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'STILL WATERS RUN DEEP' - PROVERBS ABOUT SPEECH AND SILENCE: A CROSS-LINGUISTIC PERSPECTIVE

JONATHAN CHARTERIS-BLACK

'STILL WATERS RUN DEEP' - PROVERBS ABOUT SPEECH AND SILENCE: A CROSS-LINGUISTIC PERSPECTIVE

'Still waters run deep', 'Speech is silver, silence is golden', 'Empty vessels make the most sound', these proverbs could be included in what Permiakov has referred to as a "paremiological minimum" of English proverbs, i.e. a central stock of proverbs necessary for cultural literacy (Permiakov, 1971, 1973, & 1989). This paper proposes that such proverbs about speech and silence comprise a proverb type. There have been various attempts to establish a system for the cross-linguistic comparison of proverbs, originally Taylor (1931) proposed the possibility of a proverb type which underlay a range of possible variants in different languages. M. Kuusi (1972) developed the notion of a proverb typology, and described proverbs from different languages which shared the same idea and were expressed in the same or a similar image as being variants of the same proverb type. The type is, therefore, a universal notion of which language-specific forms are considered to be variants. For example, in the case of speech proverbs, "Still waters run deep" also occurs in Russian along with an alternative: "There may be deep bottoms in still water"; it will be proposed that variants such as these are of the same type.

One of the difficulties with paremiological approaches which perceive the proverb as a self-contained proposition is that they provide no explanation of the widespread phenomenon of pairs of proverbs with apparently opposite meanings. For example, in contrast to those proverbs given above, we also find in Russian "Still waters undermine the bank" or "There may be the devil in still water". Semantic contradiction in proverb systems can only be accounted for in terms of the speakers' communicative intentions within a given context, this is because speakers' selections of fixed expressions will depend on their intentions which, in turn, vary according to the context of utterance. The questions which this paper aims to answer are: in general terms, what can we learn about human communication from a study of proverbs? Secondly, can communicative intention provide an effective basis for the classification of proverbs referring to speech and silence? Thirdly, do they constitute a source of ethnographic data? A total of 123 proverbs which are translated into English from 41 different languages will provide data to support the answers which are proposed to these questions.

Since we are attempting to explore the topic of proverbs which relate to speech and silence from a cross-linguistic perspective it is important to consider the function and purpose of proverbs and how they exhibit more general, and possibly universal, intentions in human communication. Proverbs provide excellent data for illustrating what Grice (1975) has described as the Co-operative principle: "Make your contribution such as is required at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you engage".

Proverbs adhere to the four maxims of the Co-Operative Principles: Quantity, Quality, Manner and Relation. In terms of Quantity, they are brief but informative. In terms of Quality, they reflect what the speaker perceives to be true and for which they have evidence in the form of the conventional wisdom which they represent; although, it is claimed, the truth value of a proposition expressed in a proverb depends on the speaker's topic and purpose rather than on its inherent truth. For this reason, it is necessary to refer to the context of their utterance to guage adherence to the maxim of Quality. Thirdly, in terms of Manner, they are brief and orderly and in terms of Relation, the frequent use of analogy and metaphor often makes their relation with preceding discourse somewhat obscure; in such cases the hearer resorts to conversational implicature. When interpetation is problematic, for example when the hearer is a foreigner, the speaker may find it appropriate to offer an explanation of the proverb's relevance to the topic of conversation. As Arora (1995) has pointed out:

The listener's identification of a proverb is a two-fold process involving first the abstract notion of "proverb" as it is culturally or ethnically conceived, and secondly a means of assigning individual utterances to that genre.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 2:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.





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The last category of proverbs are those which compare speech with action. The communicative intention in such proverbs is to present speech as an alternative to action.

Table E: Proverbs which compare action positively with speech
Actions speak louder than words. (English)
Talking is easy, action is difficult. (Spanish)
Slow in word, swift in deed. (Chinese)
Word a mout' no load 'pon head. (Jamaica)
Talk is cheap but it takes money to buy whisky. (American)
Your militia are great talkers and little doers. (American)
Many words will not fill a bushel. (American)
An oven whose door does not shut does not bake its loaves. (Maltese)
Many words do not fill a basket. (Yoruba)
A talkative bird will not build a nest. (West African)
Empty words do not fill one's stomach. (Turkish)
The cheese vessel will not sail merely by words. (Turkish)

We can see in these proverbs a view on life which can be summarised by the concept of the work ethic; that is that those who talk are an impediment to the achievement of material goals. There is also the same perception of talk as implied by the folk saying: "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me"; it is ultimately action rather than talking which changes the world. It is worth noticing that when action is compared with speaking, it is in fact a certain type of speaking which is negatively evaluated i.e. talking. To talk to someone implies something more casual and of less import than speaking to them; this sense carries over into the noun forms: a speech is certainly a more formal event than a talk.

