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Research problems in loan-proverbs

Matti Kuusi

Research problems in loan-proverbs*

The field of research of proverbs is bounded on the one hand by the vocabulary and phraseology of language, and on the other by the many forms of folklore. If I say that Paavo Koli[1]) is an eagle (kotka) in the skies of academic politics, then the word kotka will be understood even in the town of Kotka. If I observe an examination group with eagle eyes, then it is a question of a phrasal crystallisation, a saying, which can be used as an element of construction in many different sentences. Sulillaan kokko ammutaan (The eagle is shot with its own feathers), on the other hand is a proverb. It has a fixed form, and it sketches in three words an idea that can be applied in many different circumstances: the 'kokko' can be, for example, a presidential candidate whose words and deeds are turned against him. Sulillaan kokko ammutaan is also a loan-proverb: its imagery originates in Aesop's fable, and had a life as a saying at least in 16th-century England - to be shot with one's own feathers (Tilley 1950, 208: F 166; see also Kuusi 1953, 304 and Stith Thompson 1957, 5: U 161).

Compared with adjoining areas, Finnish loan-proverbs are uncharted jungle. Lauri Hakulinen's work on the structure of the Finnish language (Hakulinen 1968) lists 26 Indo-European loan-words, 132 of Baltic origin and 72 old Slav loan-words, as well as some hundreds of Germanic and Swedish origin. 208 international legend types are encountered in Finland. No one has yet recorded the loan-proverbs, let alone determined their age and origin. Kaarle Akseli Gottlund, in his doctoral thesis De Proverbiis Fennicis (1818), did, it is true, claim to have found among Christoph Grubb's 4,575 Swedish proverbs only 25 which had a Finnish equivalent; of these, on the basis of linguistic fluency, he estimated six to have been loaned from Sweden to Finland, nine from Finland to Sweden, while ten remained undetermined.

In the early decades of the 20th century, A.A. Koskenjaakko made a considerably more thorough analysis of 823 Finnish proverbs (Koskenjaakko 1909, 1913, 1929). Among them, he found 177 loan-proverbs, of which 130 had only western equivalents, 12 only eastern equivalents and 35 equivalents in both west and east. Loan-proverbs made up 21 1/2 per cent of the entire sample. Since, for example, there are a little more than 5,000 different proverbs in the material that antedates the fire of Turku of 1827, one might make a preliminary estimate that this material might contain something over one thousand loan-proverbs; there might be a similar number of younger loan-proverbs.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 7:1998 & Issue 8:1998, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Why is the pig taken to Germany, in particular? 'Führe ein Schwein bis an der Rhein, es bleibt ein Schwein' (Wander 1876, 450: 96) has, in Swedish, received an impeccable svin - Rin - svin (swine - Rhine - swine) equivalent, but its Finnish translator has done away with both the rhyme and the Rhine and composed the following piece of linguistic merriment: Vie sika Saksaan, tuo sika Saksasta, sika sika sittenkin on (Take a pig to Germany, bring a pig back from Germany, a pig is still a pig). If it were a question of an academic test of German translation, the examiners would no doubt consider such freedom of interpretation a punishable offence. The anonymous translator was, nevertheless, right: the Mecca, Jerusalem, Rome, Paris and Rhineland of Finnish scholarship was, from the 15th to the 17th centuries, Germany. Historians of learning have described the brilliant representatives of cultural importation of the time, from Konrad Bitz to Mikael Agricola; the proverb flashes into view the obverse of the medal: many a swineish scholarship boy came home from Germany as swineish as he had left. The rare Vie porsas Puolaan redaction may originate from the second half of the 16th century, when the Polish refinement of the court of Duke John and the court of Sigismund was the height of fashion in Finland.

In the Swedish-language tradition of Finland, Stockholm and Germany compete for the most favoured place of education for pigs: 'Om man skickar ett svin till Stockholm, så är det dock bara ett svin, när det kommer tillbaka' (If a pig is sent to Stockholm, it is only a pig that will come back again), 'Sänd ett svin till Tyskland, så är det dock ett svin, då det återvänder' (Send a pig to Germany, it is only a pig that will come back again). Pigs have been sent from Porvoo to Holland, to the mouth of the Rhine, in other words, from Swedish Ostrobothnia to Riga and Tallinn (Solstrand 1923, 1906). Why is it that Germany is not dominant in the Finland-Swedish tradition as it is in the Finnish, or that the Finnish-speaking Finns never send their pigs to Sweden or Stockholm, as the relevant cultural histories might lead one to expect? Here a linguistic and aesthetic factor enters the picture: the Finnish translator's Vie sika Saksaan etc. is understood as a direct hit of creative invention, an expression of pessimism concerning education that has suppressed all alternatives in its own use-environments; the Finland-Swedes, on the other hand, have not succeeded in finding an absolute solution, and have been left to waver between different alternatives. 'Sänd ett svin till Tyskland' is probably one of the Fennicisms of the Finland-Swedish tradition.

