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A Dictionary of English and Romance Languages Equivalent Proverbs

European Proverbs in 55 Languages with Equivalents in Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese




PAREMIOLOGICAL MINIMUM AND CULTURAL LITERACY

WOLFGANG MIEDER

PAREMIOLOGICAL MINIMUM AND CULTURAL LITERACY*

Recent theoretical research on proverbs and proverbial expressions has been primarily linguistically oriented, emphasizing in particular structural and semiotic aspects of proverbs on a comparative basis. The Soviet linguist and folklorist Grigorii L'vovich Permiakov (1919-1983) published his now classic study Ot pogovorki do skazki in 1970 whose English translation with the title From Proverb to Folk-Tale from 1979 has had an invaluable influence on international paremiological scholarship. Matti Kuusi in Finland continues to work Towards an International Type-System of Proverbs (1972), and Alan Dundes' paper "On the Structure of the Proverb" (1975) as well as Shirley L. Arora's article on "The Perception of Proverbiality" (1984) belong to the solid foundation of modern paremiology. It must suffice to mention from among dozens of articles, dissertations, essay volumes and books1 only three additional studies, namely Zoltan Kanyo, Sprichwrter - Analyse einer Einfachen Form (1981), Peter Grzybek and Wolfgang Eismann (eds.), Semiotische Studien zum Sprichwort (1984), and Neal R. Norrick, How Proverbs Mean: Semantic Studies in English Proberbs (1985).

While these contributions represent major advances concerning the definition, language, structure and meaning of proverbs, they fail for the most part to consider two extremely important questions that go beyond purely linguistic aspects of proverbial texts. The one deals with the diachronic problem of traditionality, i.e. the fact that any text to qualify as a proverb must have (or have had) some currency for a period of time. Related to this is the synchronic question of frequency of occurrence or familiarity of a given text at a certain time. None of the dozens of proverb definitions can answer these questions, and yet any proverb must "prove" a certain traditionality and frequency in order to be considered verbal folklore.

As far as proverbs from past generations are concerned, questions as to their true proverbiality can be and have been ascertained by historical proverb dictionaries that amass references and variants for particular proverbs from written sources. Paremiographers around the world have assembled superb diachronic collections, the model being the massive collections of the Anglo-American language which Bartlett Jere Whiting (1968, 1977, 1989) has painstakingly put together. With the use of modern computers such historically oriented volumes will obviously continue to be published for various national languages, but this type of paremiographical work usually stops short of answering some extremely important questions: How about the proverbs right now? Which texts from former generations are still current today? What are the truly new proverbs of the modern age? How familiar are people with proverbs today, etc.?

These questions are not new, but they need to be addressed in a more scientific fashion using modern means of statistical research. The American sociologist William Albig (1931) was one of the first scholars to use demographic methods with proverbs. While his conclusion that proverbs have little use in complex cultures with rapid social change is not valid in light of newer research, he did include a list of the 13 most popular proverbs around 1930 based on the answers of 68 university students who were asked to list all the proverbs they could think of during a thirty minute period. A total of 1443 proverbs or 21.2 proverbs per student were written down. Of these 442 were different proverbs, and the most frequently cited proverb was "A stitch in time saves nine" with 47 of the 68 students referring to it. The following table shows the frequency for the top 13 proverbs (Albig 1931:532):




The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Times Mentioned/ Proverb

47 A stitch in time saves nine.
40 A rolling stone gathers no moss.
39 A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
37 Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
30 Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
27 Haste makes waste.
26 An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
23 All that glitters is not gold.
23 Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
21 Laugh and the world laughs with you.
21 Birds of a feather flock together.
20 There's no fool like an old fool.
20 Make hay while the sun shines.

Eight years later yet another American sociologist, Read Bain (1939), reached quite similar results using almost twice the number of students. He asked 133 first year college students to write down all the proverbs they could. A total of 3654 proverbs or 27.5 texts per student were listed (Bain 1939:436, table 1). Unfortunately Bain did not cite any of the proverbs, but we may assume that they included those found by Albig to be known among American university students a few years earlier. What is of special interest is, however, that on the average students could only cite between 21.2 and 27.5 proverbs in the 1930s. Admittedly, the sample was relatively small, and we know today that it is difficult to quote proverbs out of context, but this number is nevertheless surprisingly low from a cultural literacy let alone a folkloric point of view.

