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Dialogue in proverbs is for me the natural theme to discuss in an article dedicated to the honor of Alan Dundes. Alan Dundes's unique career in American and international folklore studies has always been characterized by dialogue. His approach to students has encouraged thousands of them through the years to march into the wonderfully chaotic treasury at the end of the corridor at Kroeber Hall at the Berkeley campus; he has warmly hosted numerous fellow folklorists from various continents and cultures at the Folklore Program of the Anthropology department; he has lead lively discussions in hundreds of conferences all over the map; he has visited many countries to stimulate folkloristic research in their academies.

The proverbs which will be discussed in the following short paper all stem from a corpus of proverbs in regard with which dialogue is not a mere stylistic device, but rather the be all and the end all of the whole collection. The proverbs were all collected in field work from immigrants of (formerly Soviet) Georgia in Israel.[1] The project itself was in an unusual manner for research of this kind, but typically of the cultural resourcefulness of Georgian immigrants in Israel, initiated by the Georgian community itself. It can therefore rightly, I think, be considered a dialogic gesture from the Georgians towards the Israeli society, a gesture saying in so many words "Listen to us". The choice of folklore as a means to communicate with Israeli society is typical of the high status of folk culture in Georgian tradition, a phenomenon which seems to be common to cultures with a canonized or semi-canonized epic tradition (cf. Finnish folklore and folkloristics), also reflected in a strong academic tradition of folklore studies.[2]

The field work and the analysis was carried out in an intricate process of cultural translation, informed by a conscious reflexive notion of dialogue. Due to my initial lack of knowledge of the Georgian language, when I in any case (unwisely, maybe) decided to undertake the project, I had to resort to an indirect research process (and finally also study Georgian). Inspired by strong theoretical voices in the field of ethnography,[3] however this situation, which was basically one of disadvantage, became a methodological and eventually also a theoretical resource. It heightened the aspect which is always true in folkloristic field work, namely the fragmentary mode of the empirical work, and the need for a theoretical frame work within which the fragments are structurally interpreted. The key concept for the research became dialogue, in which the process of field work translated by the field worker, Dr. Yitzhak Atanelov, to me became a second, reflexive stage of field work The process of relatively new immigrants talking to a more veteran immigrant, Atanelov, and him talking to me, reflected as a blueprint the general processes of communication between immigrant community and host society. The consciousness of the power related to knowledge as being processed in the academic establishment and transformed into a product which can be publically consumed, was an active factor of the research. The results have created an analysis dealing with the political, cultural and humanistic hermeneutics of folklore in Israel, which however cannot be discussed at length within the scope of this paper.

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The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 3:1996 & Issue 4:1996, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

  1. paatav, bani tkvi, da kusli mtkiva, batonoo

  2. The child was told: Why do you cry? It answered: It works on everybody. (26, Roland Bablikashvili)

    bavsvs utxres: ra gatirebso gamdis da vtrio

  3. The wolf told the dog: It does not matter that I run and you follow me, what matters is that when I turn around you will be next to me. (27, Tsira Balashvili)

    mgelma utxra zaglsa: sakme is ki ar aris rom mivrbivar da momdevo, sakme is aris, movbrunde da dadgeo

  4. A Tatar says to a Tatar: Call me Aga and I will call you Aga, and we shall both be Agas. (32, Rachel Balashvili)

    tatarma utxra tatarsa: Senc Aga damizaxe, mec agas dagizaxeb da oriveni agebi viknebito

  5. The eyeless ant asked God: Give me eye-lashes. (84, David Zurlashvili)

    ciancvelas tvalebi ar hkonda da gmerts exveceboda: camcamebi gamomasxio

  6. The fox which was caught in a snare called: If I shall not get the whole chicken, I will not be satisfied with the drumstick. (86, David Zurlashvili)

    xapangsi gabmuli mela izaxoda tu mteli katami ar momecit, barkals ar davzerdebio

  7. The dog was asked: Why do you bark? - To scare the wolves. - Why do you wag your tail? -What do you think, am I not afraid of wolves? (88, Uti Zizov)

    zagls hkitxes ratom qepo: mglebs vaprtxobo kuds rad aknevo - mglebisa gana me ar mesiniao

