study. When Jolles, in 1929, published his book, he attempted to
investigate the various forms which are part of what had
been summarized under the name of Naturpoesie by
Jacob Grimm in the early 19th century. According to Grimm,
Naturpoesie was characterized by the process of Sichvonselbstmachen as opposed to Kunstpoesie, of which the process of individual Zubereitung by a
particular poet is characteristic. For Jolles, then, Formbestimmung and Gestaltdeutung are the
central morphological tasks of literary scholarship, and in
this way he wanted to define the various genres of Naturpoesie in a more detailed manner than had been
done by his precursor, Jacob Grimm. But Jolles' notion of
these terms is, at least from a modern point of view,
misleading: although he was very well aware of his
innovative approach, Jolles remained caught in the Romantic
concept of language. At the same period of time, when, in
Russia, for example, the futurists' and formalists'
concentration on The Word as Such had already passed,
when formalism was already converting into structuralism
(as, e.g., in the manifest by Jakobson/Tynyanov from 1928),
language, for Jolles, was still an "anthopomorphic deity",
"Goddess language", as Klemperer (1930: 405ff.) phrased it
in his review of Jolles' book. It is exactly for this reason
that Jolles himself, who tried to trace back the various
simple forms to particular mental impulses or activities
(Geistesbeschäftigungen), closed the way which
might have led to a Formbestimmung in the strict
sense of this word, in spite of the
theoretical-methodological novelty of his question: "Leading
back the concrete manifest simple forms to a Geistesbeschäftigung, the linguistic poetic code
characteristic of these forms is transferred into the
metaphysical sphere, and it is made inaccessible to an
empirical-poetological investigation" (Kanyó 1981:
Practically at the same time, a somewhat different line
of thought was developed by the two Russian scholars, Roman
Jakobson and Petr Bogatyrev. In a similar way to Jolles,
they too, argue in favor of a predominantly synchronous analysis of folklore in order to
determine both common and distinct traits of folklore and
literature. As opposed to Jolles, however, they do this with
an explicitly functional orientation, strictly
rejecting genetic questions. Instead, the notion of the
"preventive censorship of the community" is central to their
approach: "In a word, in folklore only those forms remain
which prove to be operative within the given community"
(Jakobson/Tynyanov 1929: 143).
The approach advanced by Jakobson and Tynyanov opened the
way for two important perspectives in analysing simple
forms: first of all, we obtain the possibility of actually
providing a Formbestimmung of a simple form's text on a synchronous level (which, of course,
implies a notion of language as a basic means of interhuman
communication), and secondly, it allows the investigation of
its function. Unfortunately, however, Bogatyrev's
call for the investigation of proverbs in their semiotic
aspect, promoted as early as in 1937, remained practically
unheard until the late 1960s.
Warning: Division by zero in /home/world68/public_html/DPjournal/DP,1,1,95/GRZYBEK.html on line 402 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.
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 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…
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
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.
Still, these two terms, text and function, should focus the semiotic study of proverbs, if a proverb is
to be understood as being a particular text to which a
particular function is ascribed or attributed within a given
Proverb research, at the time of Jolles, was still in a
relatively poor state. Quite typical is the statement of
Archer Taylor, who introduced his seminal book The
Proverb with the words: "The proverb and related forms
have long been objects of general interest and the occasion
for many books, but they have attracted little serious and
thorough study" (Taylor 1931: vii).
Modern investigations like to refer to Friedrich Seiler's Deutsche Sprichwörterkunde (1922) as the first
serious philological investigation of the proverb.
Interestingly enough, however, it was Jolles himself who
argued against Seiler's definition of the proverb as
"self-contained sayings current among the people, which are
of didactical tendency and of above-standard form", and who
rejected this definition as being incorrect and
unsatisfying. If a proverb actually has a "didactical
tendency", Jolles argues, has one to understand this as
being a necessary (obligatory) or possible (facultative)
quality? If proverbs are current in the Volksmund, how can one then accept Seiler's confession that there may
be proverbs which are common in the whole folk, and others,
which are known only in a particular village, district, or
group? Additionally, and mainly, for Jolles, a proverb is
"the form, which concludes an experience", and therefore it
is essentially oriented to the past, whereas Seiler ascribed
a moralistic-didactical (and therefore future-oriented)
tendency to it.
