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1. The modal (functional, pragmatical) indefiniteness.

As we know, proverbs do not function as mere poetic adornments of speech; neither are they used, normally, to meet man’s needs for philosophical phrasemongering. As a rule, they are used for some practical, pragmatical purposes in various circumstances of everyday communication. With the aid of a proverb one can aim to provide an endorsement to his statements and opinions, forecast something, express doubts, reproach someone with something, accuse someone of something, justify or excuse somedody, mock somebody, comfort somebody, jeer at somebody’s misfortune, repent something, warn against something, advise something or interdict somebody from doing something,and so on, and so forth. It is unthinkable to consider the proverb apart from such pragmatic functions.

Unfortunately, paremiologists have so far only some vague ideas of the functions of proverbs. Moreover, the proverb lies just somewhere on the borderlands between language and folklore, and shares its functions with both of them, and one cannot say there is a notable agreement between the conceptions of different authors on the functions of language or folklore, neither is there a notable unity in the terminology used by different authors who have written on these matters.1 We accept here a more simple and widespread scale, namely the set of three degrees:

statement ---> evaluation ---> prescription.2

We suppose, however, this scale should fit in with the nature of the proverb, and it has, incidentally, the virtues that it (a) operates with concepts general enough, and (b) allows to consider the set of its subfunctions (or functional aspects) as a unified system. 

The functional aspects mentioned are in certain relationship with grammatical moods of the sentence. Hence the illusion may arise that proverbs can be classified functionally straight on the ground of their "superficial" grammatical moods, so that the proverbs with stating (designative, informative) function were represented with indicative sentences, and those with normative (prescriptive, evocative) function, respectively, with imperative sentences.3 This illusion, however, would be immediately shattered against two complications:

  1.  the evaluative (emotive, expressive) function has no separate or distinct manifestation (or "surface equivalent") in the shape of any grammatical mood;
  2. as affirmed by several authorities, every verbal utterance fulfills not only one function, e.g. that corresponding to its grammatical mood, but all its main functions (or at least several different functions) simultaneously;4 otherwise, a context-free proverb, like any other utterance, is functionally indefinite.

It is likely unreasonable to imagine that the proverb could have its say about the matters which have no social relevance or topicality, or in situations including no alternatives, or that it could state something with entire indifference, or put forward statements which let no strategic (prescriptive) advices or hints to be derived from them. It also appears to be obvious that a proverb cannot order, interdict, advise anything without qualifiying previously as good or bad (or axiologically irrelevant) either the suggestable or forbiddable activity or attitude itself or something linked to this activity or attitude, e.g., its end, means, degree of intensity, speed, time, place, etc.; and if the proverb puts forward appraisals, these appraisals are, in turn, likely to be founded on some cognized truths, laws and regularities (or current opinions, beliefs or at least prejudices).

Let us take, for example, the common Estonian proverb Kes kopikat ei korja, see rublat ei saa (literally: Who does not gather the copeck that will not get the rouble. Superficially, this sentence is a pure statement. However, we are not capable of describing its meaning to any extent without taking into account the pragmatical "connotations" and axiologic qualities of its main c-elements copeck and rouble. Thus, we must immediately introduce the axiological concept of ‘good,’ reasoning roughly as follows: (1) ‘the copeck is money’; (2) ‘the rouble is money’; (3) ‘the money is a good’; (4) ‘the rouble is a greater denomination than the copeck’; (5) ‘the rouble is a greater good than the copeck.’ Hence we get the following description on the stating-evaluative level: (6) ‘who does not gather (spare) a lesser good, that will not achieve a greater good’; further, the concept of ‘good’ can be specified, establishing the opposition between its hedonic and utilitarian aspects; (7) ‘not-gathering (squandering) is more pleasant’; (8) ‘gathering (sparing) is more useful.’ The premises mentioned enable us to give some interpretations on the prescriptive level; (9) ‘gather (spare) small goods’ – i.e. active "real strategy"; (10) ‘squander (do not gather) small goods, but remember that then you must content yourself with your present state, desist from striving for a quantitatively higher state in some sense, etc.’ – i.e. a pasive "pseudostrategy." The description can be extended to some thinkable ironical, axiologically "inverted" uses as well, the meaning ‘to strive for gathering’ of the word to gather being altered into ‘to enable gathering’ and the axiologic qualifier ‘evil’ being substituted for the qualifier ‘good.’ Then summarized description on the stating-evaluative level might be ‘who does not strive for/enable the accumulation of the good/bad quantity in some pragmatically important aspect, that reaches/avoids the leap to the desirable/undesirable quality (in some aspect bound with the previous one)’. 