 

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

There exists a fascinating study of 198 pages by the German pollster company Intermarket (Dºsseldorf) that reports in dozens of statistical tables about the familiarity and use of proverbs by 404 informants (203 males, 201 females) of all walks of life, ages and professions (Hattemer and Scheuch 1983). It was based on a large questionnaire that contained 27 questions, among them "Which proverb do you use quite frequently?", "How often do you use proverbs?", "What kind of people use proverbs a lot?", "When do you use proverbs in particular?", "Do proverbs help to cope with certain difficult situations?", "Do proverbs contain a lot of practical wisdom?", "Do you think that men or women use more proverbs?", "How did you learn most of your proverbs?", "What is the educational level of people who use a lot of proverbs?", etc. (see Mieder 1985 and 1989c:189-194 for a detailed analysis of this unpublished study). Permiakov's pioneering paremiological experiment didn't include such questions, but this German study contains truly invaluable statistical information concerning the attitude towards, familiarity with and use of proverbs by native speakers of a modern technological society. Of interest for the discussion at hand are the responses to the first question: "Which proverb do you use quite frequently?" Of the 404 subjects 363 answered this question. The answers contained 167 different proverbs, of which 114 texts were mentioned only once, while the other 53 texts were recorded between 2 and 26 times for a total of 249 citations. The most frequent and by implication the most popular German proverb was "Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund" (The morning hour has gold in the mouth, i.e. The early bird catches the worm) with 26 informants citing it as their most commonly used proverb.7 Next comes the Biblical proverb "Wer andern eine Grube gr§bt, f§llt selbst hinein" (He who digs a pit for others falls in himself) with 21 references, followed by 16 recordings of "Zeit ist Geld" (Time is money). These three texts are then the most popular German proverbs, and they certainly belong to the German paremiological minimum (all the texts are listed on pp. 161-175). What is now needed is that a team of scholars from such disciplines as folklore, linguistics, sociology, psychology, anthropology, paremiology and demography works out an even more elaborate questionnaire to be used with several thousand German citizens. The result of such an integrated study would in turn give us a very precise idea of how proverbs are used and viewed today and which proverbs belong to the German paremiological minimum, or any other nationality for that matter. Once such national paremiological minima are established, we will also be able to determine the most frequently used international proverb types through comparative proverb collections (see Kuusi 1985:22-28). Such work will eventually lead to an international paremiological minimum of the world's proverbial wisdom.

