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On the aptness of proverbs

Matti Kuusi

On the aptness of proverbs*

I have chosen as my subject for this lecture the question: 'To what extent does a particular proverb belong to a particular situation?'

Proverbs are, are they not, above all tools of conversation. A response receives additional weight when we do not speak merely with our own mouths - when our interlocutor realises that we are not using an individual expression of state of mind, but a general opinion.

Of course, proverbs have a thousand and one other uses. We shall meet one of them if today we walk along the side of the Railway Square and glance toward the National Theatre: on the gable of the building is a very un-Finnish, neo-American phrase, Cat on a hot tin roof. Folklore, which appealed to the ear, has hecome poplore, which appeals to the eye.

The real field of existence of every truly demotic phrase is conversation - thus, for example, in the work of Finland's national author, Aleksis Kivi (1834-1872), proverbs appear above all in conversation, in particular that of such characters as Juhani or Timo in Seitsemän veljestä (Seven brothers), Esko or Topias in Nummisuutarit (The heath cobblers) or the monologues or dialogues of the drunken soldiers in Olviretki Schleusingenissa (The Schleusingen beer-trip).

I shall divide the big question into three smaller ones: To what degree does the same situation automatically bring forth the same proverb or proverbs? How much choice does the speaker have? To what extent do different speakers influence the choice of proverb?

I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to organise a methodological test, a statistical experiment, to cast light on the question. Less than a year ago, on 6 May 1955, the Finnish Broadcasting Company broadcast a radio programme consisting of three miniature radio plays, each ot which broke off suddenly at a dramatic moment. Listeners were asked: What would you have said in this situation?

It was of primary importance that each experimental subject heard exactly the same truncated exchange and reacted to exactly the same situation.

Listeners were not explicitly encouraged to produce a proverb in response to what they heard on their radios. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the programme a situation was offered, as a kind of model, the response to which was a juicy proverb. And so, among around 4,000 letters that arrived the following week, in addition to individual mediations and quotations, there were some 3,000 genuine proverbs. In response to the first miniature playlet, 1,546 radio listeners had come up with a common proverb.

I do not, sadly, have in my brietcase a recording of that first truncated playlet. The voices were those of the stars of the Radio Theatre; they startled and stimulated every listener. But I shall read you the original text.

The playlet begins with the sound of conversation and the rattle of cofee-cups.

Hostess: Do have some more cake, have some more cake and biscuits; reverend sir, please do help yourself!

Dean: The cake is good, the cake is very good, but I don't think I dare take any more, I have to keep an eye on secular matters - my girth. (Laughter.) So, how is little Jussi, how is this house's eldest doing? He's at primary school now, isn't he, in the first form; little Jussi, oh, how exciting. How's little Jussi enjoying school'?

(Strained silence. Muffled coughs.)

Sharp, malicious female voice: Well, that's exactly what they say the primary school teacher asked last week - is Jussi stupid or just plain lazy, since he just can't learn his alphabet. I don't know, but that's what his teacher's supposed to have said.

Hostess: Our Jussi isn't stupid. And he isn't lazy either, so he isn't. He's so clever, so clever you wouldn't credit it, you should just see the pranks he gets up to. That boy will get into grammar school and university and all, he's got a mind like a razor even if not all the teacher misses realise it, he's so, so clever, he's just like his mother, and no one has ever called me stupid, or will do, either.

(What would you have said in this situation?)

The Department of Folklore hired a student, Pentti Huovinen, to sort and catalogue the responses. Last autumn (1955), another student, Martta Hytönen, presented in our seminar a cartographical study in which the responses provoked by the coffee-table conversation we have just heard were set in the mould of scientific generalisation.

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.

Now it is striking that the majority of the proverb responses sent in by radio listeners do not comment upon the central subject of the drama: the school progress of the little boy. The majority of respondents reply to the last rejoinder and, in particular, to the last stimulus it offers.

The hostess's protest can be divided into four theses:

1) My son is very clever.
2) My clever son will be educated to be a gentleman.
3) My clever son is like his mother.
4) I am very clever.