Thus, it feels rational indeed to conceive each proverb text as performing all the three functions mentioned simultaneously. On the other hand, the far or deep-reaching interpretations of such kind may often prove uncheckably arbitrary and "concocted."

The functions under discussion could be arranged in a certain natural way: statement ---> evaluation ---> prescription.This arrangement reflects the general succession of the stages of human cognition (cf. e.g. Lenin’s well-known formula: immediate (sensual) apprehension ---> abstract thinking ---> practice). So, from the theoretical or gnosiological point of view, the informative stage would be the lowest, the evaluative stage the intermediate and the prescriptive one the highest. It is interesting to note that from the historical point, if we consider these modes as the historical forms of presentation the information serving the purpose of social regulation, the genetical sequence of the stages appears to be diametrically opposite: according to J. A. Levada (1966:68–69) the historically lowest, in this respect, is just the directly expressed norm, prescribing that the ancestors’ practice and customs be kept, and the highest is the informative form where the addressee himself must draw conclusions from the circumstances (facts, opinions, etc.) he was apprised of, and behave accordingly. Anyhow, the stating and prescriptive functions occupy extreme positions on our scale, and at the same time they can be explicit as to their formal manifestation. As a rule, the evaluative stage that lies between them is, vice versa, formally implicit. The proverb disposes of almost no formal devices for expressing its attitudes towards its topics except the f-pattern Better... than... and some other similar ones. Usually the appraisal occurs implicitly, being hidden into the tropical tissue of the sentence, or it can be judged of only by extratextual para-factors in a concrete actualization, such as the intonation and the facial expression of the speaker, his social, sexual and age characteristics, etc. The evaluative aspect, on the one hand, plays a very important role in the semantic strucutre of the proverb, for it is this aspect that directly determines the implicit prescriptive output in the proverbs with informative "surface function" (or indicative mood). On the other hand, grasping the evaluative "shades" and "nuances" of single lexical components and syntagms of the proverbial sentence and judging of the evaluative total qualifier of the sentence as a whole are the things often very troublesome to do, especially without any support from the contextual data, and they cannot be done without a good deal of arbitrariness. By the way, this complication is ill-natured in the sense that it enables to assign to proverbs ad hoc just such convictions and attitudes the investigator is seeking for.

Let us give an example about the axiological ambiguity of the proverbial trope. Accroding to G. B. Milner, the English and Scottish versions of the proverb Rolling stones gather no moss have axiologically reverse meanings, depending on different interpretation of the words rolling and moss: (a) the English version: ‘a restless,unstable, wandering from place to place, etc., person gathers no money, wealth, property, etc.'; (b) the Scottish version: ‘an active, keeping on the move, etc., person "gathers" no staleness, stagnation, etc.’.

The following is an example about the extratextual factors. Let us take some proverbs about social inequality, e.g. Kel vägi, sel võimus (literally: Who has the might that has the power), Vaene on rikka roog (literally: The poor is the rich’s food) or any other. If the contextual data are lacking, different investigators can conceive them as expressing different sentiments and attitudes, such as: (a) vigorous social criticism, realization and exposure of or protest against social unjustice and the power of money in the class society; (b) sorowful irony of working people at their desperately difficult and hopeless social and material status; (c) sentiments of resignation, non-resistance, obedience, etc., implanted in the minds of working people by the ruling classes or springing from narrow-mindedness and conservatism of the peasantry itself; (d) cynical self-justification of the exploiting classes, or their attempts to show social inequality as natural, inevitable and eternal, and so on. The texts under discussion can, on principle, express all the listed attitudes and some others as well, but the c-elements might – power and food have here a too neutral "timbre" to decide which of these or other cases have or have not occurred actually in oral tradition, and how frequently.5

If we use N for denoting some material sitation concealed in a proverb with stating surface function, then, depending on the actual presence/absence (truth-value) of N and on its axiologic value (good/bad), 8 different prescriptive outputs can be derived from it: (1) ‘retain N’; (2) ‘abolish N’; (3) ‘attain N’; (4) ‘avoid N’; (5)...(8) the passive equivalents of them.6

Beyond the axiological aspect, the modal indefiniteness of the proverb can manifest itself also in numerous other forms. In subsequent, we shall briefly refer to some of them.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 9:1999 & Issue 10:1999, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Example 2.