  8. The rooster said: I shall cry but whether the sun rises God knows. (139, Gurami Miralashvili)

    mamalma tkva: me ki viqivleb da gatendeba tu ara gmertma iciso

  9. When they came to milk the cow she said "I am an ox", and when they came to harness her she said "I am a cow". (165, Michael Chachashvili)

    zroxas sacveli moutanes da tkva: xari varo, ugeli moutanes - zroxa varo

  10. The mother said "I will die", the wife said "I will marry", and in the meantime the house is full of dirt. (189, Giga Kukiashvili)

    dedam tkva: movkvdebio kalma - gavtxobdebio, saxli ki nagvit aivso

Seven out of the twelwe dialogue proverbs consist of miniature animal fables, where the animals are the speakers of the dialogic element. All of the animals in these proverbs are familiar heroes of the European and Middle Eastern fable universe. The couple dog-wolf appears twice (5,9). In one proverb the speaker is the fox, who mentions a chicken as food (8). A rooster (10), a cat (1) and a cow (11) represent domesticated species, and the ant (7), an insect, is also a known figure from the classical fable-lore.[9]

The human figures of the proverbs are on one hand age and gender roles, child (4), mother (12) and wife (12) and therefore more or less universally applicable to create the generalizing synecdoche effect typical of proverbs.[10] The Tatars (6) are characteristic ethnic "others" of which there are an abundance in the Georgian society; Paata (3) is a male proper name, possibly chosen because of slight alliteration with key words in the proverb. Nacarkekia (2) is a Georgian folktale hero, figuring in several tale types well known in European folklore, such as the contest between the giant and the boy.[11] Nacarkekia is a bragger and his appearance is accompanied by a somewhat comical tone.

After having dealt with the thematic variation of these twelwe dialogue proverbs, let us look at their formal variation. In three of the proverbs (3,4,9) the dialogue is complete, i.e. the proverb consists of a question and an answer by two different figures, in the second case the exchange is double. In one proverb the same figure utters two lines (11) and in another (12) two persons utter each a line but not necessary to each other.

These formal characteristics are a different aspect of the level of analysis which Peter Seitel has termed (in the most influential single article on proverbs ever written, if I am not mistaken) ''correlation''.[12] In Seitel's usage the term designates the first, second or third person reference to which the proverb is directed in each case. In general, the correlation may only be inferred from a study of the text in its context, which has been done in the Hebrew book version in each of the 232 proverbs of the total corpus from which these dialogue proverbs are extracted. However in a dialogue proverb the correlation is also in a way interjected into the text itself.

The para-proverbial discourse was elicited through two direct questions addressed by the field researcher to the informants: first, what are relevant contexts of use, and the second, what is the interpretation given by the members of the ethnic group. The difference between the answers to the two questions was not very big, but on the whole the first question was answered by more specific and less normatively formulated discourse. Another textual environment was created by checking parallels in collections of Georgian proverbs.[13]

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 3:1996 & Issue 4:1996, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

The last proverb of the twelwe discussed here, about the ant (nr. 7 in the list in this article), introduces a mythical theme.[26] When I started to analyze the Georgian proverbs it seemed to me that this perspective, the mythical, is somehow in contrast to the pragmatic everyday wisdom which dominates the tone and function of the proverb genre. On the other hand there were a number of proverbs with such themes in the corpus.

Proverbs being mainly verbal strategies directed towards social situations and reflecting on the discursive context itself, it is not so usual in contemporary research to deal with their more metaphysical aspects. Working on the Georgian corpus collected in Israel drew to my attention the quiet but insistent presence of metaphysical themes in the proverbs. Here the metaphysical is embodied in me mode which is its main articulation in folklore in general, the mythical.

