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The well-known group of the three monkeys, of which one holds its hands to its ears, another to its eyes, and the third to its mouth, raises many interesting questions that I can formulate without being able to answer completely. We may begin with the question whether the group is in some way related to a European proverb, "Audi, vide, tace, si vis vivere (remanere) in pace." Records of this proverb are not very abundant, and I shall discuss only typical examples to show its history. In the earliest instance that I have found it is attached, although not very securely, to an exemplum which Hermann Oesterley calls ''Focus.''[1] This tells of a thief who threatens to break an oracle's head if it denounces him. The proverb does not seem to be regularly part of the exemplum, but in a sermon preached in Paris around 1300 it is a final moral in the form. "'Audi, vide, tace, si vis vivere in pace,' dicunt Lombardi."[2] From this ascription we may infer that it was not in general use in France at the time. By the end of the century it was sufficiently familiar for Eustache Deschamps to base a balade on it in 1392[3]. The motto of the balade is "Pour vivre en paix il faut être aveugle, sourd et muet." The first stanza runs as follows:

Qui veult vivre paisiblement
Sanz avoir peril de son corps,
Si ait gueule comme oliphant,
Et com taupe les oeulx dehors,
Et n'oie ne c'uns harens sors
S'il veult son corps et biens garder,
El face ainsi com s'il fust mors,
Sans veoir, oir ne parler.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 3:1996 & Issue 4:1996, 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.

We can perhaps infer the independent existence of the proverb from a very curious group of carvings at Goa. I have unfortunately been unable to learn anything about these carvings or whether they are still in existence. In his Storia do Mogor or Mogul India 1653-1708, an English translation of an account written in Italian, Portuguese, and French, the Venetian Niccolao Manucci, who spent more than half a century (ca.1656--1717) in India as a physician, describes three statues in a wall near the church of São Paulo (colloquially called the church of Bom Jesus).[11] One touches its eyes with its fingers, another holds its fingers against its ears, and the third has laid a finger on its lips. An inscription--Manucci does not make clear what language it was written in-- reads: "He who sees, hears, and says nothing, lives a life devoid of care." It is not clear that any inference can be drawn from the fact that the carvings were in the vicinity of a Christian church. The resemblance of the inscription to the European proverb that we have discussed is, however, striking. Whether the proverb was brought from Portugal to Goa and how and why the carvings came to be made must remain matters of speculation until some historian of Goa uncovers the facts. The resemblance of the carving to the group of the three monkeys is striking.

We turn now to the group of the three monkeys and must go to Japan for examples. They are perhaps best known to Europeans from a carving on a small building at Nikkõ shrine. The site and the shrine, which was built in 1635-1636, belonged to the Tokugawa family from 1603 to 1867. There are, as Professor Donald Shively tells me, earlier examples of the group in a Buddhist temple at Kyoto and in the Three Monkeys Hall at Awataguchi, which is also a Buddhist temple. In Japan, the notion of the three monkeys is characteristically associated with Buddhism and more especially with the Tendai (T'ient'ai) sect. They may, it has been suggested, represent the Three Dogmas of the so-called middle school of the sect.[12] Saichõ (Dengyõ Daishi, A. D. 727-822), the founder of the sect, is said to have carved them, but the ascription is far from certain. Others say that the three monkeys are to be traced back to Ryõgen (Jie-Daishi or Gansan-Daishi, A. D. 912-985), a reformer of the sect and the author of oracular and divinatory writings. Ryogen spells out the proverb in the so-called "Seven Monkey Poem," in which seven monkeys appear and play with puns and proverbs. Unfortunately, however, the ascription to Ryõgen is also insecure. It does not appear to be easily possible to clarify the obscurities in the date and authorship of these two references to the monkeys.

