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If life must not be taken too seriously -- then so neither must death.
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( Butler, Samuel | Death and Dying )



THE PERCEPTION OF PROVERBIALITY

 

 

SHIRLEY L. ARORA

THE PERCEPTION OF PROVERBIALITY*

Probably the most consistently accepted generalization concerning proverbs, in virtually any language, is that they are "traditional," and that it is their traditionality--the sense of historically-derived authority or of community-sanctioned wisdom that they convey--that makes them "work." Most definitions, to be sure, reflect the scholar's concern for proverbs as an analytical category; they are attempts to answer the question, as Seitel puts it, "How does one recognize that which he is going to study?"1 Even in Archer Taylor's oft-quoted--and sometimes criticized--statement to the effect that "an incommunicable quality tells us this sentence is proverbial and that one is not," the "us" is, by implication, the community of proverb scholars, for Taylor goes on to remark that "those who do not speak a language can never recognize all its proverbs, and similarly much that is truly proverbial escapes us in Elizabethan and older English."2 Still, traditionality--whether considered in terms of age or currency--tends to be central to the delineation of the proverb as an ethnic genre also. Certainly this is true in Spanish, the language with which I shall be principally concerned here, and probably in most other languages as well. Spanish-speaking informants typically characterize the refrán as "an old saying," "a popular saying," "a teaching in oral tradition," and so on.3

In the opening paragraph of their well-known essay on "Proverbs and the Ethnography of Speaking Folklore," Arewa and Dundes cite as an illustration of proverb use a situation in which a parent seeks to direct a child's action or thought by means of a proverb, thereby projecting "the guilt or responsibility for directing the child . . . on to the anonymous past, the anonymous folk":

A child knows that the proverb used by the scolding parent was not made up by that parent. It is a proverb from the cultural past whose voice speaks truth in traditional form. It is the "One," the "Elders," or the "They" in "They say," who direct. The parent is but the instrument through which the proverb speaks to the audience.4

In the study thus introduced, the authors provide a series of interesting examples of Yoruba proverbs in context, specifically in the context of the upbringing of children. But they leave unanswered a particularly intriguing question raised by the opening statement just quoted: how, indeed, does the child, with his or her limited experience, "know" that the proverb was "not made up by the parent"? Presumably he or she has not heard the saying before, at least not from anyone other than the parent. How is it then identified as a "voice from the cultural past" rather than the parent's own words? How, for that matter, and at what age, does the concept of that past take shape? Such questions are outside the scope of the Arewa-Dundes study, and of the present one as well, although they might suggest fruitful directions of investigation in regard to the understanding or use of proverbs by children.5 Yet the passage quoted has interesting applications as well to the broader question of how proverbs work in normal, everyday contexts of all kinds. With a few changes-with the substitution of more general terms in place of "parent" and "child"--it becomes a succinct statement of the presumed role of traditionality in the effectiveness of proverb use:

The listener knows that the proverb used by the speaker was not made up by that person. It is a proverb from the cultural past whose voice speaks truth in traditional terms. It is the "One," the "Elders," or the "They" in "They say," who direct. The proverb user is but the instrument through which the proverb speaks to the audience.

The distinctive feature of this passage, in contrast to most descriptions of proverb use, is its emphasis on the listener rather than the speaker. We are accustomed to thinking of the speaker's purpose in using a proverb, and indeed the passage cited begins with a consideration of precisely that purpose: the shifting of responsibility for what is said away from the speaker and "on to the anonymous past, the anonymous folk." But the speaker is only half of the "interaction situation," to use Seitel's term.6 The success of a proverb performance as such must depend ultimately on the listener's ability to perceive that he or she is being addressed in traditional, i.e., proverbial, terms. If the listener does not reach that conclusion, the performance of the proverb as a proverb must fail, although the speaker's opinions, comments, etc., may have the desired effect for other reasons.

The listener's identification of a proverb as proverbial is actually a two-fold process, involving first the abstract notion of the genre "proverb" as it is culturally or ethnically conceived, and secondly a means of assigning individual utterances to that genre. The latter step is the crucial one in the performance context. It is, in fact, less than accurate to describe this process as one of "knowing" that a particular saying was not made up by the speaker. That is something only the speaker can "know." The listener assumes on the basis of certain types of evidence that such is the case. He may in fact be mistaken, but it will not matter. The utterance in question--"truly proverbial," i.e., traditional, or not--will function as a proverb, with all the accompanying weight of authority or community acceptance that the concept implies, as the direct result of the listener's perception, right or wrong, of its "proverbiality."

It is possible, although Arewa and Dundes do not say so, that Yoruba parents foster the development of the concept of a "proverb" and of the "cultural past" it represents, through the use of introductory formulas to preface the sayings they use. Such formulas are common in many, if not most, languages, including Spanish, and judging from Peter Seitel's informative study of Haya sayings, may be virtually the rule in some.7 Users of proverbs in oral contexts may also--consciously or unconsciously-- signal the shift to the "proverbial mode" by a change in intonation, an emphatic, even recitative or sing-song effect that conveys the message that what is being said is being repeated, not invented, by the speaker.8 Both of these strategies constitute means of disassociating oneself from a particular statement and insisting instead that it is "tradition" that speaks; and they may at times be deliberate attempts to project responsibility "on to the anonymous past" when in fact the responsibility for the statement belongs to the speaker instead. Even so, if the strategy succeeds-- if the cues provided by the speaker are not contradicted, and outweighed, by other kinds of evidence--the proverb performance will be a successful one, regardless of the actual proverbiality of the saying employed.

Traditionality, for the proverb scholar, is a verifiable attribute, to be confirmed by such means as datable written or published sources, or repeated or widespread records in the field. Age, in particular, is an attractive dimension of traditionality; while we do not, and cannot, fix a precise requirement as to how old a saying should be in order to be considered "traditional," there is nonetheless a certain satisfaction in demonstrating, for example, that a saying used by a Mexican-American informant in contemporary Los Angeles is found in virtually identical form in a sixteenth-century Spanish collection of proverbs. Currency, on the other hand--as in Taylor's famous catch-all definition of a proverb as "a saying current among the folk"[9 --is a rather elusive criterion. To be "current" is to be "generally accepted," in any time period, past or present; but just how "general" must that acceptance be? Some proverbs circulate on an international level, others within a single community; and there may be sayings that have meaning and authority only for members of a particular family group. Descriptions of the process by which a saying achieves "currency" or "popularity" often seem to imply a kind of trial period between invention and "adoption into the great family of proverbs," during which time, as Richard Trench puts it, the proverb-to-be was "struggling into recognition";10 but no one has suggested a means of identifying the point at which sufficient "currency" has been attained to mark the magical transformation from non-proverb to proverb.