The proverb image deals with a pseudo-aetiological motif of the physiognomy of the ant. The para-proverbial discourse points at the following context "Said about a person who asks for things s/he doesn't need at all" and the interpretation "a person who lacks something important, asks for something less important". In the proverb image the presupposition is the knowledge that ants have no eyes, which is conceived of as a state of lack. This lack correlates with the specific, mythical ant's request for eye-lashes and makes that request an absurd one. A similar, but more implicit, absurd request exists in a parallel proverb in the Babylonian Talmud (fifth century CE): "The camel asked for horns and lost its ears". Here the aetiological aspect is even more prominent, to provide an explanation for the small size of the ears of the camel. The Georgian proverb about the ant is less aetiological and more grotesque; the eye-lashes of the ant may hint at the feelers which the ant actually uses instead of eyes for observing its environment.[27] The request of the ant directed to the creator of the world points out the regrettable fact that creation may not always seem perfect; thus this specific request stands for a great number of wishes for improvements in the world. The mistake of the ant maybe a tragic one too, is not to ask for the right thing, namely eyes, but rather for something which reflects a preference of external, aesthetical values and on the social level therefore is judged as vanity. The superfluousness of the requested thing is that which the para-proverbial discourse foregrounds from the contents of the text. But the ant may also be excused for wanting the eye-lashes to hide the lack of the principal thing, the eyes.

The proverb hints possibly to the proverbial ant of biblical Proverbs (Prov. 6, 6-8) which is, as mentioned before, taken up by the European fable tradition (La Fontaine). The hint is in this case somewhat antithetical since the biblical ant, as well as the one in the fable, is praised for making the correct choice. The mythical character of this specific proverb is also strengthened by the association to the canonical text.

The dialogue proverbs of the Georgians in Israel reflect on one hand the general character of the proverb corpus in that they open up the gnomic genre to a greater narrativity. They also specifically loosen the possibly monophonic impression of proverbs and formalize a polyphonic mode, which I have tried to contextualize within the interpretation of the proverb texts in their functional and rhetoric embeddedness in the para-proverbial discourse. The material here has also been presented as an example for a paremiological venture which represents the research of proverbs in their cultural and mental processes of communication.


*Previously published in Proverbium, 11 (1994), pp. 103-116

  1. Galit Hasan-Rokem, Adam Le-adam Gesher - The Proverbs of Georgian Jews in Israel, Field research: Yitzhak Atanelov, Jerusalem 1993 (Hebrew).

  2. E. Virsaladze, K Sixarulidze & M. Tshikovani, Gruzinskoe narodnoe poetitskoe tvortshestvo, Tbilisi 1972; Kartuli polkloris leksikoni, Tbilisi 1975; M.J Tshikovani Kartuli xalxuri sitgvierebis istoria, Tbilisi 1975; G. Charachidze, Le Systeme Religieux de la Georgie Paienne: Analyse Structurale d'une Civilisation, Paris 1968.

  3. Especially J. Clifford & G. Marcus, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnographic Writing, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London 1986; also the more empirically oriented folkloristic study C.L. Briggs, Competence in Performance: Creativity of Tradition in Mexican Verbal Art, Philadelphia 1988.

