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Basic images and formulae

Matti Kuusi

Basic images and formulae*

Laymen are inclined to see every proverb as its own unique entity: the independent expression in words of a creative perception. In reality, traditional ideas, images and schemata have a decisive influence on the formation of proverbial sayings: the great majority of proverbs and sayings originate as analogical forms of earlier proverbs.

The composer of a proverbial saying naturally derives his symbolic images in part from his close everyday surroundings. But almost as important a source is the imagery of earlier proverbs; one could almost say that the folk aphorist saw his everyday surroundings through the window of traditional symbology. The dog is, in Finland, a domestic pet, just as it is in north America, but there it is irregularly the symbol of faithfulness, in Finland of wretchedness unreliability. The sheep and lamb are, in Finland, symbols of the stupidity of the crowd mentality or antitheses of the wolf: Christian symbology does not appear to have been successful in usurping the traditional image. There are hundreds of proverbs about pigs, partridges and mice, while the elk, the lynx, the rat, the snake and the bear are either completely absent or very rare. Taboos explain the avoidance in the two last-mentioned cases, but otherwise the reason for the plenty or rarity of different symbolic images is probably traditional role division: the pig is a slovenly, obsessive glutton, the mouse and the partridge symbols of extreme smallness and insignificance - Apu hiirestäkin on (Help even from a mouse), Ei pyyssä kahden jakoa (One partridge is not enough for two). Animals that have not received a leading role have been unable to compete with the favoured symbols in the formation of new proverb metaphors. Once the salmon and the ruff were established as symbols of the great and small constant, there was no symbolic living-space for, for example, the pike perch or the bleak. Once the first cricket proverb had made a connection with eating, later versions followed. Harvoin on sirkka suuruksella (The cricket is seldom well-fed), Kun sirkka suurukselle pääsee, niin se laulaa lakeasti (When the cricket is well-fed, it sings broadly), Joko sirkan söi eli säästi (Has the cricket eaten or saved), Kaunis kakku päält nähden vaikk on sirkkoja sisällä (The cake is splendid enough, but there are crickets inside - Outward beauty is not enough) - although one would have thought that the cricket would suit other roles even better.

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.

For example, the similarity of the following group is much less obvious:

Olkinen ohrainen vuosi (A barley [poor] year is like straw).

Vihainen vähäinen vaimo pikkarainen paskarainen (A small wife is angry, a tiny one repulsive).

Huoleton hevoseton poika (Carefree is a boy without a horse).

Taidoton taloton vaimo, kunniaton kellariton (Unskilled is a wife without a house, without honour is one without a cellar).

Tekijä toruja nainen, talon nainen tappelija (A scolding woman is a doer, the woman of the house a fighter).

Terävä tekevän ase, tylsä veitsi tyhmän miehen (Sharp the weapon of an active man, blunt the knife ot a stupid one).

Enämpi vähempi härkä, matalampi korkeampi, musta härkä valkeampi (The greater the bull the lesser, the shorter the taller, the black bull the whiter).

Maksettu heritetty haava (A wound threatened is a wound repaid).

Unohdettu maksettu velka (A loan paid is a loan forgotten).

Annettu luvattu lahja (A gift promised is a gift given).

Tehty alettu työ (A task begun is a task done).

Ansaittu anottu ruoka, syöty leikattu pala (Food begged is food earned, a slice cut is a slice eaten).

Each case could be considered free improvisation on the part of the inventor. In reality, only one of the examples can be the first of its kind. The others are adaptations either of it or each other, just as Kaksi yhden herra (Two are the master of one), Olut on viinan täti (Beer is the aunt of liquor) and Huuto on hädän veli (A scream is the brother of distress) originate from the same foundry as Homer's 'Slumber and death, the twin brothers', and Quintilian's 'Greed is the mother of cruelty'. There is one formula, and then hundreds of proverbs cast in the same mould.

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. 142-144

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