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'Still waters run deep', 'Speech is silver, silence is golden', 'Empty vessels make the most sound', these proverbs could be included in what Permiakov has referred to as a "paremiological minimum" of English proverbs, i.e. a central stock of proverbs necessary for cultural literacy (Permiakov, 1971, 1973, & 1989). This paper proposes that such proverbs about speech and silence comprise a proverb type. There have been various attempts to establish a system for the cross-linguistic comparison of proverbs, originally Taylor (1931) proposed the possibility of a proverb type which underlay a range of possible variants in different languages. M. Kuusi (1972) developed the notion of a proverb typology, and described proverbs from different languages which shared the same idea and were expressed in the same or a similar image as being variants of the same proverb type. The type is, therefore, a universal notion of which language-specific forms are considered to be variants. For example, in the case of speech proverbs, "Still waters run deep" also occurs in Russian along with an alternative: "There may be deep bottoms in still water"; it will be proposed that variants such as these are of the same type.

One of the difficulties with paremiological approaches which perceive the proverb as a self-contained proposition is that they provide no explanation of the widespread phenomenon of pairs of proverbs with apparently opposite meanings. For example, in contrast to those proverbs given above, we also find in Russian "Still waters undermine the bank" or "There may be the devil in still water". Semantic contradiction in proverb systems can only be accounted for in terms of the speakers' communicative intentions within a given context, this is because speakers' selections of fixed expressions will depend on their intentions which, in turn, vary according to the context of utterance. The questions which this paper aims to answer are: in general terms, what can we learn about human communication from a study of proverbs? Secondly, can communicative intention provide an effective basis for the classification of proverbs referring to speech and silence? Thirdly, do they constitute a source of ethnographic data? A total of 123 proverbs which are translated into English from 41 different languages will provide data to support the answers which are proposed to these questions.

Since we are attempting to explore the topic of proverbs which relate to speech and silence from a cross-linguistic perspective it is important to consider the function and purpose of proverbs and how they exhibit more general, and possibly universal, intentions in human communication. Proverbs provide excellent data for illustrating what Grice (1975) has described as the Co-operative principle: "Make your contribution such as is required at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you engage".

Proverbs adhere to the four maxims of the Co-Operative Principles: Quantity, Quality, Manner and Relation. In terms of Quantity, they are brief but informative. In terms of Quality, they reflect what the speaker perceives to be true and for which they have evidence in the form of the conventional wisdom which they represent; although, it is claimed, the truth value of a proposition expressed in a proverb depends on the speaker's topic and purpose rather than on its inherent truth. For this reason, it is necessary to refer to the context of their utterance to guage adherence to the maxim of Quality. Thirdly, in terms of Manner, they are brief and orderly and in terms of Relation, the frequent use of analogy and metaphor often makes their relation with preceding discourse somewhat obscure; in such cases the hearer resorts to conversational implicature. When interpetation is problematic, for example when the hearer is a foreigner, the speaker may find it appropriate to offer an explanation of the proverb's relevance to the topic of conversation. As Arora (1995) has pointed out:

The listener's identification of a proverb is a two-fold process involving first the abstract notion of "proverb" as it is culturally or ethnically conceived, and secondly a means of assigning individual utterances to that genre.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 2:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

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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 last category of proverbs are those which compare speech with action. The communicative intention in such proverbs is to present speech as an alternative to action.

Table E: Proverbs which compare action positively with speech
Actions speak louder than words. (English)
Talking is easy, action is difficult. (Spanish)
Slow in word, swift in deed. (Chinese)
Word a mout' no load 'pon head. (Jamaica)
Talk is cheap but it takes money to buy whisky. (American)
Your militia are great talkers and little doers. (American)
Many words will not fill a bushel. (American)
An oven whose door does not shut does not bake its loaves. (Maltese)
Many words do not fill a basket. (Yoruba)
A talkative bird will not build a nest. (West African)
Empty words do not fill one's stomach. (Turkish)
The cheese vessel will not sail merely by words. (Turkish)

We can see in these proverbs a view on life which can be summarised by the concept of the work ethic; that is that those who talk are an impediment to the achievement of material goals. There is also the same perception of talk as implied by the folk saying: "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me"; it is ultimately action rather than talking which changes the world. It is worth noticing that when action is compared with speaking, it is in fact a certain type of speaking which is negatively evaluated i.e. talking. To talk to someone implies something more casual and of less import than speaking to them; this sense carries over into the noun forms: a speech is certainly a more formal event than a talk.