  4. Th. Sakhokia, "Les Proverbes Georgiens", Revue des Traditions Populaires, XVII (1902), 547-565; XVIII (1903), 119-133. Repr. Les Proverbes Georgiens. Paris 1903; R. Bleichsteiner, Kaukasische Forschungen, 1er teil: Georgische und Mingrelische Texten, Osten und Orient, Wien 19l9; J. Bergel, Poslovitsy Narodov (year and locus of printing not indicated); Lia Lezhava et al., Xalxuri sibrzne: andazebi maxvilitgvaoba gamocanebi, Tbilisi 1965; K. Sixarulidze, "Poslovitsy", Gruzinskoe narodnoe poeticeskoe tvortchestvo, ed. E. Virsaladze et al. see note 2 above), Tbilisi 1972, 109-201; D. Toronjadze, English-Georgian Proverbs and Sayings, Tbilisi 1973; Winfried Boeder, "La Structure du Proverbe Georgien", Revue des etudes georgiennes et caucasiennes, 1 (1985), 97-115; ibid. "Struktur und Interpretation georgischer Sprichworter Chewzuretien". Redensarren und Sprichworter im interculturellen Vergleich, eds. A. Sabban & J. Wirres, Wiesbaden 1991.

  1. Iris Järvio-Nieminen, Suomalaiset Sanomukset (Finnish Wellerisms), Helsinki 1959; A.Cirese, "Wellerismes et Microrecits"', Proverbium 14 (old series) (1964), 384-390.

  2. Pack Carnes, Proverbia in Fabula, Bern 1988.

  3. Dov Noy, Sippurei baalei haim be-edot Yisrael, Haifa 1976, p. l58.

  4. Boeder 1985, p. 107, nr. 15.

  5. Old Testament, Proverbs 6,6; 30,25; Jean de la Fontaine, "La cigale et la fourmi", the first fable in the French fabuliers work is about the grasshopper and the ant, French-English edition trans. Elizur Wright, London 1975, p. 11.

  6. N.R. Norrick, How Proverbs Mean: Semantic Studies in English, Berlin-New York-Amsterdam 1985.

  7. A. Aarne and S.Thompson, The Types of the Folktale (Folklore Fellows Communications 184), Helsinki 1973.

  8. Peter Seitel "Proverbs: A Social Use of Metaphor", Genre 2, 1969.

  9. See note 4 above.

  10. Numerous oral sources from both communities have been consulted regarding this question.

  11. G. Tsitsuashvili, "Early Information about Jews in Georgian Chronicles", Proceedings of the Sixth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem 1973, p. 117.

  12. e.g. "Nacarkekia and the demon", (nacarkekia da mdewi), Bleichersteiner, see note 4 above, pp. 233-236, Aarne & Thompson type nr. 1060.

  13. M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, Bloomington Ind. 1984, e.g. pp. 217-219.

  14. T. Dragadze, Rural Families in Soviet Georgia: A Case Study in Ratcha Province, London 1988; Yitzhak Eilam, The Georgians in Israel: Anthropological Aspects (Hebrew), Jerusalem 1978.

  15. Sakhokia, see note 4, p. 17.

  16. G. Ben-Oren & W. Moskowitch, "Characteristics of the Spoken Language of the Jews of Georgia", Peamim 31, 1987, pp. 95-119.

  17. See note 4; Bleichsteiner nr. 41 and Sakhokia p. 562.

  18. Dragadze, see note nr. 18, p. 137 mentions the use of a special sing song melody when the proverbs are recited for children.

  19. Here the lack of differentiation between "context" and "interpretation" is especially visible.

  20. Oral tradition among Palestinians. My direct source is Amer Dahamasha, graduate student at the Hebrew University, from the village Kafr Kaana (cf. the story of water turned to wine in the New Testament) in Galilee.

  21. Dragadze, see note 18 above, pp. 67, 69, 159-160.

  22. For parallels see Bergel (note 4 above) nr. 682; with change of protagonist in Sakhokia, p. 565: "The raven had no eye-lids and prayed to God to give it eye-lashes". See also more general parallels in our Georgian collection (see above note l); nr. 41: "A man who had no horse yearned for a saddle"; nr. 150: "Wanted to buy a needle and for the price of a sowing-machine".

  23. I thank Ariel Rokem for the idea.

Galit Hasan-Rokem
Department of Hebrew Literature and Jewish Folklore Program
The Hebrew University

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