Despite the prominence of age and currency among ethnicallyrecognized attributes of proverbs as a genre, these characteristics are seldom defined by Spanish-speaking informants with any precision. Apart from referring to a refrán as "un dicho antiguo" ("an old saying"), an informant may mention its transmission "from generation to generation" or even, occasionally, depict with some eloquence its role as conveyor of the Hispanic cultural heritage. The notion of currency, on the other hand, is typically limited to the application of the rather vague term "dicho popular" ("popular saying" or "folk saying"). In any case, while the concepts of age or currency--traditionality--are common to both analytical and ethnic definitions of the genre, verification of either of these attributes is purely a scholarly concern. For the user of a proverb, a given saying will be "old" if he or she remembers it from childhood or has heard it used by members of an older generation; and the evidence for currency may amount to no more than a single prior hearing. In other words, from the ethnic point of view, age and currency are largely assumptions based on the attribution of these characteristics to the abstract category of "proverbs," and the subsequent assignment of a particular saying to that category. Actual age and actual currency are of little significance, and in an initial hearing are obviously completely unknown. What is significant, and essential to the success of any proverb performance, is evidence that the utterance in question was "not made up" by the speaker; that it belongs to the category of "they say," not "I say." That evidence may be not so much incommunicable as manifold--a series or set of characteristics, any one or a combination of which will serve to contrast with the utterances of normal conversation. The set will vary from language to language, but because it consists of contrasts with conversational patterns that are internalized by all speakers of a language--and at a fairly early age, as implied in the Arewa-Dundes assertion quoted earlier--it makes possible the distinction "made-up/non-made-up" or "personal statement/traditional statement" and hence the perception of the "proverbiality" of any given utterance.

Viewed from this standpoint, repetition--the fact that a particular utterance has been heard on one or more previous occasions-- constitutes one member of this set of contrasts. It is natural, of course, for relatively simple statements, queries, or replies to recur frequently in ordinary conversation, but the more complex utterances are not as a rule repeated word for word on other occasions or by other individuals. Taylor takes cognizance of this aspect of traditionality when he refers to certain apothegms, lacking in metaphorical content, as being "recognized as proverbial only because we have heard [them] often and because [they] can be applied to many different situations" (The Proverb, p. 5). Unquestionably, repetition--or more precisely, the recognition that repetition brings about--is for the speaker of the language, as it is for the proverb scholar, one of the most decisive clues to proverbiality. It is a type of external evidence, so to speak, dependent not on the characteristics of the individual saying itself but on the experience of the listener. A kind of "false recognition" may also occur when a given utterance follows closely the pattern of another one that is known to the hearer, and in this case the clue is both internal and external: the saying in question must be constructed on a particular model, and the hearer must be familiar with the model in order for "recognition" to take place. Within the performance context it makes no difference whether recognition is genuine or false; both are equally effective. It may also happen that a listener will realize that what he is hearing is a saying new to him, but because its pattern resembles that of a known proverb he will accept it as proverbial also, assuming a kind of "proverbiality by association." The proliferation of certain "families" of proverbs derives from precisely these kinds of cognitive processes, which facilitate the hearer's acceptance of unfamiliar sayings and encourage the invention of new sayings or variants by allowing speakers to rely on the proverbiality of the pattern to bring about the (erroneous) identification of the utterance as a proverb.11

Apart from clues that depend in one way or another on the hearer's prior experience with proverbs, there are numerous internal features that serve to set the proverb apart from its surrounding discourse. The identity and relative significance of these internal clues will naturally vary from language to language, although some may be virtually universal. Collectively these features make up a good part--though not the whole--of what is generally described as "proverbial style." Most attempts to characterize that style have been limited to enumerations of frequently recurring traits, with an occasional reference to the rhetorical impact or mnemonic advantages they afford.12 One researcher who has taken particular note of the importance of such features from the point of view of the proverb hearer is Beatrice Silverman-Weinreich, whose discussion of Yiddish proverbs focuses on certain "markers" that constitute "a kind of oral quotation marks, making the proverb easier to remember and to transmit for those who know it, while intimating to those who do not know it that it is a proverb, when heard for the first time."13 Some of the "markers" mentioned, however, would seem to be only marginally helpful, if at all, in identifying an individual statement as "not made up." Under "grammatical markers," for example, Silverman-Weinreich notes that Yiddish proverbs are typically self-contained, impersonal, and in the present or future tense; but one would assume that conversational statements in Yiddish may also be self-contained, impersonal, and in the present or future tense, so that these features, however characteristic of the proverb corpus as a whole, would not in themselves provide the needed contrastive clues at the level of the individual utterance. Much the same sort of question arises in connection with attempts by other investigators to arrive at a structural definition of the proverb. Milner's quadripartite analysis, for instance, would appear equally applicable to nontraditional, conversational utterances: the statement "A rolling stone gathers no moss" does not differ notably in structure from "The little dog has no fleas" or "A wealthy man pays high taxes," neither of which is likely to be mistaken for a proverb.14 Dundes' topic/comment analysis is likewise applicable to any number of ordinary, "made-up" utterances, although his definition of a proverb as "a traditional [emphasis added] propositional statement consisting of at least one descriptive element, a descriptive element consisting of a topic and a comment" sidesteps the difficulty by introducing the distinction "traditional"- -without, however, suggesting how that distinction is to be made.15

There are, nevertheless, certain grammatical or syntactical features that do offer the essential contrastive clues to proverbiality. Taylor refers (p. 7) to the usefulness of such clues to the scholar studying proverbial usage in dead languages, and the observation could be applied equally to the hearer in an oral proverb performance. Among the grammatical patterns listed by Silverman-Weinreich as occurring in Yiddish proverbs, some-- such as conditional sentences and imperatives--would appear to be of doubtful effectiveness, but others, such as "emphatic word order" (p. 75) are clearly shown to have a differentiating function. Departures from "ordinary" word order are frequent in Spanish proverbs also and may be considered to belong to the set of contrastive features, but other irregularities are probably more significant. Omission of the article, for example, which Silverman- Weinreich notes (p. 81) as common in German proverbs but rare in Yiddish, is a conspicuous and frequent cue in Spanish, as it is also in Danish.16 Ellipsis of the verb (usually accompanied by other stylistic features such as parallelism or contrast) is another important grammatical cue.