The fact that a particular Finnish proverb corresponds to a foreign proverb is not, in itself, very interesting or problematic. The problems arise in the little alterations that the proverb experiences as it crosses linguistic and cultural borders. 'Roma non fuit una die condita' is, in Finnish Ei Turkuakaan tunnissa tehty (Even Turku wasn't built in an hour); 'Tous chemins vont a Rome' is, in Swedish, 'Alla vägar föra till Rom', but in Finnish Joka kylästä tie Turkuun menee (The road from every village leads to Turku; Düringsfeld & Reinsberg-Düringsfeld 1872, I:391 and II:604, Walter 1966, 26933a, Kuusi 1953, 277, Nirvi & Hakulinen 1948, 377). These proverbs know nothing of Helsinki, the present capital.

Not all of the changes can be explained with reference to the obvious actualities of geography, biology and history in the way that the replacement of the ass of the south with the pig or the substitution of Turku for Rome in the Finnish context. One could speak of differences in social climate, variabilities in national psyche, divergences between the world views and norm-systems of different peoples as well as changes in the deep structure of cultures in the dimensions of time and space. If we read a page of Erasmus of Rotterdam's Libellus Aureus or fly from Helsinki airport to Spain, we immediately experience that difference. To set it in proportion with the difference of proverbs is not as unambiguous as, for example, to explain why the pennies and marks of a modern Finnish proverb correspond to the öre and taler of 17th-century variants or the copeck and rouble in Russian equivalents.


Ingen ros utan törnen


Inga rose utan torn


Ingen rose uden torne


Keine Rose ohne Dornen


Geene rozen zonder doornen


No rose without a thorn


Il n'y a pas de roses sans épines


Ni roso sènso espino


Nignas rosas sainza spignas


No hay rosa sin espinas


Não ha rosas sem espinhos


Non c'è rosa senza spine


Nu e rosã fãrã spini


Nyet rozy bez sipov

It is difficult to explain why this extremely widespread European loan-proverb has not taken root in the Finnish tradition. I have encountered only a single variant, recorded in Luumäki, southern Savo, in 1944: Ei ruusua ilman piikkiä, and a couple of aphorisms apparently learnt from autograph books or samplers: Missä ruusu, siinä piikki, missä kukka, siinä mato (Where there is a rose, there is a thorn; where a flower, there is a worm) and Kauneimankin ruusun alla piilee piikki pistävä (Even the most beautiful rose has a sharp thorn: Finnish Literature Society folklore collections, HAKS 32 217, K.J. Varvikko 496 and VK 30: 111, Düringsfeld & Reinsberg-Düringsfeld 1872, I: 888, Gottschalk 1935, I 51-52, Zukov 1966, 3099). Translation difficulties or factors of botanical geography do not explain the rejection of this proverb. The rose bush has flourished in the Finnish climate for centuries, while the symbolism of the rose and thorn have not.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 7:1998 & Issue 8:1998, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

African loan-proverbs remain completely unresearched. In editing for publication the collection of Ovambo proverbs commissioned by the Finnish Academy in the 1930s, I have tried to provide a commentary on the basis of comparative material from Africa as a whole. It proves to be the case that there are considerably fewer proverbs known throughout Africa, or even to a number of Bantu tribes, than there are pan-European proverbs in any individual European country. The explanation can hardly be other than the absence of an integrating high culture in Africa.

The few pan-African proverbs are, however, extremely interesting. One of these runs, in the Ndonga language, 'Momutse gwomutumwa ihamu yi ombole' = the envoy's head is not to be cloven with an axe (Haapanen 1958, 112). It is easy to understand why a norm-proverb of this kind whould be able to transcend the barriers of clan and language. In answer to the doubts of African leaders as to whether the collection and comparison of ancient African aphorisms is worthwhile, one can cite this pan-African rule concerning diplomatic immunity and argue that by recording and publishing the fifty-odd pan-African proverbs it would be possible to create a more enduring base for the mutual understanding of the black continent than by repeating the slogans of Moscow, New York or Peking.


The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 7:1998 & Issue 8:1998, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

One can, of course, argue eloquently that loan-proverbs are the millennial mirror of the consensus and disagreement of the world's peoples. In reality, that mirror is covered by spiders' webs of many kinds. One country may censor all anti-ecclesiastical proverbs, another Christian proverbs, a third sexual proverbs, a fourth all proverbs that speak of poverty, because there is, in the country concerned, officially no longer any poverty. We cannot force foreign academies of science to obey our game-rules. At most, we can be wary for our own part of the very common practice in which the researcher, in looking into the mirror of proverbs, finds there his own prejudices. Scholarly self-criticism and international criticism are, in this late-arrived field of study, gradually becoming sharper. If there is in us any of the optimism of the Maaninka gnat, we can imagine that the sea of knowledge will slightly increase because we learn to know our loan-proverbs as loan-proverbs.


Matti Kuusi


*Reprinted from Mind and Form in Folklore. Selected articles of Matti Kuusi. Ed. by Henni Ilomäki. Studia fennica. Folkloristica 3. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura. Helsinki 1994, pp. 123-130.

  1. Paavo Koli (l92l-69), rector of the University of Tampere 1961-68

  2. According to an ecclesiastical and folk sacred legend, Finland's English-born Bishop Henry invoked the right of a representative of the Swedish crown to local food and lodging, when travelling on official business. He visited a Köyliö house whose master, Lalli, did not approve of his manners, but ran after the bishop and killed him. According to the legend, Lalli was severely punished.

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