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THE SEXIST CORRELATION OF WOMEN WITH THE NON-HUMAN IN ENGLISH AND YORUBA PROVERBS


YISA KEHINDE YUSUF

THE SEXIST CORRELATION OF WOMEN WITH THE NON-HUMAN IN ENGLISH AND YORUBA PROVERBS

 

ABSTRACT

This paper examines how forty-six English and Yoruba proverbs compare women to animals, food, plants, property and trouble. It reveals that all of the proverbs de-personify or dehumanise women. All the same, four of the English proverbs and five of the Yoruba ones do not carry blatant implications of their denigrating analogies. While one Yoruba proverb condescendingly indicates that a bad wife is better than an empty (or bad) room, twenty-two English and seven Yoruba proverbs claim that women are as defective or as detestable as the things to which they are compared. One Yoruba and one English proverb respectively state that soup and pork are of higher value than a wife. The remaining five English proverbs portray women as worse than stupid and mischievous animals, stinging plants and hellish trouble. Though thirty-one English and only fifteen Yoruba proverbs were found for this study, the proverbs from both languages are remarkably comparable in the intensity of their cumulative misogyny.

1. INTRODUCTION

By the term proverb, this paper refers to a short, repeated, witty statement of experience which is used to further a social end. This definition, like a number of previous ones (see, e.g., Yusuf, 1994, 1995), is an adaptation of more elaborate definitions of the proverb by Mieder (1989a), Seitel (1981) and Egblewogbe (1980). However, unlike previous adaptations, the present one does not regard wisdom and truth as essential characteristics of the proverb. This position is motivated by the fact that, considering the overwhelming misogyny of proverbs relating to women in a range of remarkably distinct languages and nations or cultures (see, e.g., Webster, 1982; Mieder, 1985 and Yusuf, 1994), to associate proverbs with wisdom and truth would inadvertently be to believe that misogyny is wisdom and sexism is truth.

A significant means of demonstrating wit in proverbs is the establishment of profound implicit and explicit analogies (Seitel, 1981 and Lieber, 1984). Specifically, Arora (1993) shows how women and the guitar are variously compared in Hispanic proverbs. Three of the examples of such proverbs cited by Arora are:

 

i. Las mujeres se parecen a las guitarras, que mientras no las toquen no producen ningún sonido.

'Women are like guitars, when they're not being played/touched they don't produce any sound' (p. 30).

ii. La mujer es como la guitarra: para poder que se caliente, necesita rascarla.

'A woman is like a guitar: in order for her to warm up you have to strum/stroke her' (p.30).

iii. Mujer, escopeta, guitarra y caballo, no prestallo.

'A woman, a shotgun, a guitar, and a horse are not to be lent' (p. 32).

Arora observes that in the attribution of emotion and life to the guitar, it is personified. Conversely, in attributing the guitar's inability to produce sound independently to a woman, the woman is 'de-personified' or 'dehumanised'. In relation to this fact, Arora (p. 33) notes as follows:

 

Although in reality a woman can and does speak, within the metaphor she has no voice of her own; when not brought to life, so to say, by a man/musician she must remain silent. Depicted as responding rather than acting on her own initiative; described as "owned", "used," "tuned," "played," "repaired," as is the guitar; grouped, along with guitar, among other objects and possessions, she is in effect deprived of life, or de-personified.

Like Arora (1993), the present paper intends to examine how women are implicitly and explicitly compared with the non-human. The study however differs from Arora's in two ways. First, it is not restricted to how women are compared to primarily one object. Rather, it examines how they are identified with a range of objects, animals, plants, food and trouble. Second, it compares the sexist analogies created by English and Yoruba proverbs. Though the two languages differ in that while English is a European language, Yoruba is an African one, they are related in the sense that they co-exist as a second language and a first one respectively in Southwestern Nigeria. The co-existence has been brought about mainly by Christianity and the British colonisation of the country.

Most of the proverbs on which the study is based come from a range of published English and Yoruba sources. Below, each of these sources is indicated in parenthesis along with the page(s) in which each proverb is recorded. When a proverb comes from an unpublished source, the proverb is followed by the parenthetical abbreviation (MISC.). For the study, each Yoruba proverb is translated or re-translated and is classified and discussed along with the English proverbs under the theme that it most appropriately falls in section 2 below. The translation or re-translation and discussion are done with the recognition that proverbs in general have the tendency to be associated with more than one set of meanings or implications.