One of the most effective indicators of proverbiality is metaphor, the sudden shift in topic that disrupts the normal conversational flow and signals by its "out-of-context" quality that the statement in question is to be interpreted figuratively and not literally.17 Silverman-Weinreich gives to metaphor or allegory a preeminent place among "semantic markers" of Yiddish proverbs, and the same observation would apply to most if not all other languages as well. So accustomed are we to associating metaphors and proverbs, in fact, that the presence, or frequent presence, of metaphor is often mentioned in attempts to define the genre, or else used as a basis for distinguishing proverbs from other subcategories of traditional sayings; and when we are presented with an isolated statement and informed that it is a proverb, we are automatically disposed to interpret figuratively any concrete image it contains.18 In actual usage, however, an opposite process takes place: the perception of a statement as "out-ofcontext" labels it as a metaphor, to be understood figuratively, and leads in turn to its identification as a proverb. In a sense, therefore, the evidence for proverbiality that metaphor provides is not wholly internal: while some proverbs do contain metaphors, in most instances the proverb is simply a statement that becomes metaphorical only within a context that rules out a literal interpretation. The sentence "Every dog has fleas," as part of a conversation on the problems of owning a pet, would pass unnoticed, but if uttered as part of a conversation concerning human beings and their defects or idiosyncrasies it would be understood as a metaphor and quite possibly assumed to be proverbial.

Other semantic markers mentioned by Silverman-Weinreich include semantic parallelism, paradox, irony, and "sharp contrasts and surprising comparisons" (p. 77). To the extent that these features add to the impression of an utterance as a polished artifact, rather than a casual statement, they contribute to the "made-up/non-made-up" contrast; it is less certain that in themselves, unaccompanied by other cues, they would suffice to mark a statement as a proverb. They do, of course, enhance rhetorical effectiveness and no doubt materially increase the probability that a particular saying will be heeded, recalled, and perhaps repeated on some future occasion.

Silverman-Weinreich does not deal with lexical markers, but these may contribute to the perception of proverbiality as well. Because age is a characteristic attributed to proverbs as a genre, words that are archaic or at least "old-fashioned" not only mark an utterance as non-conversational but provide added evidence to the listener that what he is hearing is an "old" saying. Conversely, vocabulary that is conspicuously modern may serve as a counterindicator, working against the identification of a particular utterance as "traditional."

Rhyme, among phonic markers, is an outstanding contrastive clue in Spanish, both in terms of frequency and in its effectiveness. In a general overview of the Hispanic refranero, or proverb corpus, written as an appeal for a more concerted effort by Hispanic folklorists and others to record and study refranes, Richard Jente points to the prevalence of rhyme as a distinctive feature of Spanish proverbs in comparison with those of many other languages and stresses both the mnemonic function of rhyme and its effect of giving the proverb "la autoridad de ser la declaración de otro"--the authority of being someone else's statement, i.e., of being what we have been calling here "non-made-up."19 Spanish-speaking informants occasionally include rhyme as part of the definition of a refrán, although it is worth noting that the same informants, when presented with specific sayings, do not hesitate to identify unrhymed examples as refranes also. A random survey of five pages (157 proverbs) from a large contemporary Mexican proverb collection shows that two-thirds of the sayings are rhymed; another eighteen per cent exhibit assonance, which can also be an effective stylistic feature but which is not in itself as useful as a contrastive cue, since it can also occur randomly in casual conversational utterances. (By contrast, a survey of five pages of a modern compilation in English reveals--out of 90 items--only nine with rhyme and one with assonance.)20

Rhyme is usually combined with meter, although one may be present without the other. Ben-Amos contends that "the existence or absence of metric substructure in a message is the quality first recognized in any communicative event and hence serves as the primary and most inclusive attribute for the categorization of oral tradition."21 Although absence of meter would not in itself rule out proverbiality in Spanish, the presence of a clearly discernible metric substructure is an important member of the set of contrasts between conversational and non-conversational utterances. Indeed, if proverbs in general are considered as a type of poetic expression, irrespective of any metrical considerations, then Ben- Amos' reference to poetic expression as constituting "a deliberate deviation from everyday speech" (p. 229) comes close to summing up the kinds of cues or markers with which we are concerned here.

It stands to reason that the more markers a given saying possesses, the greater its chances of being perceived as a proverb at initial hearing; and conversely, a "genuinely traditional" but unmarked saying may well fail as a proverb the first time it is heard, merely because the listener does not recognize it as such. These observations will apply to existing proverbs, no matter what their actual age or currency, and also of course to "new" proverbs at the moment of their creation. A better understanding of the perception of proverbiality within the context of proverb performance is important therefore not only in terms of the functioning of proverbs in ordinary speech but also in terms of our understanding of the overall processes by which proverbs are created, survive, or disappear from oral tradition.

