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El refranero mexicano, como lo he mostrado en otra parte,[1] ha ido conformando su caudal ya con material tradicional,[2] ya con material acuñado sobre la marcha en los moldes de la tradición paremiológica. Un refranero, en efecto, sanciona las cosas que más importan a una comunidad. Por su carácter popular, un refranero es como una lengua cuyo léxico refleja los intereses de un pueblo. La manera como el refranero lo hace, es acuñando textos que emiten la opinión del grupo en torno a una situación que tiene importancia para el grupo humano. Así como en una lengua sólo se crean vocablos sobre los objetos o aspectos de la realidad extralingüística que interesa, así un refranero sólo crea, acepta y conserva refranes relativos a situaciones que tengan algún interés para el grupo humano.

Para la creación de un refrán nuevo, se toman los moldes paremiológicos tradicionales. Sucede exactamente como con los neologismos: se utiliza la capacidad del propio sistema para incorporar nuevos vocablos que, por lo mismo, se atienen a las reglas vigentes en el sistema lingüístico. Un refranero es, dentro de una lengua, como un magno sistema que determina, modela, sanciona y regula la creación de nuevos refranes.

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.

Uno de los problemas sociales novohispanos que dejaron su huella en el refranero mexicano fue, como no, el de los conflictos étnicos. Ello motivó la creación de una serie de refranes sobre el asunto. Como bien se sabe, el refranero novohispano evolucionó al ritmo de la conciencia nacional: mientras en los siglos XVI y XVII la gran mayoría de los refranes que funcionaban en el habla novohispana provenían del acervo español, durante el siglo XVIII emergieron una serie de refranes nativos al calor de la problemática cotidiana. Una parte de los refranes de que aquí nos ocupamos, formaban parte de un refranero novohispano prácticamente aún no estudiado; otra parte de ellos fueron acuñados en el siglo XIX y se conservan como un documento de la guerra de castas. Todos ellos tienen como denominador común un sustrato de pugnas interétnicas. He aquí nuestro pequeño cuerpo de refranes:

A barbas de indio, navaja de criollo.
Al español, puerta franca; al gachupín, pon la tranca.
¡Ay, Chihuahua, cuánto apache, cuánto indio sin huarache!
Cuando el indio encanece, el español no aparece.
Español que deja España y que a México se viene, cuenta le tiene.
Está como verdolaga en huerto de indio.
Indio con puro, ateo seguro.
Indio, pájaro y conejo, en tu casa, ni aun de viejo.
Indio que suspira no llega bien a su tierra.
Indio que mucho te ofrece indio que nada merece.
Indio que quiere ser criollo al hoyo.
Indio que va a la ciudad vuelve criollo a su heredad.
Indio que fuma puro ladrón seguro.
Indios y burros, todos son unos.
La pujanza del dinero hace el indio barrigón.
Más seguro, más marrao, dijo el indio.
Naturales son los indios.
No hay que darle la razón al indio aunque la tenga.
No hay indio que haga tres tareas seguidas.
No te fies de indio barbón, ni de gachupín lampiño, de mujer que hable como hombre, ni hombre que hable como niño.
No tiene la culpa el indio sino que el que lo hace compadre.
Pa' que sepas lo que es amar a Dios en tierra de indios.
Para un burro, un indio; para un indio, un fraile.
Para el caballero, caballo; para el mulato, mula, y para el indio, burro.
Pareces burro de indios, que hasta los tamales te cargan.
Pendejos los indios que hasta para miar se encueran.
Si es indio, ya se murió; si es español ya corrió.
Tanto dura un indio en un pueblo, hasta que lo hacen alcalde.
Ya ese indio perdió el chimal.
Ya se acabaron los indios que tiraban con tamales.


Se pueden distinguir en este refranero al menos tres grupos de refranes que corresponden a otras tantas situaciones distintas. Un primer grupo está constituido por refranes que tratan de indios desde el punto de vista sea criollo, sea español: "indios y burros, todos son unos"; "no hay indio que haga tres tareas seguidas"; "no hay que darle la razón al indio aunque la tenga"; "para un burro, un indio; para un indio, un fraile"; "ya ese indio perdió el chimal"; "pa' que sepas lo que es amar a Dios en tierra de indios"; "para el caballero, caballo; para el mulato, mula, y para el indio, burro"; "a barbas de indio, navaja de criollo"; "indio que quiere ser criollo al hoyo"; "indio que va a la ciudad vuelve criollo a su heredad".

En estos refranes, un interlocutor A habla con un interlocutor B sobre indios. Se pueden hacer, obviamente, varios tipos de análisis con estos refranes. Cada tipo de análisis a los que se someta este pequeño cuerpo de refranes nos daría una información distinta. Por ejemplo, en ese pequeño grupo de refranes hay un solo refrán connativo: la forma del refrán es una interlocución: "pa' que sepas lo que es amar a Dios en tierra de indios".