The real point of conflict of the entire drama is little Jussi's stupidity or cleverness. Nevertheless, the great majority of listeners reacted to the truncated drama with the proverb, Oma kiitos (kehu) haisee (Self-praise stinks [is cat's shit][1]) and Kukas kissan (koiran) hännän nostaa, jos ei kissa (koira) itse (Who raises the cat's [dog's] tail [on to the fence] if not the cat [dog] itself, FFC 236:118).

Both of these disparagements of self-praise belong to the group of popular Finnish proverbs (Kuusi & al. 1985, 139, 167).

Significantly fewer listeners (but still almost one hundred) would, in the same situation, have appealed either to the proverb Omena (hedelmä, oksa) ei putoa kauaksi puusta (An apple won't fall far from the tree / A pinecone won't fall far from the trunk, FFC 236:10) or the proverb Oma kunkin hyvä on, sammakonkin nuijapää (Everyone thinks their own are good, even the frog her tadpoles / The crow thinks her sons are the best of all, FFC 236:73). They, too, are both among the most popular of Finnish and European proverbs.

The last-mentioned proverbs appear to comment upon the central theme of our little drama: the biological or emotional interdependence between parent and child. Nevertheless, their frequency among the listeners' suggestions is less than half that of 'Self-praise stinks' and 'Who raises the cat's tail'. Why?

Perhaps 'An apple won't fall far from the tree' seems too wishy-washy to describe the relationship between the hostess and little Jussi? Perhaps the frog metaphor, too, is inadequate to doscribe the image the listeners formed of the hostess's motherly pride?

Perhaps in a real situation, any of us, deeply hurt, would defend ourselves by attacking whatever in the wounding remark is weakest, most irritating or obviously unfounded.

Praising one's own child is, in the modern Finnish perspective, considerably less heinous a fault of etiquette than open self-praise. Thus the majority of listeners who had empathised with the quarrel directed their ridicule at the self-praise.

But the decisive factor may have been that it was the self-praise stimulus that stood last in the sequence of four stimuli. It stayed in the mind. It demanded a reaction.

I return to the question that we originally set out to answer. Does a particular kind of situation automatically summon forth particular proverbs? Or does the listener always have freedom of choice?

I believe it to be a significant fact that around 95 per cent of the proverbial reactions brought us by the mail centre on two or three themes. Listeners attack the fact that the mother praises herself or her child uncritically, she praises prematurely, praises matters of which nothing can yet be known and concerning which it is therefore wiser to keep silence.

Only the apparently neutral 'An apple won't fall far from the tree' comment can compete with the 'Don't praise yourself' theme. In itself, it does not take sides in the quarrel. Only the speaker's tone of voice or expression can determine whether the proverb is being used in the sense of an ode or a satire.


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.

The counter-attack may be directed at the causes of the opponent's poverty: Aina on laiska vailla (Laziness always goes without), Ei Jumala laiskoia ruoki (God doesn't help the lazy), Ei naukuvan kissan suuhun hiiri tule (A mouse won't run into a sleeping cat's mouth, FFC 236:364), Kun kesät onkii, niin nälkä talvella tonkii (If you spend the summers fishing, you can spend the winters wishing). Nowhere is it made clear that the cause of Miina's poverty is laziness, but many respondents take it as read - as an old Finnish proverb says, Laiska hävinneen nimi on (Lazy is the name of the loser), and this appears still to hold its own.