As a means of exploring, on a very modest scale, some aspects of the perception of proverbiality in Spanish, a group of Spanishspeaking residents of Los Angeles--a total of 46 in all, representing 13 different national backgrounds--were asked to respond to a "proverb survey" consisting of 25 different items, each of which was to be evaluated as: 1) a proverb known to the respondent; 2) a saying not previously encountered but "probably a proverb"; or 3) not a proverb. The list (reproduced at the end of this paper, with English translations added) began with a widelyknown proverb, No es oro todo lo que relumbra ("All that glitters is not gold"), one of the most frequently recorded sayings in an ongoing field study of proverbs among speakers of Spanish in the Los Angeles area. (The proverb has several variant forms, including the grammatically more precise but less frequent No todo lo que relumbra es oro, "Not all that glitters is gold," and variations using the verbs reluce and brilla.) The second item on the list was a less-known proverb employing the common formula Más vale ... que ("Better . . . than"): Más vale llegar a tiempo que ser convidado, "It's better to arrive on time [i.e., at the right moment] than to be invited"; recorded in our field project only from Mexican informants, it has also been found--though not frequently--in published collections from other regions. The remaining 23 items on the survey list were ad hoc inventions-- "pseudo-proverbs"--incorporating one or more of the identifying features which have been mentioned here, or in some instances deliberately devoid of them. (One of the pseudo-proverbs came inadvertently close to a "genuine" saying discovered subsequently in a Peninsular Spanish collection.22) Six of the items were modelled specifically on well-known proverbs, and several others employed common formulaic or structural patterns. Ten items were rhymed, three exhibited assonance, and eight contained some type of grammatical cue that might serve to distinguish them from "ordinary" speech. Several of the sayings were designed to lend themselves to metaphorical interpretation; in some of these, as in several of the other items also, the meaning was intentionally vague or even obscure, as a test of the extent to which formal markers might prevail over what could be considered deficiencies in content. Finally, a total of five items were "unmarked," or relatively unmarked, paraphrases of proverbial themes common in Spanish, whether in individual widely-used proverbs or in groups of proverbs; these were designed to explore the possibility that certain ideas or generalizations might in themselves be recognized as proverbial even if lacking in conspicuous formal cues. The results of the survey have interesting, if highly tentative, implications in regard to the perception of proverbiality in Spanish. Item 1, the "genuinely traditional" No es oro todo lo que relumbra, was recognized as a familiar proverb by 40 (87%) of the respondents, and the likewise "genuine" Más vale llegar a tiempo que ser convidado by 20 (43%). In between these two in frequency of "recognition" were four pseudo-proverbs: El muerto a la tumba y el vivo a la rumba (61%), No tiene la culpa el ladrón sino el que le da ocasión (59%, Caballo viejo no pierde camino (54%), and No hay peor aprendiz que el que no quiere saber (50%). All four of these are modelled on the pattern of proverbs frequently recorded in our field project.23 The remaining pseudo-proverbs on the list were "recognized" by numbers ranging downward from 40% to 11%. The complete list, in order of "recognition," is as follows (numbers in parentheses refer to position on the original survey list):

1. ( 1) No es oro todo lo que relumbra. (87%)
2. (19) El muerto a la tumba y el viejo a la rumba. (61%)
3. ( 5) No tiene la culpa el ladrón sino el que le da ocasión. (55%)
4. (20) Caballo viejo no pierde camino. (54%)
5. (16) No hay peor aprendiz que el que no quiere saber. (50%)
6. ( 2) Más vale llegar a tiempo que ser convidado. (43%)
7. ( 9) No compres fiado porque te resulta más caro. (40%)
8. (15) A veces las cosas que menos cuestan resultan más costosas. (39%)
9. (14) No hay regalo desinteresado. (35%)
10. ( 6) El que nace para leer, del cielo le caen los libros. (33%)
11. ( 3) El dinero del tonto se gasta pronto. (30%)
      (13) Así son las cosas: para algunos, espinas, para otros, rosas. (30%)
12. (17) El que está solo es más pobre que el que está sin dinero. (28%)
13. (23) Hay que saber aprovechar y no dejarse engañar. (26%)
14. (10) Si te levantas temprano, tendrás un día provechoso. (24%)
      (22) Noche y mañana canta la rana. (24%)
      (24) El que se queja, faltas tiene. (24%)
      (25) No seas como los conejos, que sólo miran desde lejos. (24%)
15. ( 8) Aserrín, aserrán, si tú no lo pagas no te lo dan. (22%)
16. (21) No hay campana sin badajo, ni sopa buena sin ajo. (21%)
17. (4) Hijo de cabra, mucho salta. (20%)
18. (11) Si te duele la cabeza, cierra los ojos y reza. (15%)
      (12) Cada uno tiene su destino y no lo puede cambiar. (15%)
      (18) El más sabio hace tonterías de vez en cuando. (15%)
19. ( 7) Más vale perder que volver a encontrar. (11%)

The items modelled on known proverbs or common patterns were of course designed to elicit "false recognition," and most succeeded quite well. The lowest-ranked among the six was Hijo de cabra, mucho salta, whose surprisingly poor showing compared to the other five suggests that the model proverb was not as familiar to the respondents as had been anticipated.24 El que nace para leer, del cielo le caen los libros, which occupies a middle position in the ranking, is modelled on one of the most frequently recorded proverbs in our field study.25 It contains, however, a kind of counter-clue, deliberately introduced to offset the effect of the pattern: "books" and "reading" are not common subjects of proverbs, and therefore these words, inserted into the "slots" of the pattern framework, strike a somewhat jarring note, presumably making the saying less likely to seem familiar. (On the other hand, as we shall see presently, among respondents who did not "recognize" it, it was judged "probably proverbial" by a ratio of more than two to one.)

Participants in the survey, though naturally unaware that all items except the first two were "made up," were informed at the outset that not all were necessarily proverbs. Reliability of response is a factor to be taken into account in any use of a "recognition list" as a survey technique. In this case, however, the presence of a third option--"not familiar but probably proverbial"--may offer an advantage over "either-or" surveys in which a respondent must choose between indicating knowledge or admitting lack of it. Most of the pseudo-proverbs are at least vaguely reminiscent, in one way or another, of existing proverbs, and even a slight resemblance could conceivably trigger a recognition response, so that one need not conclude that "recognition" was consciously falsified to any significant degree.