The category of proverbs which positively evaluate action as compared with speech (or talking) includes proverbs from nine different languages.

Having explored some of the universal and cross-linguistic features of proverbs which taken together comprise the type 'speech proverb', and demonstrated how communicative intention can be used as a basis for their classification, it remains to consider the last of the research questions regarding proverbs as a source of insight into ethnographic attitudes and culture-specific perspectives on speech. There are a number of difficulties here, not the least of which is the absence of information on the relative frequency with which each of the proverbs in the above tables are used in each of the cultures concerned. Much research is done in this field which relies exclusively on published collections of proverbs as isolated sentences. Claims for proverbs as a source of information on ethnogaphic perspectives requires some indication of the relative frequency of occurence of these speech events. However, we can first identify the frequency with which proverbs from certain languages appear in the above tables:








































While the study of proverbs relating to a single topic may not be representative of the full range of proverbs, we can agree with Fischer & Yoshida (1968), McNeil (1971) and de Caro (1987) that proverbs are of some importance as a source of insight into the cultural norms and beliefs of the speakers of these languages. We can see, for example, that in Japan, the proverb is an effective means of recommending silence as playing a culturally acceptable role in communication. Fischer and Yoshida related this to demographic factors proposing the hypothesis that Japan's population density lead to forms of control over all forms of potentially aggressive behaviour. From a sociolinguistic perspective we can observe that the traditional nature of Japanese society is reflected linguistically in the complexity of address terms, honorific suffixation, register and lexical choice in Japanese. The cumulative effect of social constraints within a hierarchical society is that it is not possible to communicate without providing explicit evidence of one's perception of the relative status of speaker and hearer. This makes silence a preferred and sociolinguistically acceptable option. The use of the proverbs is further encouraged by the absence of status free pronouns:

References to the second and third person in Japanese are inevitably bound up with concepts of social status. (Martin 1988:1079)

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 2:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Arora, S.L. 1995 : "The perception of proverbiality." DE PROVERBIO: An Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies vol. 1, no.1

Arewa, E. O. & Dundes. A. 1964 "Proverbs and the ethnography of speaking folklore." American Anthropologist 66, 70-85

Brown, P. & Levinson, S.C. 1978 Politeness; some universals in language usage. Cambridge:CUP

Charteris-Black, J. 1995 "Proverbs in communication" Journal of Multilingual Multicultural Development, Vol 16 no.4 259-268

Cole & Morgan 1975 Syntax & Semantics. Academic Press:London

De Caro, F. 1987 "Talk is cheap: the nature of speech according to American proverbs." Proverbium, 4:17-37

Fischer, J.L. & Yoshida, T. 1968 "The nature of speech according to Japanese Proverbs." Journal of American Folklore, 81:34-43

Grice, P. 1975 Logic & Conversation. in Cole & MorganSyntax & Semantics. Academic Press:London

Kuusi, M. 1972 "Towards an International type-system of proverbs." Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia. Reprinted in Proverbium 19 (1972):699-736

Martin, S.E. 1988 A Reference Grammar of Japanese. Tokyo:Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.

McNeil, W.K. 1971 "The nature of speech according to Indian proverbs." Folklore Forum Vol 4: 2-14

Permiakov, G.L. 1971 Paremiologicheskii eksperiment. Materialy dlia paremiologichesko minimuma. Moskva:Nauka

Permiakov, G.L. 1973 "On the paremiological minimum of language." Proverbium 22: 862-863

Permiakov, G.L. 1989 "On the question of a Russian paremiological minimum." Translated by Kevin J. McKenna. Proverbium 6:91-102

Searle, J.R. 1969 Speech acts: an essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge:CUP

Taylor, A. 1931 The Proverb. Cambridge/Masssachusets:Harvard University Press

Jonathan Charteris-Black
English Language Institute
University of Surrey
Surrey GU2 5XH
United Kingdom

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