2. THE PROVERBIAL CORRELATION

 

a. Women and Animals

Under this theme, the way in which women are compared with animals would be shown, and the first English proverb to be examined is

 

1. When an ass climbs a ladder, we may find wisdom in a woman (Thiselton-Dyer, 1906:8).

In this proverb, the inability of an ass to undertake organised upward or vertical mobility, presumably due to its inherent stupidity, is recalled. This disability of the ass is implicitly compared with the presumed inherent inability of women to acquire wisdom. In other words, the proverb implies that as it is difficult to find an ass which is endowed enough to climb a ladder, so it is difficult to find a wise woman. Considering the use of the word 'may' in the proverb, it is further sexistly implied that finding an ass that is capable of climbing a ladder would still be no guarantee for finding a wise woman. The proverb thus implies that an ass (as stupid as it is presumed to be) may be wiser than a woman.

This misogynous proverbial attitude accords with the equally deprecatory proverb

 

2. Women in state affairs are like monkeys in glass-houses (Mieder, 1985:273).

Here, it is implied that women in state affairs would look as awkward and be as destructive as monkeys in glass-houses. This view is in some ways related to the message of the proverb

 

3. Old maids lead apes in hell (Whiting, 1977:274).

This proverb implies that old women are like apes both in their lack of mental originality and their immense capacity for malevolence. But the proverb also distinguishes between old maids and apes in the sense that it claims that old maids occupy a more tormenting part of hell because they may presumably have been more malevolent than apes on earth. A Yoruba proverb with a related sexist implication is

 

4. Kàkà kí ó sàn lára àj, ó fi gbogbo m bí obìnrin; y wá subú lu y (MISC.).

'Rather than experience an abatement of her viciousness, the witch gives birth to only female children, and witches' birds are therefore falling over witches' birds (i.e., increasing in number).

This proverb indicates that a female child is like a vicious bird with regard to the high capability of both to spread misery.

The concept of feminine mischief is also sustained by the proverb

 

5. Two women in a house,
Two cats and a mouse,
Two dogs and a bone,
Will never accord in one
(Thiselton-Dyer, 1906:142).

In this marital proverb, women are compared with cats and dogs in their presumed implacable tendency to be jealous, avaricious and acrimonious. The proverb also implicitly compares a husband with a mouse and a bone in terms of their existence as 'victims' of the acrimonious nature of women, cats and dogs respectively. The correlation of women with dogs is further shown in the proverb

 

6. A woman, a dog, and a walnut tree, the more you beat them the better they be (Simpson, 1982: 248).

This proverb implies that women are like dogs with respect to their tendency to be recalcitrant and that women and dogs are like walnut trees in that with increased battering the women become better (for their husbands), the dogs become better (for their owners) and the walnut becomes better (for its users).

An affinity is also established between women and dogs with respect to battering by the following synonymous English and Yoruba proverbs respectively:

 

7. A man who kicks his dog will beat his wife (Mieder, 1989a:85).

8. Ibi ajá ni a tí m ònrorò àpn (Delano, 1976:72).

'It's from the way he treats his dog that a wicked bachelor is known.'

The view that a wife is like a dog is common to these two proverbs. In the English proverb, kicking a dog is like beating a wife and in the Yoruba one, treating his dog wickedly indicates that a bachelor would treat his wife wickedly when he marries. The view that an animal is to a bachelor what a wife is to a married man is expressed also by the proverb

 

9. Tni ... ni tni; b'ápn sun'su, a bu f'ágùn tàn r (Opadokun, 1976:52).

'To each person their own; when a bachelor roasts yam, he shares it with his sheep.'


The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 5:1997 & Issue 6:1997, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

 

In addition to being compared to animals, women are compared to food or plants as is shown in section (b) below.

 

b. Women and Food/Plants

A noteworthy English proverb which likens women to food is

 

15. All meats to be eaten, and all maids to be wed (Wilson, 1970:10).

This proverb indicates that women are like meat, and wedding them is like eating meat. In other words, the proverb implies that women share the quality of being 'edible' with meat. This implication is more explicitly carried by the Yoruba proverb

 

16. Kò sí ran tó dùn tó adì àfi ran "Yàgò (se) fún mi" (Ojoade, 1983:207).

'No meat is as sweet as chicken, except the meat of "Leave me alone" (i.e., sex with a woman who says "No").'

In this proverb, chicken is said to be like 'meat' from women's bodies with regard to its delicious quality. The delicious quality of sex is also referred to in the Yoruba proverb

 

17. Ìyàwó àkf kì í rá'hùn okó, òkèlè àkbù kì í rá'hùn b (Owomoyela, 1972:755).

'A man's first wife never complains of neglect from the penis, the first morsel never complains of insufficient sauce.'

This proverb indicates that a wife is like a morsel and sex is like sauce. It implies that the first woman to be married by a man, in his set of polygamous wives, has complete sexual possession of the man, and so has no cause to complain of sexual neglect, just as the first morsel has all the sauce at its disposal, and therefore never complains of having less than is required to lubricate it and ensure its smooth passage through the throat of its swallower.