If the numbers of those who recognized, or thought they recognized, each item are set aside, what remains in each instance is a group of respondents who were admittedly unfamiliar with the saying but were judging its proverbiality, or lack thereof, on the basis of other kinds of evidence. The size of this group varies from 6 (in the case of the "genuine" proverb No es oro todo lo que relumbra) to 40 (for the pseudo-proverb Más vale perder que volver a encontrar), but if the scores are expressed in percentages we may derive some notion of the comparative frequency with which each item was judged to be "probably a proverb":

1. (16) No hay peor aprendiz que el que no quiere saber. (78%)
2. (23) Hay que saber aprovechar y no dejarse engañar. (71%)
3. (21) No hay campana sin badajo, ni sopa buena sin ajo. (70%)
4. ( 3) El dinero del tonto se gasta pronto. (69%)
    (24) El que se queja, faltas tiene. (69%)
5. ( 6) El que nace para leer, del cielo le caen los libros. (68%)
6. ( 1) No es oro todo lo que relumbra. (67%)
    (5) No tiene la culpa el ladrón sino el que le da ocasión. (67%)
    (20) Caballo viejo no pierde camino. (67%)
7. (25) No seas como los conejos, que sólo miran desde lejos. (66%)
8. (19) El muerto a la tumba y el viejo a la rumba. (61%)
9. (13) Así son las cosas: para algunos, espinas, para otros, rosas. (59%)
10. (15) A veces las cosas que menos cuestan resultan más costosas. (57%)
11. ( 4) Hijo de cabra, mucho salta. (54%)
12. (17) El que está solo es más pobre que el que está sin dinero. (51%)
13. ( 8) Aserrín, aserrán, si tú no lo pagas, no te lo dan. (49%)
      (22) Noche y mañana canta la rana. (49%)
14. ( 9) No compres fiado porque te resulta más caro. (48%)
      (14) No hay regalo desinteresado. (48%)
15. ( 2) Más vale llegar a tiempo que ser convidado. (46%)
16. ( 7) Más vale perder que volver a encontrar. (43%)
17. (11) Si te duele la cabeza, cierra los ojos y reza. (41%)
18. (18) El más sabio hace tonterías de vez en cuando. (34%)
19. (10) Si te levantas temprano, tendrás un día provechoso. (31%)
20. (12) Cada uno tiene su destino y no lo puede cambiar. (14%)

A notable difference between this list and the previous one is the position of the two genuine proverbs. No es oro todo lo que relumbra is now in sixth place; out of the six informants who were unfamiliar with the saying, four judged it to be "probably proverbial" and two rejected it, for a score of 67%. Más vale llegar a tiempo que ser convidado, on the other hand, has fallen to fifteenth place, having been rejected as a proverb by a majority of the respondents in this group,. The list is now headed by the pseudo-proverb No hay peor aprendiz que el que no quiere saber, with a score of 78%, followed by three rhymed pseudo-proverbs, another that uses the El que . . . formula plus an atypical word order, and the "patterned" pseudo-proverb El que nace para leer, del cielo le caen los libros. Two other "patterned" sayings are tied with No es oro todo lo que relumbra at 67%. In all, nine pseudoproverbs were judged "probably proverbial" by two-thirds or more of the respondents not "recognizing" them, and a total of fourteen were considered proverbial by at least half. Hijo de cabra, mucho salta, the "patterned" pseudo-proverb that ranked lowest in recognition, is among this latter group, with a score of 54%.

In a list of sayings considered in isolation, as in this survey, meaning may affect the perception of proverbiality in ways that would not be applicable to a normal proverb performance, where meaning is supplied or clarified by the surrounding context. The relevance of meaning as a criterion from the respondents' point of view is exemplified in the case of Más vale perder que volver a encontrar, one of the deliberately ambiguous items on the list. During a discussion following the administering of the survey to one group of respondents, a participant explained his rejection of the saying as a proverb on grounds that it "didn't really make sense," whereupon another member of the group, who considered the saying "probably proverbial," countered with not only an interpretation but an imaginary context as well: "Once you break up with someone, it's better not to renew the relationship because things will never be the same." Más vale perder que volver a encontrar, which was last on the "recognition" list, was judged "probably proverbial" by only 43% of those to whom it seemed unfamiliar, ranking just below the "genuine" proverb on the same pattern, Más vale llegar a tiempo que ser convidado. Meaning may have been a factor in the respondents' perception of the latter proverb as well (it is typically applied to a situation in which an individual unexpectedly joins a party that is in progress, a group that is about to sit down to a meal or is already at the table, etc., and is often said by the new arrival himself or herself).

Reaction to the two rhymed sayings Noche y mañana canta la rana and Aserrín, aserrán, si tú no lo pagas no te lo dan, both intended as part of the form-over-content test, was sharply divided, resulting in a ranking considerably lower than for the other rhymed items. The first of these is ostensibly a metaphorical saying of rather vague meaning, and the second derives its rhyme from what are, in this context, merely nonsense syllables borrowed from a well-known children's verse in a deliberate mixing of traditional genres. In the case of Si te duele la cabeza, cierra los ojos y reza, however--at 41% the lowest-ranked rhymed item on the list--the difficulty would appear to be not so much a matter of meaning per se as of the nature of the message. As a representative of the large category of medical proverbs in Spanish, the saying falls short of offering a recognizably useful remedy or rule for healthful living. (Cf. Si te duele la cabeza, úntala con manteca, "If your head aches, rub it with lard" [Conde, p. 379], or Si quieres vivir sano, come y cena temprano [Moya, p. 623].)

The ranking of the five paraphrases of "proverbial themes" is of particular interest. A veces las cosas que menos cuestan resultan más costosas, based on Lo barato cuesta caro ("That which is cheap costs dear"), was in tenth place and El que está solo es más pobre que el que está sin dinero (cf. Llórame solo y no me llores pobre, "Weep for me if I'm alone, not if I'm poor") in twelfth. Both of these may be considered "marked" to some degree, the first by an emphatic word order (and perhaps also by the accidental rhyme cosas/costosas, despite the lack of meter) and the second by its El que . . . pattern. The other three paraphrases, for which a conscious attempt was made to eliminate all markers, are at the bottom of the list, having been rejected by a majority of the respondents--in the case of the last item, by 86%. El más sabio hace tonterías de vez en cuando reproduces the sense but not the pattern of a series of proverbial statements in Spanish concerning occasional lapses on the part of skilled or capable individuals: A la mejor cocinera se le va un tomate entero ("The best cook drops a whole tomato"), Al mejor cantor se le escapa un gallo ("The best singer hits a false note"), and so on. Si te levantas temprano, tendrás un día provechoso is a recasting of the message conveyed in Al que madruga, Dios le ayuda ("He who rises early is helped by God") or Uno que madrugó, una bolsa de plata encontró ("One who got up early found a purse of silver"). (To the latter there is frequently appended a counterproverb: Más madrugó el que la perdió, "The one who lost it got up earlier.") Finally, at the bottom of the list is Cada uno tiene su destino y no lo puede cambiar, a statement of the theme expressed in numerous Hispanic proverbs of the pattern El que nace [para] . . . (see the studies cited in note 11 for an overview of this large group). Although devoid of conspicuous markers such as rhyme, the paraphrase is not radically different in formulation from such traditional sayings as Cada uno vive como puede, o como le dejan vivir, "Each one lives as he can, or as they let him live" (Conde, p. 71), or Cada uno sabe su cuenta y Dios la de todos, "Each one knows his own account, and God knows everyone's" (Moya, p. 352). The overwhelming majority of the respondents rejected it, nevertheless--perhaps because of the nature of the idea it conveyed. Couched in metaphorical terms (El que nace para tamal, del cielo le caen las hojas, "He who is born to be a tamale [will have] the leaves [for wrapping] fall down on him from heaven"; El que nace para maceta nunca sale del corredor, "He who is born to be a flower pot never gets beyond the corridor") this traditional idea may be acceptable; baldly stated, it is rejected as an expression of proverbial "truth" and therefore as a proverb.