Ära vanasse kaevu sülita, kui uus valmis pole.


Don’t spit into the old well if the new one is not ready.)

<-------- syntagm (a) --------> <--------syntagm (b)----->

In this example we consider only two actualizations, reverse as to their information-bearing structure.

Actualization 1. Somebody has the "new well half done," and though he has no concrete intensions concerning the "old well," someone warns him, just in case, with this proverb. The addressee finds that his present performance or state can nohow remind of "spitting," but the (metaphorical) situation of "unfinished state of the new well" is quite fitting to refer to the existent (real) situation – consequently, syntagm (b) ought to be regarded as the given information. Further, the addressee has to interpret the metaphor in syntagm (a) to realize against which action he had been warned. Thus, syntagm (a) is what carries the new information on the surface function level. The following procedures on the deep function levels should clear up how the given interdiction ensues from the given actual situation, finding what actual referents the implied components of the allegory (such as "water," "thirst," "drinking" etc) might have.

Actualization 2. Somebody shows disrespect for something or somebody "old" (past, former), or intends to break off the intercourse with it (him), or to do away with it (him), or to destroy it (him), etc. Doing so he is not conscious of possible bad consequences of his behaviour, and is admonished: "Don't spit into the old well if the new one is not ready!" The given information contains in syntagm (a). Connecting the interdictive modal construction don’t with this syntagm introduces the first stage of the new information. Thus, here the "rhematic" operations begin at the prescriptive level. Further, here the operations on deep function levels, motivating the interdiction received, must also follow.

Example 3.

Parem kodu kooruke kui voorsil vooleib.


Better a crust at home than bread and butter in a foreign place).
<---syntagm (a)---> <----------------syntagm (b)-------------->

Depending on the concrete situation, either syntagm (a) can be topicalized (e.g. if someone grumbles at the scantiness of the "crust of home"), or syntagm (b) (e.g. if someone’s well-being in foreign parts has previously been praised). The whole "material information" conveyed by the text can be given as well, analogically to Actualization 3 in above Example 1. It must be remembered, however, that this proverb is one of those relatively rare specimens with evaluative surface function, and deriving its deep functions ought to proceed somehow otherwise, as compared to the texts with "normal" (indicative or prescriptive) surface function; on principle, we can move here in two different directions from the surface function level. Hence considering the stages of moving of the new information at deep function levels is connected here with complications too.

Example 4.

The sentences A tree is known by its fruit and Lolli tuntakse suurest naerust (literally: A fool is known by much laughing) display a very similar surface structure, but differ notably in the possibilities of their actual division. In the first sentence, apparently, either of the c-elements tree and fruit can perform the role of the given information, while in the second one only much laughing can be topicalized. Conceivably the difference is due to different interrelations between the concrete c-elements in either case: between the "tree" and the "fruit" a 1:1 relation seems to be presupposed, while laughing fools constitute, obviously, only one of all possible kinds of fools, and fool as such rather belongs to the evaluative than to the stating modal level. Thus, the reception of the proverb about the laughing fool would proced roughly so: on the surface function level much laughing is given, fool is the new information (more exactly, the predication ‘the laughter is a fool’); the interpretation moves ahead on the evaluative level: ‘to be (regarded as) a fool is obviously bad’--->’if being taken for a fool results from much laughing, much laughing is bad too’--->the prescription: ‘do not laugh too much.’

In the few examples above we attempted to demonstrate merely the indeterminacy of the information-bearing structure of the proverb text, without any ambitions to deal with theoretical and methodical problems of the actual division of proverb texts. We are fully aware that actually the process of linking proverb texts with their contexts is a notably more complicated process than the above examples can show.13

3. Textual indefiniteness of the proverb as a type.

There is an essential misconception which has tenaciously reoccurred in the writings of several authors up to the present moment. It is the point of view that proverbs represent a sort of "’ready-made’ utterances" which "permit no extension or variation" (Lyons 1971:177) or "cliches" with invariable wording which circulate "in the once and for all fixed form" (see, e.g. Permyakov 1968a:9). Obviously enough, cnceptions of this kind can arise only if the investigator has a relatively small number of texts at his disposal, or if he works mainly at printed sources, particularly with more ancient ones. These sources often obtained their content not from the living oral tradition, but, let us borrow R. Abrahams’s (1967:182) witticism, "begged, borrowed and stole" it from other, still earlier printed sources.