While we cannot get back to the beginnings of the notion of the three monkeys by studying these ascriptions, we are led to believe that it has a Japanese origin by certain grammatical peculiarities of the language. In the Japanese "Mi-zaru, kika-zaru, iwa-zaru" (Not-see, nothear, not-speak), the word "-zaru" (not) may also be understood to be "-saru" (monkey), as the latter word would appear according to rule in compounds. Since this pun is possible only in Japanese, the figures of the monkeys seem to be a Japanese invention. It is perhaps possible to see a second pun in "mi-zaru," which can be incorrectly read as "three monkeys," but native speakers are wholly unwilling to interpret "mi-zaru" in this way. The difficulty arises from the fact that the word "mi," which is also the numeral "three", cannot be used in counting monkeys. As I understand the grammatical situation, the suggested unacceptable pun would be something like saying "a herd of fish." That is to say, the word "herd" can be used in counting certain animals, but not fish. Whether "mi" can have suggested "three" to a Japanese ear is therefore a matter to be left to those familiar with Japanese grammar and the colloquial language.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 3:1996 & Issue 4:1996, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

And the difficulties do not end with those which have already been stated. Professor Y. R. Chao points out to me the theme in the Analects (Lin-yü) of Confucius, ch. 12: "The Master said: The improper--don't look! The improper--don't listen! The improper--don't speak! The improper--don't move!" This translation I owe to the kindness of Professor E. H. Schafer. There are here two injunctions to avoid paying attention to impropriety and two to avoid committing it. This pairing of the injunctions seems, however, to have had no significance for the development of the group of the three monkeys. The loss of the fourth Chinese injunction-- "The improper--don't move" might perhaps be interpreted as a Japanese preference for the number three. In the same way the popular European versions of Proverbs 30:15 "There are three things...and a fourth I know not" show a reduction from four to three. It may be significant that the Chinese, Japanese, and European injunctions have the same order--seeing, hearing, speaking--but this may be explained as the logical sequence of perceiving and reacting to a stimulus. At least one Japanese translation of the Analects uses the imperative nakare and thus adheres closely to the Chinese construction. It should be noted that the Japanese "Mi-zaru, kika-zaru, iwa-zaru" is an indicative and not an imperative sequence of verbs. It is conceivable that some Japanese version of the Analects or some one speaking colloquially may have used the impersonal third person indicative construction to reproduce the Confucian passage. We must, therefore, leave unanswered the question whether the Japanese words used to describe the three monkeys have a Chinese origin. Should we wish to see their origin in the Confucian Analects, we might say that the association of an abstract saying with animals having a significant relation to it seems also to have developed independently in the Near East or Europe.


*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 165-171

  1. Gesta Romanorum (Berlin, 1872), No. 57.
  1. B. Hauréau, Notices et extraits de quelques manuscrits latins de la Bibliothèque nationale, III (Paris, 1891), 90, 102.

  2. Marquis de Queux de Saint-Hilaire, ed., Oeuvres complètes de Eustache Deschamps, Société des anciens textes français, I (Paris, 1878), 188--197, No. 83.

  3. Burton E. Stevenson, The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Familiar Phrases (New York, 1948), p. 1767: 3, citing "Du Prestre qu'on porte," v. 303 in Montaiglon and Raynaud, Recueil général des fabliaux, IV, 10.

  4. This and the following examples are quoted from W. G. Smith and Janet E. Heseltine, The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (2d ed. by Sir Paul Harvey, Oxford, 1948), p. 286.

  5. Richard L. Greene, The Early English Carols (Oxford, 1935), p. 234, No. 343, stanza 6. Greene's editorial emendations seem obviously correct and are accepted without indication.

  6. T. H. Jamieson, ed., The Ship of Fools Translated by Alexander Barclay (2 v., Edinburgh, 1874), I, 200.

  7. English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (London, [l929]), p. 294.

    The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 3:1996 & Issue 4:1996, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

  8. For a definition of the Three Dogmas see W. E. Soothill and L. Hodous, A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms (London, 1937), p. 76.

This information I owe to the kindness of Mr. Albert Dien and Dr. Hiroko Ikeda. See the Dictionary of Japanese Ethnology (Nippon shakai minzoku jiten [2 v., Tokyo, 1952-1954], 1, 384, II, 506), with a photograph of a seventeenth-century Kõshin monument at Meguro, Tokyo. For a long discussion of Saichõ, Ryõgen, and the stone monuments see Yamanaka Kyõko, Kyõko zuihitsu "San-en tõ" (Tokyo, 1928), pp. 211-291. For additional photographs of carvings and a discussion of the Kõshin rite see JNõson shinkõ shi: Kõshin nembutsu-hen (Tokyo, 1943). Miwa Zennosuke, Kõshin-machi to Kõshin-to (Tokyo, 1935) has not been available.


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