One final tabulation will serve to sum up the results of our survey. If the number of respondents "recognizing" each item is added to the number of those judging it to be "probably a proverb," the results will be a "perceived proverbiality" ranking, as follows:

1. ( 1) No es oro todo lo que relumbra (96%)
2. (16) No hay peor aprendiz que el que no quiere saber. (87%)
3. ( 5) No tiene la culpa el ladrón sino el que le da ocasión. (85%)
    (19) El muerto a la tumba y el vivo a la rumba. (85%)
    (20) Caballo viejo no pierde camino. (85%)
4. ( 3) El dinero del tonto se gasta pronto. (78%)
    ( 6) El que nace para leer, del cielo le caen los libros. (78%)
    (23) Hay que saber aprovechar y no dejarse engañar. (78%)
5. (21) No hay campana sin badajo, ni sopa buena sin ajo. (76%)
    (24) El que se queja, faltas tiene. (76%)
6. (15) A veces las cosas que menos cuestan resultan más costosas. (74%)
    (25) No seas como los conejos, que sólo miran desde lejos. (74%)
7. (13) Así son las cosas: para algunos, espinas, para otros, rosas. (72%)
8. ( 2) Más vale llegar a tiempo que ser convidado. (70%)
9. ( 9) No compres fiado porque te resulta más caro. (69%)
10. (14) No hay regalo desinteresado. (67%)
11. (17) El que está solo es más pobre que el que está sin dinero. (65%)
12. ( 4) Hijo de cabra, mucho salta. (63%)
13. (22) Noche y mañana canta la rana. (61%)
14. ( 8) Aserrín, aserrán, si tú no lo pagas, no te lo dan. (60%)
15. (11) Si te duele la cabeza, cierra los ojos y reza. (50%)
16. ( 7) Más vale perder que volver a encontrar. (49%)
17. (10) Si te levantas temprano, tendrás un día provechoso. (48%)
18. (18) El más sabio hace tonterías de vez en cuando. (44%)
19. (12) Cada uno tiene su destino y no lo puede cambiar. (27%)

Because it involves a combination of recognition or association clues and formal markers, this tabulation comes closest to representing the kinds of cognitive processes that operate during an actual proverb performance. Once again No es oro todo lo que relumbra heads the list, with a total score of 96%. The four patterned pseudo-proverbs that ranked high on the "recognition" list are next, although in a modified order: No hay peor aprendiz que el que no quiere saber has moved into second place as the result of the high proportion of "non-recognizers" who judged it to be a proverb. In all, a total of nine pseudo-proverbs were identified as "proverbial or probably proverbial" by at least threefourths of the respondents. The "genuine" proverb Más vale llegar a tiempo que ser convidado, with a score of 70%, is now outranked by no fewer than 12 pseudo-proverbs. At the bottom of the list are the three "unmarked" paraphrases, with Cada uno tiene su destino y no lo puede cambiar continuing in last place.

It seems reasonable to assume that any of the items in the "Top Ten"--those scoring over 75%--would have an excellent chance of functioning as a proverb if used in an appropriate performance context. Even for those in the mid-group--the ten that scored between 60% and 75%--the odds are favorable, and for both groups the probabilities would no doubt be increased, in actual use, by the effect of the surrounding context in erasing uncertainties as to meaning, as well as by such external factors as voice cues. Once perceived as a proverb, the non-proverb or pseudo-proverb becomes a proverb so far as the hearer is concerned; for him, it is by definition the voice of "the anonymous past, the anonymous folk."

If a non-traditional saying is perceived by the hearer as a proverb, and therefore functions as a proverb, should it be considered a proverb by the investigator as well? Probably not; we need to retain our analytical categories to give order to our subject matter and to keep it within manageable bounds. It is important, nevertheless, to be aware of the criteria by which the speakers of a language judge their own proverbs, both on an abstract, generic level and at the specific level of the individual saying. A greater appreciation of the processes involved in the hearer's perception of proverbiality may help us to understand why it is so very difficult to arrive at an all inclusive definition of a proverb, and why attempts to analyze the proverb on a cross-cultural or universal basis invariably meet with but limited success. And there are even broader implications as well. Archer Taylor affirms, in his chapter on "The Origins of the Proverb," that "the acceptance or rejection by tradition which follows immediately upon the creation of the proverb is a factor in its making quite as important as the first act of invention" (p. 35). One could say more precisely "the acceptance or rejection by the hearer," for it is with the individual hearer that "tradition" begins and--with each successive performance--will be either extended or cut short. By exploring in greater detail the mechanisms underlying the perception of proverbiality, we will be enlarging our understanding of an aspect of the proverb that is indeed "quite as important as the first act of invention."26

NOTES

*Previously published in Proverbium, 1 (1984), pp. 1-38 and in Wolfgang Mieder, ed., Wise Words: Essays on the Proverb (New York: Garland, 1994), pp. 3-29

1 Peter Seitel, "Proverbs: A Social Use of Metaphor," Genre, 2 (1969), 144. The study is reprinted in Wolfgang Mieder and Alan Dundes, eds., The Wisdom of Many: Essays on the Proverb (New York: Garland, 1981), pp. 122-139, with the passage cited appearing on p. 124.