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.

Un sistema semiótico es un mecanismo para producir significaciones; los refranes lo son. De hecho el funcionamiento discursivo de un refrán tiene una estructura emblemática que es, ni más ni menos, que un pequeño pero eficaz sistema semiótico. Para desmontarlo, así sea someramente, hemos comparado su funcionamiento original con lo que queda de él en el sistema paremiológico mexicano contemporáneo. De esta manera, puestos de relieve sus protagonistas originales, y reconstruida tanto la situación que da pie al surgimiento del refrán a la par que descubierta la lógica que lo mueve, tenemos en el refranero un pequeño observatorio que nos permite ver de cerca los graves conflictos de identidad en una nación donde cada uno de los grupos que la conforman se van configurando penosamente a fuerza de luchas. Cuando ese momento violento mengua y las identidades se afianzan, el refranero conservará aún, sobre todo entre los vencidos, los polvos de aquellos lodos reducidos a veces a insultos, mal sabor de boca, a vulgares burlas o a simples menosprecios, muestra, en todo caso, de que el problema de la identidad ha dejado una huella bien visible en el que aún puede servir de pista para desandar con ojo avisor parte del camino.


*El presente ensayo es una versión muy abreviada de un texto más vasto que fue presentado en el XIV coloquio del Colegio de Michoacán en agosto de 1992 bajo el título "semiótica de la identidad en el refranero mexicano" y que apareció luego publicado en Agustín Jacinto y Alvaro Ochoa (editores), Tradición e identidad en la cultura mexicana, Zamora, El Colegio de Michoacán, 1995.

  1. Véase mi libro Refrán viejo nunca miente, Zamora, El Colegio de Michoacán, 1994.

  2. La mayor parte de los textos que componen los refraneros hispánicos vienen del rico caudal paremiológico de los refranero españoles de los siglos XVI y XVII, los siglos de oro del refrán español; otra parte importante viene, de una manera o de otra, de la Biblia; una tercera, de la literatura clásica grecolatina; finalmente, un gran acervo constituye un cuarto grupo de textos que vienen de la paremiología universal: peregrinos que van de cultura en cultura, moneda en curso que se bruñe mientras pasa de mano en mano.

  3. Véase Concepción Teresa Alzola, Habla tradicional de Cuba: refranero familiar, Miami, Asociación de hispanistas de las Américas, colección ensayos, 1987, pág. 93.

  4. Op. cit.

  5. Bogotá, Ediciones Espiral Colombia, 1951.

  6. Zaragoza, 1549.

  7. Darío Rubio, Refranes, proverbios y dichos y dicharachos mexicanos, ed. P. Márquez, México, 1940, 2 vols., p. XXIV.

  8. Véase Nicola Abagnano, Diccionario de filosofía, segunda edición revisada y aumentada, México, FCE, 1974, p. 1068.

  9. D. Rubio, Op. Cit., tomo I, p. 90.

  10. Sobre el asunto de la desmitologización se ha escrito mucho: en el ámbito de la desmitilogización bíblica son célebres los trabajos de Rudolf Bultman y las polémicas que suscitaron hasta bien entrada la década de los setenta; otras aportaciones vinieron del psicoanálisis como la de Bruno Betelheim. Para el asunto que nos ocupa, puede verse, en concreto, Vladimir Propp, Raíces históricas del cuento, Madrid, Editorial Fundamentos, 1979; véanse, además, los trabajos de Georges Dumézil, para el caso, puede verse Del mito a la novela, México, FCE, 1973.

  11. La expresión "refranes mestizos" puede referirse a dos cosas: a) puede designar los refranes textualmente híbridos que, por lo demás, abundan en el refranero mexicano; los mecanismos de esta hibridación son varios y forman parte de una investigación en proceso: se trata de un tipo de mestizaje paremiológico en el que el refrán mexicano conserva ciertos elementos de un antepasado español --generalmente la estructura-- y los adapta, combina o aplica a la realidad mexicana. b) En este texto, a no ser que se diga otra cosa, usaremos la expresión "refranes mestizos" como sinónima de "refranes de mestizos" y designa, como el nombre lo indica, los refranes que expresan el punto de vista de los mestizos.

  12. Véase nuestro estudio "La comida en el refranero mexicano: un estudio contrastivo" en Janet Long (compiladora), Simposio 1492: encuentro entre dos comidas, UNAM, Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, en prensa.

  13. Op. Cit., tomo I, p. 32.

Herón Pérez Martínez
El Colegio de Michoacán
Martinez de Navarrete 505
Esquina con Avenida del Arbol
59690 Zamora


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