The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 9:1999 & Issue 10:1999, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.



Previously published in Proverbium 2 (1985), pp. 58-85.
Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA).

1 For functions of folklore see, e.g. in Bascom 1954; a comprehensive review of the functions of language and of conceptions concerning them can be found in Robinson 1972. The functions of the proverb, as well as those of folklore in general, have been conceived mostly as appearing in a more general social and cultural context. The present writing, on the contrary, intends to focus just on the communicative functions of the proverb, closely linked with its actual (vis. Virtual) aspect. Thus, our concept of the proverbial function differs greatly from the meaning of this term as understood by some other authors (cf., e.g., Voigt 1970a, 1970b; Szemerkényi & Voigt 1970; Jason 1971 etc.).

2 This triad might be paralleled with some other scales and opinions, more or less analogous to it.
(1) V. I. Lenin’s (1969:152-153) famous formulation of the dialectical way of cognition; “Ot zivogo soèercanija k abstraktnomu myšleniju i ot nego k praktike...".
(2) A. Taylor’s (1965:7) statement: the proverb "summarizes a situation, passes a judgement, or offers a course of action"/Underlining mine. A. K./.
(3) The well-known triplet of the functions of language, elaborated by K. Bühler (1933): the so-called aspects of the first, second and third persons. The same aspects have been presented by R. Jakobson (1960:353ff.) as the principal functions among his so-called six basic aspects of language, i.e. (a) the referential (or denotative, or cognitive) function, focused on the context (the "aspect of the third person"); (b) the emotive (or expressive) function, focused on the addresser (the "aspect of the first person"); (c) the conative function, focused on the addressee (the "aspect of the second person").
(4) Section B ("task area: attempted answers") in R. F. Bales’s classification of the functions of verbal acts, characterizing the interactions in problem-solving groups, and namely: a verbal act (in its 6th function) "gives orientation, information, repeats, clarifies, confirms"; it gives opinion, evaluation, analysis, expresses feeling, wish" (the 5th function); it "gives suggestion, direction, implying autonomy for other" (the 4th function) (cited from Robinson 1972:44).
(5) Ch. Morris’s (1955:95-103) kinds of pragmatic signs: designator, appraisor and prescriptor.
(6) The branches of logic, incl. the two more developed branches of modal logic: (a) "ordinary" (propositional) logic that considers statements from the point of view of their truth-value; (b) axiologic logic that is concerned with appraisals and operates with the categories of good, bad, idifferent, better than, worse than, etc.; (c) deontic logic that deals with problems of norms, orders, interdictions, permissibility, etc. 

3Just these two modalities, the stating and the prescriptive, have been noticed, incidentally, by H. Jason (1971:618) who calls them "two ways... in which the proverb brings its intentions to the listener."

4See, e.g., in Jakobson 1960:353; Ivin 1970:12; Halliday 1970:144; Robinson 1972:52. It is of no moment here that Halliday’s and Robinson’s nomenclatures of functions themselves are different from that used in the present paper.

5The complications ensuing from the axiologic indefiniteness of proverbs, e.g. their thematical ambiguity, have been formerly noticed by V. Kafarov (1967:13): "Skazem, poslovica "oboš’et ves’ mir igla, a sama golym-gola" mogla by popast’ v raznye razdely ona prozvucit kak zaloba v ustax rabotnika i kak nasmeška v ustax tunejadca, buduci skazannoj v osuzdenie neprakticnosti i obsutstivija smetlovsti, outilas’ by v razdele "um-glupost’.” Ona svidetel’stvuet takze o trudoljubii, no v pervuju ocered’ – o social’noj nespravedlivosti..."

6For analogical variants, appearing at describing wishes, see in Ivin 1970:124. To illustrate such kind of branchings, let us consider, e.g.

H. Jason’s (1971:621) example Father and mother are as guests in this world. Jason comments upon this text as follows: "This metaphor can have two contradicting meanings: a) as the parents will soon leave this world, use the opportunity to take care of them as long as they are with you; or the opposite: b) if parents are burden to you, don’t worry. They will die soon anyway." As to the present example, the meaning of "two contradictory meanings" might be somewhat specified. On the stating (i.e. surface function) level both interpretations obviously give identical results: ‘the parents will soon die’ or something similar. All the contradictions come in just on the evaluative level: interpretation (a) proceeds from the presupposition ‘the death of the parents would be bad (because...), ‘while interpretation (b) proceeds from that ‘their death would be good (because they are a burden).’ Correspondingly, the prescriptions must also be different.