2 Archer Taylor, The Proverb (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931), p. 3.

3 These and similar quotations elsewhere in this study on the nature of the refrán are translations from definitions supplied by Spanish-speaking informants of varying national background. The terms refrán and dicho ("saying") are often used interchangeably, although for some informants dicho is a broader term, i.e., a refrán is a dicho but not all dichos are refranes. The term proverbio is known to informants but seems to be little used; the various subcategories (adagio, máxima, sentencia, etc.) differentiated by some proverb investigators in Spanish are almost universally ignored.

4 E. Ojo Arewa and Alan Dundes, "Proverbs and the Ethnography of Speaking Folklore," American Anthropologist, 66, No. 6, Pt. 2 (1964), p. 70.

5 The ability of children to understand and to use proverbs is studied in dissertations by Patricia J. Brewer ("Age, Language, Culture, Previous Knowledge and the Proverb as Social Metaphor," Diss. University of Pennsylvania 1979) and John Wayne Chambers ("Proverb Comprehension in Children," Diss. University of Cincinnati 1977). Catherine Hudson deals more briefly with children's ability to recognize as well as understand proverbs in "Traditional Proverbs as Perceived by Children from an Urban Environment," Journal of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, D.C., 3 (1972), 17-24.

6 Peter Seitel, "Saying Haya Sayings: Two Categories of Proverb Use," in J. David Sapir and J. Christopher Crocker, eds., The Social Use of Metaphor: Essays on the Anthropology of Rhetoric (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977), p. 77.

7 In most of Seitel's 19 examples of proverb use the words of the speakers are quoted directly; all but two of these include introductory formulas ("The Haya have a proverb . . .," "The Haya say . . .," "They say . . ."). The two exceptions are examples of onwizo or "damaging" usage (No. 13, p. 85, and No. 19, p. 89). For another onwizo, the omission of "introductory phrases" is specifically indicated (No. 9, p. 83). It appears that formulas are more likely to be omitted in onwizo usage, but a formula is used in No. 14, p. 87, which is an onwizo, and perhaps also, by implication, in No. 11, p. 84.

8 The use of voice cues among certain African peoples is noted by Ruth Finnegan on p. 23 of "Proverbs in Africa," included in Mieder and Dundes, The Wisdom of Many, pp. 10-42, and reprinted from her Oral Literature in Africa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 389-418.

9 The Proverb, p. 3.

10 Richard Chenevix Trench, Proverbs and Their Lessons, 9th ed. (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1893), p. 15.

11 For studies of two important "families" of proverbs in Spanish, see Shirley L. Arora, "'El que nace para tamal . . .': A Study in Proverb Patterning," Folklore Américas, 28 (1968), 55-79; "The 'El que nace Proverbs: A Supplement," Journal of Latin American Lore, 1 (1975), 185-198; and "'To the Grave With the Dead . . .': Ambivalence in a Spanish Proverb," Fabula, 21 (1980), 223-246.

12See, for example, Bengt Holbek, " Style," Proverbium (Helsinki), No. 15 (1970), 470-472, for observations concerning Danish proverbs; Archer Taylor's chapter on "The Style of Proverbs," in The Proverb, pp. 135-183; Roger D. Abrahams, "Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions," in Richard M. Dorson, ed., Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), pp. 117-124 but especially pp. 119-121; and the opening remarks of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, "Toward a Theory of Proverb Meaning," Proverbium (Helsinki), No. 22 (1975), 821-827, to mention only a few.

13 Beatrice Silverman-Weinreich, "Towards a Structural Analysis of Yiddish Proverbs," in Mieder and Dundes, The Wisdom of Many, p. 71 (complete article on pp. 65-85, reprinted from Yivo Annual of Jewish Social Science, 17 (1978), 120.

14 G. B. Milner, "What Is a Proverb?," New Society, 332 (Feb. 6, 1969), 199-202, and "Quadripartite Structures," Proverbium (Helsinki), No. 14 (1969), 379-383.

15 Alan Dundes, "On the Structure of the Proverb," Proverbium (Helsinki), No. 25 (1975), 961-973. The definition appears on p. 970.

16 Holbek, p. 471. Holbek notes that some scholars consider the lack of the article to be an indication of great age, but he views this as a "moot point."

17 Seitel, "Proverbs: A Social Use of Metaphor," p. 145. In answer to his own question, "How does one recognize that which he is going to study?," Seital offers a provisional definition of a proverb as a "short, traditional, 'out-of-context'" statement "used to further some social end." His term "out-of-context" is not limited to metaphor but includes grammatical or other features that violate in some way the usual context or rules of conversation. The point of view is that of the investigator rather than the proverb hearer; on p. 146 are mentioned some of the difficulties encountered in recognizing "outof- contextness" in the examples of Ibo proverb use drawn from the English-language novels of Chinua Achebe.

18 Manuel Conde attempts to differentiate among no fewer than 29 Spanish terms related in one way or another to the term dicho, and cites metaphor as the distinguishing feature characterizing the refrán as opposed to the proverbio and the adagio (Dichos ciertos . . . y ciertos dichos [Mexico, D.F.: Costa-Amic, 1971], pp. 12-15). The distinctions as well as many of the terms themselves are unknown to most users of proverbs in Spanish. A more scholarly analysis is offered by Ismael Moya in his Refranero: Refranes, proverbios, adagios, frases proverbiales, modismos refranescos, giros y otras formas paremiológicas tradicionales en la República Argentina (Buenos Aires: Imprenta de la Universidad, 1944), pp. 15-35. Moya's collection is one of the few compilations in Spanish that appears to be taken exclusively from oral sources; Conde's work, which apparently combines written and oral sources, is the largest Mexican collection currently available. Examples of Spanish proverbs cited in the present study, when not taken from our Los Angeles field project, have been drawn from these two works, as indicated.

19 Richard Jente, "El refrán," Folklore Américas, 7 (1947), p. 2.

20 The Spanish proverbs surveyed are found in Conde's collection (see note 18), pp. 42, 110, 210, 274, and 346. The English collection used was Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases of Illinois, edited by Frances M. Barbour (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965), pp. 71, 78, 115, 137, and 180. Barbour's collection was chosen because it is taken from contemporary oral sources; rather than select pages entirely at random, an effort was made to locate pages with a high proportion of proverbs (as opposed to proverbial phrases, which were eliminated from the count).