 

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 5:1997 & Issue 6:1997, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

 

 

29. Ikú ogun ní í pa akíkanjú, ikú odò ní í pa òmùw, ikú àlè ní í pa owó fbìnrin; òwò tí àdá bá m ní í ká àdá léhín (Ojoade, 1983:211).

'The brave meet their death in battle, swimmers meet their death in water, and adulterers meet their death in women; it's the trade a cutlass knows best that breaks it.'

Besides the misogynous comparison of women to animals and food or plants, a group of proverbs compare women to property as would be shown in section (c) below.

 

c. Women and Property

The suggestion that women are like property is made in the following proverb:

 

30. A little house well filled, a little field well tilled, and a little wife well willed are great riches (Whiting, 1977:226).

This proverb likens a wife to a well filled house and a well tilled field, if the woman is well willed. In other words, she would be wealth to the husband if she is as passive as the inanimate house and field, and not if she is, in the words of proverb 13 above, as domineering as the 'crooning cow' and the 'crowing hen'.

A woman is further compared to a man's property in the proverb

 

31. He that gets a ship or a wife will always have trouble (Whiting, 1977:389).

Here, a wife is likened to a ship with regard to its potential to bring trouble to its owner perpetually. A wife is also compared with properties with regard to their trouble-inviting potentials by the following proverbs:

 

32. A fair wife and frontier castle breed quarrels (Wilson, 1970:240).

33. Three things breed jealousy, a mighty state, a rich treasury, and a fair wife (Whiting, 1977:435).

34. The nice wife and back door rob the house (Wilson, 1970:25).

Proverb 32 is synonymous with the Yoruba proverb

 

35. ni tó f arwà, ó f ìynu, nítorí ni gbogbo ní í bá wn tan (Akinlade, 1987:17).

'The person who marries a beauty marries trouble, because she claims to be related to everybody.'

 

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 5:1997 & Issue 6:1997, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

 

In addition to the existence of proverbs which compare women to property, a range of proverbs can be found which liken them to trouble as is shown in section (d) below.

 

d. Women and Trouble

It is important to recall that a number of proverbs imply that women can create trouble because they resemble some animals (see proverb 5), some foods (see proverbs 27 and 28), some plants (see proverb 25) and some property (see proverb 31). Unlike these proverbs, a group of proverbs compare women explicitly or directly to trouble as proverb 35 above does. One of such proverbs is

 

40. The world is full of care, much like a bubble; women and care, and care and women, and women and care and trouble (Whiting, 1977:501).

This proverb likens women to both care and trouble. They are in addition regarded as woe in the proverb

 

41. Woman is woe to man (Whiting, 1977:493).

Similarly, women are portrayed as penury in the Yoruba proverb

 

42. Aya br, òsì br (Akinlade, 1987:9).

'Many wives, multiple penury.'

In other words, the proverb implies that since a single wife ordinarily constitutes penury, to have multiple wives is to have multiple penury.

A specific kind of trouble-creating wife is identified in the English proverb

 

43. Three things drive a man out of his house: smoke, rain, and a scolding wife (Mieder, 1989c:72).

In the proverb, a scolding wife is likened to smoke and rain, and the three of them are likened to trouble which drives a man out of his house. A mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law are similarly derogatorily characterised in the proverb

 

44. Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law are a tempest and a hailstorm (Whiting, 1977:298).

Here, the mother-in-law is likened to a tempest and the daughter-in-law is likened to a hailstorm, while the tempest is likened to the hailstorm with regard to the fact that both come with violence which is a subcategory of trouble. In other words, the proverb likens mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law to trouble. A woman's presumed capacity for violence is also alluded to by the proverb

 

45. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned (Simpson, 1982:110).

In this proverb, a woman denied love is believed to be capable of unleashing more torment than hell. That is, the proverb implies that hell is trouble, but a forlorn woman is more trouble.

All of the misogynous messages of the proverbs in this section may in various ways be the basis for the condescending, but nonetheless explicitly disparaging, reference to women in the proverb

 

46. Women are necessary evils (Whiting, 1977:494).

Like the Yoruba proverb 37, this proverb recognises women as an indispensable subcategory of the human race, but regards them as a despicable one all the same.

3. CONCLUSION

In comparing women to the non-human, all of the forty-six proverbs examined in this paper, like the ones studied by Arora (1993), de-personify and dehumanise women. Four of the English proverbs (e.g., proverb 7) and five of the Yoruba ones (e.g., proverb 8) do not carry blatant implications of their denigrating analogies. While the Yoruba proverb 37 condescendingly indicates that a bad wife is better than an empty (or bad) room, twenty-two English proverbs (e.g., proverb 13) and seven Yoruba proverbs (e.g., proverb 4) claim that women are as defective or as detestable as the things to which they are compared. The Yoruba proverb 19 and the English proverb 20 state respectively that soup and pork are of higher value than a wife. The remaining five English proverbs, as exemplified by proverb 1, portray women as worse than stupid and mischievous animals, stinging plants and hellish trouble.