The category of proverbs which positively evaluate action as compared with speech (or talking) includes proverbs from nine different languages.

Having explored some of the universal and cross-linguistic features of proverbs which taken together comprise the type 'speech proverb', and demonstrated how communicative intention can be used as a basis for their classification, it remains to consider the last of the research questions regarding proverbs as a source of insight into ethnographic attitudes and culture-specific perspectives on speech. There are a number of difficulties here, not the least of which is the absence of information on the relative frequency with which each of the proverbs in the above tables are used in each of the cultures concerned. Much research is done in this field which relies exclusively on published collections of proverbs as isolated sentences. Claims for proverbs as a source of information on ethnogaphic perspectives requires some indication of the relative frequency of occurence of these speech events. However, we can first identify the frequency with which proverbs from certain languages appear in the above tables:

Japanese

11

proverbs

Turkish

11

proverbs

Yoruba

9

proverbs

American

8

proverbs

Hindustani

9

proverbs

English

5

proverbs

Malay

4

proverbs

Chinese

4

proverbs

Arabic

4

proverbs

Korean

4

proverbs

Russian

4

proverbs

Thai

3

proverbs

Maltese

3

proverbs

While the study of proverbs relating to a single topic may not be representative of the full range of proverbs, we can agree with Fischer & Yoshida (1968), McNeil (1971) and de Caro (1987) that proverbs are of some importance as a source of insight into the cultural norms and beliefs of the speakers of these languages. We can see, for example, that in Japan, the proverb is an effective means of recommending silence as playing a culturally acceptable role in communication. Fischer and Yoshida related this to demographic factors proposing the hypothesis that Japan's population density lead to forms of control over all forms of potentially aggressive behaviour. From a sociolinguistic perspective we can observe that the traditional nature of Japanese society is reflected linguistically in the complexity of address terms, honorific suffixation, register and lexical choice in Japanese. The cumulative effect of social constraints within a hierarchical society is that it is not possible to communicate without providing explicit evidence of one's perception of the relative status of speaker and hearer. This makes silence a preferred and sociolinguistically acceptable option. The use of the proverbs is further encouraged by the absence of status free pronouns:

References to the second and third person in Japanese are inevitably bound up with concepts of social status. (Martin 1988:1079)

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 2:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

References
Arora, S.L. 1995 : "The perception of proverbiality." DE PROVERBIO: An Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies vol. 1, no.1

Arewa, E. O. & Dundes. A. 1964 "Proverbs and the ethnography of speaking folklore." American Anthropologist 66, 70-85

Brown, P. & Levinson, S.C. 1978 Politeness; some universals in language usage. Cambridge:CUP

Charteris-Black, J. 1995 "Proverbs in communication" Journal of Multilingual Multicultural Development, Vol 16 no.4 259-268

Cole & Morgan 1975 Syntax & Semantics. Academic Press:London

De Caro, F. 1987 "Talk is cheap: the nature of speech according to American proverbs." Proverbium, 4:17-37

Fischer, J.L. & Yoshida, T. 1968 "The nature of speech according to Japanese Proverbs." Journal of American Folklore, 81:34-43

Grice, P. 1975 Logic & Conversation. in Cole & MorganSyntax & Semantics. Academic Press:London

Kuusi, M. 1972 "Towards an International type-system of proverbs." Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia. Reprinted in Proverbium 19 (1972):699-736

Martin, S.E. 1988 A Reference Grammar of Japanese. Tokyo:Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.

McNeil, W.K. 1971 "The nature of speech according to Indian proverbs." Folklore Forum Vol 4: 2-14

Permiakov, G.L. 1971 Paremiologicheskii eksperiment. Materialy dlia paremiologichesko minimuma. Moskva:Nauka

Permiakov, G.L. 1973 "On the paremiological minimum of language." Proverbium 22: 862-863

Permiakov, G.L. 1989 "On the question of a Russian paremiological minimum." Translated by Kevin J. McKenna. Proverbium 6:91-102

Searle, J.R. 1969 Speech acts: an essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge:CUP

Taylor, A. 1931 The Proverb. Cambridge/Masssachusets:Harvard University Press

Jonathan Charteris-Black
English Language Institute
University of Surrey
Guildford
Surrey GU2 5XH
United Kingdom


 
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