7For the ambiguity of the term norm in ethics (‘reality’ or ‘ideal’ or ‘frame’) see in Arhangelskij 1968:83; Kon 1967:146,215; Uledov 1968:88.

8The well-known story about Mens sana in corpore sano provides a good historical example of the kind of indefiniteness.

9The way of forming and titling the logico-thematical groups in Permyakov’s logico-semiotical proverb classification itself makes this interpretation possible. For example, in the texts included into the logico-thematical group “Vešc’io ee protivopoloznost’,” three semantic components are distinguished: 

(1) the thing; (2) its opposite; (3) their interrelation, formulated here as ‘co-existence/non-co-existence.’ Thus, e.g. the sentence Gde smex, tam i slezy gets the description ‘Vsjakaja vešc’ sušcestvuet vmeste (v edinstve) so svoej protivopoloznost’ju i ne mozet sušcestvovat' bez nee', and the sentence, Gde pribyl', tam net ubytka, respectively, the description 'Pikakaja vešc’ ye mozet sušcestvovat' vmeste (v edinstve) so svoej protivopoloznost’ju; gde vesc’, tam net ee protivopoloznosti’ (see Permyakov 1968a:202,205).

10Cf., e.g., the subsequent passage: "Esli, dopustim, rec’ idet o kakom-nibud’ nebol’šom (po rostu ili po vozrastu), no xorosem i umnom celoveke, opytnom i umelom rabotnike, my tut ze vspomnim poslovicu "Mal zolotnik, da dorog"/.../ Inace govorja, my podbiraem klise po xarakteru situacii" (Permyakov 1968a:26, cf. also 1970:19).

11All the methods appearing under the common denominator actual division of sentences may be divided into two principal approaches:

(1) The "theme – rheme" – division which is being carried out on the ground of the semantic and syntactic structure of the sentence itself, without regard to any concrete context.
(2) The "properly actual" division which is by all means a context-bound procedure and takes into account the actual information-bearing structure of a sentence in a certain concrete actualization. D. L. Bolinger (1952) terms the components of this type of division material information and actual information, P. Adamec (1966:20-22), respectively, osnova and jadro, and M Halliday (1970:162ff.) given (information) and new (information). If we have to do with proverbs, the latter approach seems to be considerably more expedient, and we shall accept it when considering the examples below (though all the situations described are fictitious).

12It might be referred, e.g., to the following points:
(1) The information conveyed by a proverb is not an absolute and unchangeable "thing in itself"; here at least two aspects must be distinguished: (a) the "sender’s aspect," or the intended result, and (b) the "receiver’s aspect," or the actually received result. These aspects need not coincide (and, practically, they often do not): the receiver need not realize correctly to whom the saying had been directed; he need not understand the proverb in the same way as it had been intended by the sender; even if he grasps the sender’s intentions adequately, he need not believe the assertion (conclusion, prediction (presented by the sender, or need not agree with the sender’s intentions adequately, he need not believe the assertion, conclusion, prediction (presented by the sender), or need not agree with the sender’s appraisal, or he may draw from what was said prescriptive consequences altogether different from those sought by the sender, etc.
(2) The information-bearing structure of a proverbial actualization depends greatly on the concrete relationships of the communicants with the concrete denotates of the c-elements of the text (e.g. with the actual "dramatis personae" of the text).
(3) There are no strict borderlines between the communicative scene and the more general social and cultural context in which those scenes appear.

13Cf., in this connection, V. Mathesius’s (1947) and J. Firbas’s (1966) reasonings about the beginning sentences of folk tales, such as Byl jednou jeden kral, etc.

14For a telling example about the abundance of syntactical and modal transforms the variability of proverbs displays, see in Kuusi 1967:75-80.

15It is not without interest to note that something analogous is valid, evidently, for the language as such in general. H. Õim (1971:207-208) writes: "...it is not exact to conceive the semantic structure of language as a "network" of evenly dismembered connections. Language turns out to be structured in certain directions or districts in a notably stronger way than in other ones. On certain topics a more detailed, a more refinedly dismembered communication seems to be possible than on other topics." 


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Arvo Krikmann
Keele ja Kirjanduse Instituut,
Eesti TA.
Vanemuise 42

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