Much work is required before this scholarly dream becomes reality. After all, we are only at the very early stages of establishing paremiological minima for some national languages. Returning to the Anglo-American scene for the final pages of this essay, it must be stated that the few psychological studies already mentioned represent but a meager beginning. Their purpose never was to establish a paremiological minimum, and in order to accomplish that task major cross cultural demographic research will be necessary. But what can be said today at least speculatively about the Anglo-American paremiological minimum? Ever since E.D. Hirsch published his best-selling book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987) educators, intellectuals and citizens at large have in fact been discussing a kind of minimum of cultural knowledge for the average educated person. With the help of Joseph Kett and James Trefil the author added a controversial appendix of "What Literate Americans Know: A Preliminary List" (pp. 146-215). Among this list are plenty of references to folklore in general and to proverbs in particular. Just under the letter "A" alone appear the proverbs "Absence makes the heart grow fonder". "Actions speak louder than words", "All roads lead to Rome", "All's fair in love and war", "All's well that ends well", "All that glitters is not gold", "Any port in a storm", "April showers bring May flowers", "As you make your bed so must you lie in it" (pp. 152-156). In other words, proverbs figure prominently in what Hirsch and his co-authors consider to be part of American cultural literacy. In the meantime the three authors have published their massive annotated Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1988) which after chapters on "The Bible" and "Mythology and Folklore" contains as the third chapter a major list of approximately 265 "Proverbs" (pp. 46-47). Hirsch takes credit for this chapter at the end of a short introduction (p. 46) which unfortunately does not give away the secret of how he came up with this list of Anglo-American proverbs which every American should know. He also is not sure about the difference between a proverb and a proverbial expression. Thus his "Don't throw out the baby with the bath water" (p. 56) would surely be better placed into the following chapter on "Idioms" (pp. 58-80) which contains numerous proverbial expressions like "To throw out the baby with the bath water". Every paremiologist would obviously disagree with Hirsch for including "Carpe diem" (p. 48) or "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" (p. 57) in a chapter on proverbs. Another problem is, of course, the alphabetical arrangement of the texts according to the first significant word which is rather arbitrary to say the least. Hirsch might have been much more consistent by alphabetizing his texts by the subject nouns of the proverbs. But leaving these quibbles aside, the fundamental criticism is the fact that Hirsch does not state how he came up with his list. In the introduction to the entire book it is merely stated that entries were tested "to determine how widely known an item is in our culture. Only those items that are likely to be known by a broad majority of literate Americans ought to appear in this dictionary. Therefore, in selecting entries, we drew upon a wide range of national periodicals. We reasoned that if a major daily newspaper refers to an event, person, or thing without defining it, we assume that the majority of the readers of that periodical will know what that item is. If this is true, that event, person, or thing is probably part of our common knowledge, and therefore part of our cultural literacy" (p. IX). Perhaps proverbs fall under "things" in this statement, but I doubt that Hirsch got all of these texts out of newspapers or magazines. Besides, this statement says nothing about the general frequency of appearance that was necessary for any item to have been included in this dictionary. It is my feeling that a dictionary of cultural literacy ought to be based on frequency analyses. In any case, Hirsch most likely gleaned his list from one or more of the standard Anglo-American proverb dictionaries and perhaps discussed a somewhat longer list with friends and colleagues before deciding on these particular texts. Realizing that no studies on the Anglo-American paremiological minimum exist, Hirsch really had not much of a choice but to compile this "unscientific" list.

 

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

What this short comparison of Hirsch, Whiting and Mieder has shown is, of course, that the study of the larger idea of cultural literacy and the narrower concept of a paremiological minimum of any group of people must be based on scientific demographic research. Especially for the Anglo-American language it is of utmost importance that today's paremiological minimum of native speakers be ascertained through a widely distributed questionnnaire. While such a study has its obvious benefits for national and international paremiographers and paremiologists, it will also assure that the most frequently used proverbs of the modern age will be included in foreign language dictionaries and textbooks. This in turn will enable new immigrants and foreign visitors to communicate effectively with Anglo-American native speakers. Proverbs continue to be effective verbal devices and culturally literate persons, both native and foreign, must have a certain paremiological minimum at their disposal in order to participate in meaningful oral and written communication.


Notes:

*Previously published in Mieder (ed.) Wise Words. Essays on the Proverb, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York, 1994, pp. 297-316

1 For additional bibliographical references see my international proverb bibliographies (Mieder 1982 and 1984ff.).

2 The Russian title of this short paper is "O paremiologicheskom urovne iazyka i russkom paremiologicheskom minimume". It has recently been reprinted (Permiakov 1988:143-144).

3 A shortened version of the Russian text with the same title has been reprinted twice (Permiakov 1984:265-268, and Permiakov 1988:145-149).

4 A colleague of Permiakov, A. Barulin, also delivered a lecture in 1973 in Varna (Bulgaria) with the title "Russkii paremiologicheskii minimum i ego rol' prepodavanii russkogo iazyka" of which a summary has subsequently been published (see Permiakov 1984:264-265). Following Permiakov, Barulin stresses the importance of teaching proverbs, proverbial expressions and other phraseological units to students studying Russian as a foreign language. He refers to Permiakov's paremiological minimum of about 1000 texts and argues that the learning and active oral and written use of proverbial materials should be part of all foreign language instruction.

5 It should be noted that A.M. Bushui from Samarkand quite independently from G.L. Permiakov published an article in 1979 on the minimum of German proverbs that should be part of the curriculum of secondary schools in the Soviet Union. The major part of the article (pp. 9-28) presents a bilingual list of German proverbs in alphabetical order according to the first word with Russian translations. Comments on the frequency and linguistic level of these proverbs as well as important considerations for the teaching of folk speech in foreign language classes are included.