21 Dan Ben-Amos, "Analytical Categories and Ethnic Genres," in Folklore Genres, ed. Dan Ben-Amos (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976), p. 228. The article, pp. 215-242, is reprinted from Genre, 2 (1969), 275-301.

22 El dinero del tonto se gasta pronto, "The fool's money is soon spent" (No. 3 on the survey list) was intended as a rhymed equivalent in Spanish of the English proverb A fool and his money are soon parted. El dinero del tonto se escurre pronto, "The fool's money soon slips away," is found in Francisco Rodríguez Marín, Doce mil seiscientos refranes más no contenidos en la colección del Maestro Gonzalo Correas (Madrid: Revista de Archivos, Bibliotecas, y Museos, 1930), p. 105. I have not come across this saying in the field nor in any other published source. The sources of the proverbs in Rodríguez Marín's collection are not indicated.

23 El muerto a la tumba y el vivo a la rumba belongs to the abundant family of sayings typified by El muerto al hoyo y el vivo al bollo, "The dead to the grave and the living to the bread" (see study cited in note 11). No tiene la culpa el ladrón sino el que le da ocasión is a "hybrid" between La ocasión hace al ladrón, "Opportunity makes the thief," and the pattern exemplified in No tiene la culpa el indio, sino el que lo hace compadre, "It's not the Indian who is to blame but the one who makes him a compadre, (i.e., a co-parent; in a broader sense, a friend or social equal) or No tiene la culpa el chancho si no quien le da afrecho, "It's not the pig that is to blame but the one who gives him bran" (Moya, p. 558). Caballo viejo no pierde camino shares with numerous sayings not only the general pattern but also the absence of the article, a conspicuous grammatical marker, as in Escoba nueva barre bien, "[A] new broom sweeps clean," or Burro viejo no toma paso, "[An] old donkey will not learn the pace" (Moya, p. 347). No hay peor aprendiz que el que no quiere saber follows the pattern of No hay peor sordo (or ciego) que el que no quiere oír (or ver), "There is no worse deaf (or blind) man than the one who will not hear (or see)." Unless otherwise noted, all examples just cited were recorded in our field study project.

24 Hijo de cabra, mucho salta was modelled after a group of proverbs in Spanish that deal with the inescapable influences of heredity, e.g., Hijo de gata, ratones mata, "[A] cat's child kills mice" (Moya, p. 473), recorded in our field project as Hijo de gata caza ratón, "[A] cat's child hunts [a] mouse." The article is not always omitted in proverbs, or their variants, belonging to this group. Conde records El hijo del ave, volar sabe, "The bird's child knows how to fly" (p. 181), and Moya lists El hijo de cabra tira al monte, "The goat's child heads toward the mountain" (p. 417) as well as Hijo de tigre, overo ha de ser, "[A] jaguar's child must be spotted" (p. 473).

25 El que nace para tamal, del cielo le caen las hojas, "He who is born to be a tamale [will have] the leaves [for wrapping the tamale] fall down on him from heaven." For other sayings on this pattern, and other varieties of El que nace proverbs, see the studies cited in note 11.

26 A preliminary version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the California Folklore Society held at the University of California, Berkeley, April 18-20, 1980.

APPENDIX

The following is the list of proverbs and pseudo-proverbs in the order in which they appeared in the survey. The English translations provided here were not included on the list.

1. No es oro todo lo que relumbra.
(All that glitters is not gold.)
2. Más vale llegar a tiempo que ser convidado.
(It's better to arrive on time than to be invited.)
3. El dinero del tonto se gasta pronto.
(The fool's money is soon spent.)
4. Hijo de cabra, mucho salta.
(The goat's child jumps a lot.)
5. No tiene la culpa el ladrón sino el que le da ocasión.
(It's not the thief who's to blame but he who gives him the opportunity.)
6. El que nace para leer, del cielo le caen los libros.
(He who is born to read, the books fall down on him from heaven.)
7. Más vale perder que volver a encontrar.
(It's better to lose than to find again.)
8. Aserrín, aserrán, si tú no lo pagas no te lo dan.
Aserrín, aserrán, if you don't pay for it, they don't give it to you.)
9. No compres fiado porque te resulta más caro.
(Don't buy on credit because it will turn out to be more expensive.)
10. Si te levantas temprano, tendrás un día provechoso.
(If you get up early you'll have a profitable day.)
11. Si te duele la cabeza, cierra los ojos y reza.
(If your head aches, close your eyes and pray.)
12. Cada uno tiene su destino y no lo puede cambiar.
(Each one has his destiny, and he cannot change it.)
13. Así son las cosas: para algunos, espinas, para otros, rosas.
(That's the way things are: for some, thorns, for others, roses.)
14. No hay regalo desinteresado.
(There is no disinterested gift.)
15. A veces las cosas que menos cuestan resultan más costosas.
(Sometimes the things that cost least turn out more expensive.)
16. No hay peor aprendiz que el que no quiere saber.
(There is no worse apprentice than the one who doesn't want to know.)
17. El que está solo es más pobre que el que está sin dinero.
(He who is alone is poorer than he who is without money.)
18. El más sabio hace tonterías de vez en cuando.
(The wisest man does foolish things once in a while.)
19. El muerto a la tumba y el vivo a la rumba.
(The dead to the tomb and the living to the rumba [dance].)
20. Caballo viejo no pierde camino.
([An] old horse doesn't lose the way.)
21. No hay campana sin badajo, ni sopa buena sin ajo.
(There is no bell without a clapper, nor good soup without garlic.)
22. Noche y mañana canta la rana.
(Night and morning the frog sings.)
23. Hay que saber aprovechar y no dejarse engañar.
(One must know how to take advantage and not let oneself be deceived.)
24. El que se queja, faltas tiene.
(He who complains, has faults.)
25. No seas como los conejos, que sólo miran desde lejos.
(Don't be like rabbits, that only watch from far away.)

Shirley L. Arora
Department of Spanish and Portuguese
University of California at Los Angeles
Los Angeles,
California 90095-1532


 
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