Many years later, Mathilde Hain, in her empirical
"folkloristic-sociological" investigation of the proverb,
tried to solve the discrepancy between these two viewpoints
by pointing out the general irrelevance of such an absolute
dichotomy. Showing that the strict either-or of experience
or morale cannot grasp the essence of the proverb, Hain
provided evidence for the essential polyfunctionality of the proverb. She did not, however, refer to the
theoretical concept of polyfunctionality, as it had been
developed in Czech structuralism with regard to language in
general, and by Petr Bogatyrev, with regard to folklore in
particular. Still, with her empirical orientation, Hain
entered a new field at least within the German-speaking
area, although Firth, who was later to become a leading
representative of functional cultural anthropology, had
referred to the importance of proverb context as early as in
1926, when he wrote: "The essential thing about a proverb is
its meaning,- and by this is to be understood not merely a
bald and literal translation into the accustomed tongue, nor
even a free version of what the words are intended to
convey. The meaning of a proverb is made clear only when,
side by side with the translation, is given a full account
of the accompanying social situation, - the reason for its
use, its effect, and its significance in speech" (Firth
The description of proverb meaning is, as was stated
above, not possible without reference to contextual factors.
Yet, it seems most reasonable, as Peter Seitel (1969, 1972)
argues, to take into consideration the importance of context
only as a potential, or virtual factor, and to abstract for
heuristic purposes from all contextual elements (such as
number, age, gender, social status of the involved persons,
etc.), and to outline the "ethic frame" of proverb use. The
heuristic model of proverb use developed by Seitel is based
on the central assumption that the situation in which a
proverb is actually used (the interaction situation) is not
identical with the situation inherent in the proverb text
itself (the proverb situation), and that both of them are
not or need not be identical with the situation the proverb
refers to, i.e., the situation to which it is intended to be
applied (the context situation[*4]). Thus, when
uttering a proverb, "the speaker asserts that the
relationship between the things in the proverb situation is
analogous to the relationship between the entities in the
context situation" (Seitel 1972: 147). Therefore, proverb
usage is related to two distinct, though closely related
processes, namely "the process of relating proverb situation
to context situation and the speech act of applying the
proverb in an interaction situation" (ibd., 240). The
distinction of the different types of situation involved in
proverb use can be summarized in the following schema:
Partially, such newly created proverbs can be technically
generated with the help of a computer. Baevskij (1970) made
such an attempt; as his starting-point he chose the logical
class K = P _ Q on a "semantic" level, syntactic
kernel formulae such as 'He ...who', 'Where
...there', and others, on a "morphological" level, and
integrated exclusively "traditional Russian" lexical items
in form of antonymic verbs with particular metrical
characteristics, on a "lexical" level. Thus he indeed got
proverbs such as, e.g., As you sow, so shall you
reap, and the like. Such a model can only work, however,
as long as the semantic oppositions implicit in the second
level of signification are realized in an equivalent form on
the first level of signification, too. In order to generate
proverbs such as A watched pot never boils, and many,
many others, one further utopic precondition would have to
be fulfilled: The whole stock of all possible and
conceivable realia, including all the associations and
connotations tied to them, additionally structured in their
hierarchy, would have to be included in a thesaurus. Thus
one need not agree with Permyakov's assumption that one can
easily understand a proverb of any culture without ever
having heard it before - this presupposes (in addition to
language knowledge, of course) at least the knowledge of all
relevant associations and connotations, and also perhaps
some knowledge about usage adequate to the relevant
All these considerations, however, go far beyond the
question of how proverbs, or proverb situations, are
modelled. These considerations are very similar to those
which were discussed in the beginning of this article. It
turns out to be true that the ultimate meaning of a proverb
cannot be predicted from the description of the modelled
proverb situation, or, in other words, that the description
of a modelled proverb situation cannot adequately grasp all
concrete (or possible) meanings of a proverb in a given
interaction situation. Yet,
one can, retrospectively, subsume all actually realized
meanings of a proverb under the model advanced by Permyakov.
And this is one of his fundamental achievements, namely to
have provided a framework able to describe these possible
proverb situations in a consistent system. Further questions
may be added.