Though thirty-one English and only fifteen Yoruba proverbs were found for this study, the proverbs from both languages are remarkably comparable in the intensity of their cumulative misogyny. The study thus appreciably shows that Shugart (1994:18) is right in noting that "that which constitutes the female has suffered quite possibly the worst universal ideological abuse ever to be perpetrated on an abstract category" (see, also, Bayer, 1974; Schulz, 1975 and Hiraga, 1991).

REFERENCES

Afonja, 'Simi and Bisi Aina (eds.) 1995. Nigerian Women in Social Change. Ile-Ife: Obafemi Awolowo University Press.

Akinlade, Kola 1987. Òwe Plú Ìtum (A-GB). Ibadan: Longman.

Arora, Shirley L. 1993. "A Woman and a Guitar: Variations on a Folk Metaphor." Proverbium 10:21-36.

Bayer, Ann 1974. "A Women's Lib Exposé of Male Villainy." In Estrin and Mehus, eds., pp. 166-168.

Delano, Isaac O. 1976. Òwe L'sin Òr: Yoruba Proverbs - Their Meaning and Usage. Ibadan: University Press Limited.

Egblewogbe, Eustace Yawo 1980. "The Structure and Functions of Proverbs in African Societies." Social Education (October): 516-518.

Estrin, Herman A. and Donald V. Mehus (eds.) 1974. The American Language in the 1970s. San Francisco: Boyd and Fraser Publishing Co.

Hiraga, Masako K. 1991. "Metaphors Japanese Women Live by." Working Papers on Language, Gender and Sexism 1 (1): 38-57.

Kosemanii, 'Supo 1987. Òwe ati Asayàn Or Yorùbá. Ibadan: Vantage Publishers.

Lieber, Michael D. 1984. "Analogic Ambiguity: A Paradox of Proverb Usage." Journal of American Folklore 97 (386): 421-441.

Mieder, Wolfgang 1985. "A Proverb a Day Keeps No Chauvinism Away." Proverbium 2: 273-277.

Mieder, Wolfgang 1989(a). American Proverbs: A Study of Texts and Contexts. New York: Peter Lang.

Mieder, Wolfgang 1989(b). Yankee Wisdom: New England Proverbs. Shelburne, Vermont: The New England Press.

Mieder, Wolfgang 1989(c). Love: Proverbs of the Heart. Shelburne, Vermont: The New England Press.

Mieder, Wolfgang and Alan Dundes (eds.) 1981. The Wisdom of Many: Essays on the Proverb. New York: Garland Publishing Inc.

Ojoade, J.O. 1983. "African Sexual Proverbs: Some Yoruba Examples." Folklore (London) 94: 201-213.

Opadotun, Tunji 1976. Àròf Òpádtun. Ikeja: Longman.

Owomoyela, Oyekan 1972. "The Sociology of Sex and Crudity in Yoruba Proverbs." Proverbium 20 (Old Series): 751-758.

Schulz, Muriel R. 1975. "The Semantic Derogation of Women." In Barrie Thorne and Nancy Henley, eds., pp. 64-75.

Seitel, Peter 1981. "Proverbs: A Social Use of Metaphor." In Wolfgang Mieder and Alan Dundes, eds., pp. 122-139.

Shugart, Helen A. 1994. "The Missing Text: Rape and Women's Sexuality." Women and Language XVII (1): 12-19.

Simpson, John A. 1982. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thiselton-Dyer, T.F. 1906. Folk-lore of Women. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.

Thorne, Barrie and Nancy Henley (eds.) 1975. Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance. Rowley, Massachusetts: Newbury House Publishers, Inc.

Webster, Sheila K. 1982. "Women, Sex, and Marriage in Moroccan Proverbs." International Journal of Middle East Studies 14: 173-184.

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

Wilson, F.P. (ed.) 1970. The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Yusuf, Yisa Kehinde 1994. "Proverbs and Misogyny." Working Papers on Language, Gender and Sexism 4(2): 25-45.

Yusuf, Yisa Kehinde 1995. "Contradictory Yoruba Proverbs about Women: Their Significance for Social Change." In 'Simi Afonja and Bisi Aina, eds., pp. 109-118.

Yisa Kehinde Yusuf
Department of English
Obafemi Awolowo University
Ile-Ife
Nigeria

 


 
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