There are dozens of such modes of rejection. The beggar can be sympathetically warned of getting into debt: Velka on veli otettaessa, veljenpoika maksettaessa (A debt is a brother when taken, a nephew [an enemy] when paid, FFC 236:383). The speaker can appeal to the virtue of thrift: Ei rikas jollei tivis (No riches without thrift), Ei saaden rikastuta, vaan säästäen (It is saving, not getting, that is the mother of riches, S 2036:10). The speaker can comment that one's own mouth is closer than a knapsack's, and draw her interlocutor's attention to the transparent nature of her sermon: Omaan pussiinsa päin pappikin saarnaa (The priest preaches to his own wallet). The beggar can be upbraided for her stupidity: Järkeä kerjätessäkin tarvitaan (Even beggars need their common sense), Vähä se on mitä vängällä saa, jos ei suosiolla anneta (A shameless beggar must have a shameful denial, S 149:3). The demotic language has an abundance of expression meaning 'shut up': for example, Puhu pukille, sanoi Sauna-Matti papille (Speak to the goat, said Sauna-Matti to the vicar), Alä kaakata kun et munikaan (Don't cluck if you lay no eggs), Musta olet jumalaksi ja valkea piruksi (You're too black for god and too white for the devil), Älä läykytä laihoja leukojasi taidat tarvita niitä vanhana kerjätessäs (Don't open your thin lips, you'll be needing them when you're an old beggar). Very common as a solution to the situation is the phrase, Ei tipu (Not a drop) - Ei tipu, sanoi akka kun sonnia lypsi (Not a drop, said the old woman who milked the bull), Ei tipu tiiliruukin pojille, lasiruukin pojatkin on vielä ilman (Not a drop for the brickworks boys, the boys from the glassworks haven't had theirs yet eighter), Ei tipu Topille pottuvoita (Not a drop of butter and potatoes for Topi), Ei tipu, sanoi Malkki kun tammikuussa mahlaa juoksutti (Not a drop, said Malkki when he tried to make the sap run in January), Ei tipu nokasta eikä tällä kertaa siitäkään (Not a drop from the nose, and not even that this time), Voi hurskas kurjuus mutta ei tipu sittenkään (O meek inheritance but not a drop all the same).

As we see, this last proverb situation differs greatly from the foregoing - the respondent does not generally take issue with the beggar's claims, the individual motifs of her speech, as was the case in dealing with the proud mother. Miina's Biblical quotation, her threat and reproach, are generally left well alone, and attack is countered with attack: you are lazy, you are poor, you are a beggar, you complain, you are stupid, you are hypocritical, you are greedy etc. Or the conversation is simply broken off: 'Not a drop, said the old woman who milked the bull'. In the case of this potato-borrowing scene, the dispersal of the proverb responses is far greater than in the case of the proud mother: there are positive responses, there are negative responses, and the motivation of negative responses is extremely varied, their tone ranging from apologetic, sympathetic self-defence to the coarsest of attacks.

It seems that all the different modes of reaction are to be found in all the provinces of Finland: rich and poor, gentle and brusque, ironic and sincere citizens appear to be fairly evenly distributed throughout the country. This is how it seems - on the other hand, it is also the case that if we read, for example, the southern Ostrobothnian and southern Karelian responses consecutively, it is impossible not to notice the difference, hut this may be more a matter of style than world view.


Epilogue 1993

'Let us forget about the text! Only the context is important!'

Such was the cry of a young Danish student in some world congress of ethnology in the 1950s.

A Hungarian scholar of folk tales replied: 'I am interested in paintings, framed or unframed. Storytellers and stories. Frames without paintings I leave to others to analyse.'

The argument about the primary quality of text or context had reached Finland, too, by the 1950s. At its most intense it recalled the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg.

I was reproached for the fact that, in 1953,

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.

Jos jossii ei ois, niin lehmäkin lentäis (If ifs and ands were pots and pans, cows might fly, S 1218:9), as they say in Savo.

A theory propounded by the Russian scholar Grigori Permyakov (d. 1983) suggests that every proverb is a response to a question that can, in principle, be answered by a positive, a negative or a neutral alternative. This has provided the base for my later attempts to construct a general theory of the textual and contextual dependence of proverbs.

A computer database founded on extensive international comparison material is in preparation in Helsinki. At this point it appears to support the idea that humankind (with the exception of some of the most primitive cultures) has at least 85 'global' proverb themes (known from ancient times in European, African, Islamic and east Asian cultures).

Thirty-seven years ago I ended my lecture with an answer to a question from a girl student who had doubted whether she could gain any practical advantage from our paremiological odyssey:

Our skill at languages, at thinking, at living, is tested every day. Quick wits make us star performers in the humana comedia. The capacity to say, but also to leave unsaid.

Lecture given at the University of Helsinki, 23 March 1956 (1993)

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. 105-113.

  1. Proverb-equivalents have been taken from the following works: FFC 236 = Kuusi al. 1985, S = Stevenson 1948.


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