SOME ADDITIONAL ASPECTS OF SEMANTIC
INDEFINITENESS OF PROVERBS
1. The modal (functional,
As we know, proverbs do not function
as mere poetic adornments of speech; neither are they used,
normally, to meet mans 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
somebodys 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
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
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
- the evaluative (emotive,
expressive) function has no separate or distinct
manifestation (or "surface equivalent") in the shape of
any grammatical mood;
- 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
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. Lenins 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
(1966:6869) 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
richs 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.
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Ära vanasse kaevu
sülita, kui uus valmis
Dont 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
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 dont 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
Parem kodu kooruke kui voorsil vooleib.
Better a crust at
home than bread
and butter in
a foreign place).
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 someones 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.
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
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. Abrahamss
(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
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. Lenins (1969:152-153) famous formulation of
the dialectical way of cognition; Ot zivogo
soèercanija k abstraktnomu myleniju i ot
nego k praktike...".
(2) A. Taylors (1965:7) statement: the proverb
"summarizes a situation, passes a judgement, or offers a course of action"/Underlining mine. A.
(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
(4) Section B ("task area: attempted answers") in R. F.
Baless 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. Morriss (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,
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
4See, e.g., in Jakobson
1960:353; Ivin 1970:12; Halliday 1970:144; Robinson 1972:52.
It is of no moment here that Hallidays and
Robinsons 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 "oboet
ves mir igla, a sama golym-gola" mogla by popast
v raznye razdely ona prozvucit kak zaloba v ustax rabotnika
i kak nasmeka v ustax tunejadca, buduci skazannoj v
osuzdenie neprakticnosti i obsutstivija smetlovsti,
outilas by v razdele "um-glupost. Ona
svidetelstvuet takze o trudoljubii, no v pervuju
ocered o socialnoj
6For analogical variants,
appearing at describing wishes, see in
To illustrate such kind of branchings, let us consider,
H. Jasons (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, dont 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
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 Permyakovs
logico-semiotical proverb classification itself makes this
interpretation possible. For example, in the texts included
into the logico-thematical group Vecio ee
protivopoloznost, three semantic components are
(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 vec
sucestvuet vmeste (v edinstve) so svoej
protivopoloznostju i ne mozet sucestvovat'
bez nee', and the sentence, Gde pribyl', tam
net ubytka, respectively, the description 'Pikakaja
vec ye mozet sucestvovat' vmeste (v
edinstve) so svoej protivopoloznostju; gde
vesc, tam net ee protivopoloznosti (see
10Cf., e.g., the subsequent
passage: "Esli, dopustim, rec idet o kakom-nibud
nebolom (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
(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
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 "senders
aspect," or the intended result, and (b) the
"receivers 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 senders intentions
adequately, he need not believe the assertion (conclusion,
prediction (presented by the sender, or need not agree with
the senders intentions adequately, he need not believe
the assertion, conclusion, prediction (presented by the
sender), or need not agree with the senders appraisal,
or he may draw from what was said prescriptive consequences
altogether different from those sought by the sender,
(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. Mathesiuss (1947) and J. Firbass (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
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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