6 For a review of the use of proverbs tests in psychological testing see Mieder 1978.

7 For a discussion of this German proverb see Mieder 1983:105-112.

8 I thank Janet Sobieski for her help in putting together these statistics by counting the references in Whiting's collection.


References cited:

Albig, William
1931 Proverbs and Social Control. Sociology and Social Research 15:527-535.

Arora, Shirley L.
1984 The Perception of Proverbiality. Proverbium 1:1-38.

Bain, Read
1939 Verbal Stereotypes and Social Control. Sociology and Social Research 23:431-446.

Bushui, A.M.
1979 Paremiologicheskii minimum po nemetskomu iazyku dlia srednei shkoly. In Kh.M. Ikramova, ed., Problemy metodiki prepodavaniia razlichnykh distsiplin v shkole i vuze. Samarkand: Samarkandskii gosudarstvennyi universitet, pp. 4-28.

Daniels, Karlheinz
1985 "Idiomatische Kompetenz" in der Zielsprache Deutsch. Voraussetzungen, Mglichkeiten, Folgerungen. Wirkendes Wort 35:145-157.

Dundes, Alan
1975 On the Structure of the Proverb. Proverbium 25:961-973.

Grzybek, Peter, and Wolfgang Eismann, eds.
1984 Semiotische Studien zum Sprichwort. Simple Forms Reconsidered I. Tºbingen: Gunter Narr.

Hattemer, K., and E.K. Scheuch
1983 Sprichwrter: Einstellung und Verwendung. Dºsseldorf: Intermarket. Gesellschaft fºr internationale Markt- und Meinungsforschung.

Higbee, Kenneth L., and Richard J. Millard
1983 Visual Imagery and Familiarity Ratings for 203 Sayings. American Journal of Psychology 96:211-222.

Hirsch, E.D.
1987 Cultural Literacy. What Every American Needs to Know. With an Appendix "What Literate Americans Know" by E.D. Hirsch, Joseph Kett, and James Trefil. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Hirsch, E.D., Joseph Kett, and James Trefil
1988 The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Kanyo, Zoltan
1981 Sprichwrter - Analyse einer Einfachen Form. Ein Beitrag zur generativen Poetik. The Hague: Mouton.

Kuusi, Matti
1972 Towards an International Type-System of Proverbs. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia. Reprinted in Proverbium 19 (1972):699-736.

Kuusi, Matti
1975 Nachtrag [to Permiakov: 75 naibolee ...]. Proverbium 25:975-978.

Kuusi, Matti
1981 Zur Frequenzanalyse. Proverbium Paratum 2:119-120.

Kuusi, Matti
1985 Proverbia septentrionalia. 900 Balto-Finnic Proverb Types with Russian, Baltic, German and Scandinavian Parallels. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Levin, Isidor
1968/69 úberlegungen zur demoskopischen Parmiologie. Proverbium 11:289-293 and 13:361-366.

Marzolf, Stanley S.
1974 Common Sayings and 16PF [Personality Factor] Traits. Journal of Clinical Psychology 30:202-204.

Mieder, Wolfgang
1978 The Use of Proverbs in Psychological Testing. Journal of the Folklore Institute 15:45-55.

Mieder, Wolfgang
1982 International Proverb Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing.

Mieder, Wolfgang
1983 Deutsche Sprichwrter in Literatur, Politik, Presse und Werbung. Hamburg: Helmut Buske.

Mieder, Wolfgang
1984ff International Proverb Scholarship: An Updated Bibliography. Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship 1ff.

Mieder, Wolfgang
1985 Neues zur demoskopischen Sprichwrterkunde. Proverbium 2:307-328.

Mieder, Wolfgang
1988 English Proverbs. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam.

Mieder, Wolfgang
1989a American Proverbs: A Study of Texts and Contexts. Bern: Peter Lang.

Mieder, Wolfgang
1989b "Ein Bild sagt mehr als tausend Worte": Ursprung und úberlieferung eines amerikanischen Lehnsprichworts. Proverbium 6:25-37.

Mieder, Wolfgang
1989c Moderne Sprichwrterforschung zwischen Mºndlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit. In Lutz Rhrich and Erika Lindig, eds., Volksdichtung zwischen Mºndlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit. Tºbingen: Gunter Narr, pp. 187-208.