Permyakov's system has suitably been called a
"Mendeleevian proverb table" (Kharitonov 1969) - a
formulation which adequately points out both the general
character of this model and the scientific exactness which
it aims at. On the other hand, Permyakov's conception has
been called a "hocus pocus system" (Krikmann 1971, Kuusi
1972), and it has been opposed to Kuusi's classificational
schema which has been termed a "God's truth system". Such an
evaluation has been derived from Permyakov's claim to
describe all actually existing and all possible
(conceivable) proverbs within the framework of his model
(Permyakov 1968: 42), and from the existence of so-called
"free cells" within this system. Such "free cells", however,
are well-known in linguistics, in particular in the field of
phonology (cf. Martinet 1955; Revzin 1978: 109ff.). The
juxtaposition of "God's truth systems" and "hocus pocus
systems" originally has been promoted in linguistics, too.
Householder (1952: 260) characterized this juxtaposition as
follows: "On the metaphysics of linguistics there are two
extreme positions, which may be termed (and have been) the
'God's truth' position and the 'hocus pocus' position. The
theory of the God's truth linguists [...] is that
language 'has' a structure and the job of the linguist is
(a) to find out what the structure is, and (b) to describe
it [...]. The hocus pocus linguist believes that a
language (better, a corpus, since we describe only the
corpus we know) is a mass of incoherent formless data, and
the job of the linguist is somehow to arrange and organize
this mass, imposing on it some structure [...]."
Roman Jakobson has repeatedly pointed out that such a
controversy is ultimately useless, and that the reason for
its discussion has to be seen in the fact that phenomena of
language have to be described with its own means, i.e.,
meta-linguistically (Jakobson 1962: 276). Householder (1952:
260), too, admits that ultimately it seems to be rather a
question of ideological-philosophical differences in
approaching one and the same question, partially arriving at
identical results, and he confessed, "it may be that these
two metaphysical viewpoints are in some sense equivalent."
That this observation directly concerns Permyakov's and
Kuusi's models, too, has been pointed out by Voigt (1977:
167): "Kuusi directly departs from the given material, and
he tries to arrive at the same results as Permyakov has,
with the help of the deductive method."
One may discuss how far Permyakov's approach actually is
a deductive one: firstly it has been developed out of the
merely practical need to work out a consistent system of
organizing a proverb collection, and it has been constantly
verified, modified, developed; secondly, his system is based
on the analysis of more than 50,000 proverbial sayings of
more than 200 cultures. In his approach, as in any
scientific approach, deductive and inductive ways of
developing scientific models cannot be strictly separated,
and they have to complement each other. Scientific models,
however, are secondary modelling systems too, being
superimposed on natural language, and the question of which
model finally turns out to be the "more correct" one, is
ultimately a question of adequacy and consistency, which can
only be proved when applied to the phenomena being
The adequacy of Permyakov's theory then, being a model of
(proverb) models, will have to be verified in investigations
to come. In any case, due to the consistently semiotic
approach in Permyakov's works (or in the works inspired by
him), Permyakov has, on the one hand, succeeded in solving
many questions in an innovative way, and, on the other hand,
he has brought up another set of questions, the answer to
which we will (hopefully) get only in the course of the
years to come, but, probably, not without reference to
The present text was originally
published in German as the introduction to the Semiotische Studien zum Sprichwort - Simple Forms
Reconsidered I (Grzybek, ed. 1984). An updated
version of that text was then published in English in Proverbium. An International Yearbook of Proverb
Scholarship, vol. 4 (1987); 39-85; I am sincerely
grateful for David Beal's friendly help in "anglicizing"
that text.- Except for minor stylistic changes, the
English text has been deliberately left mainly unchanged
for the present edition. The text thus basically reflects
the author's view as it was at that time. Those few
necessary alterations which imply either essential
modifications or additions, have been marked by an
asterisk ['*'] throughout both the text and the
footnotes, and they may easily be recognized.
Due to convention, the German term
"Einfache Formen" has been translated as "simple forms"
throughout this paper, although Taylor's (1962) proposal
"primary form", ultimately, seems to be more
Cf., for example, Sprichwörter - Analyse einer einfachen Form (Kanyó 1981), Simple Forms - Einfache
Formen (Kanyó, ed. 1982), Semiotische
Studien zum Sprichwort - Simple Forms Reconsidered I (Grzybek, ed. 1984), Semiotische Studien zum
Rätsel - Simple Forms Reconsidered II (Eismann/Grzybek, eds. 1987), Simple Forms. An
Encyclopaedia of Simple Text-Types in Lore and
Literature (Koch, ed. 1993).
On the basis of this standpoint, it
is easily possible to explain why a proverb such as Rolling stones gather no moss can "actualize"
rather heterogeneous connotations in different cultures
(cf. Milner 1969a,b; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1973; Ruef