Norrick, Neal R.
1985 How Proverbs Mean: Semantic Studies in English Proverbs. Amsterdam: Mouton.

Penn, Nolan E., Teresa C. Jacob, and Malrie Brown
1988 Familiarity with Proverbs and Performance of a Black Population on Gorham's Proverbs Test. Perceptual and Motor Skills 66:847-854.

Permiakov, Grigorii L'vovich
1970 Ot pogovorki do skazki (Zametki po obschei teorii klishe). Moskva: Nauka. English translation by Y.N. Filippov, From Proverb to Folk-Tale. Notes on the General Theory of Clich(c). Moscow: Nauka, 1979.

Permiakov, Grigorii L'vovich
1971 Paremiologicheskii eksperiment. Materialy dlia paremiologicheskogo minimuma. Moskva: Nauka.

Permiakov, Grigorii L'vovich
1973 On the Paremiological Level and Paremiological Minimum of Language. Proverbium 22:862-863.

Permiakov, Grigorii L'vovich
1975 75 naibolee upotrebitel'nykh russkikh sravnimel'nykh oboromov. Proverbium 25:974-975.

Permiakov, Grigorii L'vovich
1979 From Proverb to Folk-Tale. Notes on the General Theory of Clich(c). Translated by Y.N. Filippov. Moscow: Nauka.

Permiakov, Grigorii L'vovich
1982 K voprosu o russkom paremiologicheskom minimume. In E.M. Vereshchagina, ed., Slovari i lingvostranovedenie. Moskva: Russkii iazyk, pp. 131-137. English translation by Kevin J. McKenna, On the Question of a Russian Paremiological Minimum, in Proverbium 6 (1989), 91-102.

Permiakov, Grigorii L'vovich, ed.
1984 Paremiologicheskie issledovaniia. Sbornik statei. Moskva: Nauka.

Permiakov, Grigorii L'vovich
1985a 300 obshcheupotrebitel'nykh russkikh poslovits i pogovorok (dlia govoriashchikh na nemetskom iazyke). Moskva: Nauka.

Permiakov, Grigorii L'vovich
1985b 300 allgemeingebr§uchliche russische Sprichwrter und sprichwrtliche Redensarten. Ein illustriertes Nachschlagewerk fºr Deutschsprechende. Leipzig: VEB Verlag Enzyklop§die.

Permiakov, Grigorii L'vovich
1986 300 obshcheupotrebitel'nykh russkikh poslovits i pogovorok (dlia govoriashchikh na bolgarskom iazyke). Sofiia: Narodna prosveta.

Permiakov, Grigorii L'vovich
1988 Osnovy strukturnoi paremiologii. Ed. by I.L. Elevich. Moskva: Nauka.

Permiakov, Grigorii L'vovich
1989 On the Question of a Russian Paremiological Minimum. Translated by Kevin J. McKenna. Proverbium 6:91-102.

Ruef, Hans
1989 Zusatzsprichwrter und das Problem des Parmischen Minimums. In Gertrud Gr(c)ciano, ed., Europhras 88. Phras(c)ologie contrastive. Actes du Colloque International Klingenthal - Strasbourg, 12-16 mai 1988. Strasbourg: Universit(c) des Sciences Humaines, D(c)partement d'Etudes Allemandes, pp. 379-385.

Schellbach-Kopra, Ingrid
1987 Parmisches Minimum und Phraseodidaktik im finnisch-deutschen Bereich. In Jarmo Korhonen, ed., Beitr§ge zur allgemeinen und germanistischen Phraseologieforschung. Oulu: Oulun Yliopisto, pp. 245-255.

Tillhagen, Carl-Herman
1970 Die Sprichwrterfrequenz in einigen nordschwedischen Drfern. Proverbium 15:538-540.

Whiting, Bartlett Jere
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Whiting, Bartlett Jere
1977 Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Whiting, Bartlett Jere
1989 Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Zinnecker, Jºrgen
1981 Wandsprºche. In Arthur Fischer, ed., Jugend '81. Lebensentwºrfe, Alltagskulturen, Zukunftsbilder. Hamburg: Jugendwerk der Deutschen Shell, vol. 1, pp. 430-476.

Wolfgang Mieder
Department of German and Russian
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405
USA





 
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