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Variations in the popularity of Finnish proverbs

Matti Kuusi

Variations in the popularity of Finnish proverbs*

Proverbs are common sayings among the people; commonness is their state of being. There are the common sayings of four-person whist groups; there are also sayings that were engraved on clay tablets thousands of years ago and that are still repeated every day over five continents. The difference is one of degree, but is not insignificant: it is clear that Ei ole koiraa karvoihin katsomista (You cannot judge a dog by its coat), known to all as an example of folk psychology, or Punatukkanen ee piäse taevaasee (A red-head will not get to heaven), common elsewhere but extremely rare in Finland, belong to two completely different classes. Proverbs do not, however, come accompanied by records of their commonece, as do the plants of a school botany; in, for example, provincial collections of proverbs, those with a nationwide spread and ephemeral witticisms known only to small circles live happily as equals and it is even true that the commonest proverbs are, in them, rarities, while the rarities have been published again and again.

One of the most difficult problems of rescarching proverbs is why some particular human statement should take wing over seas and mountains, over boundaries of language, religion and race, from mouth to mouth, from generation to generation, from millennium to millennium. Why, on the other hand, have thousands of sayings that were found, for example, all over medieval Europe, been completely forgotten today? Why do some proverbs tend to spread, and others tend to disappear?

I shall take as my starting material the commonest Finnish proverbs; in these cases, variations in popularity are at their most extreme and the necessary number of variants most easily gathered. Included are, first of all, the twenty proverbs that are most often repeated in the primary sources dating from before the fire of Turku (1827). A second group of twenty popular proverbs has been sifted from material from collection-competitions of the 1930s, from fifty smallish collections of proverbs from different parts of Finland.

 Old popular proverbs[1]
Variants 

1827 
1930 


1. Sanasta sana tulevi, kipinästä maa kytevi (From a word comes a word; from a spark the earth catches fire cf. Fire from a spark, war from a word, FFC 236: 148).

 23
 0

2. Kaunis kakku päältä nähden, vaan on sirkkoja sisällä, akanoita alla kuoren (The cake is fine on top, but there are crickets inside, chaff under the crust; cf. The cake is splendid on top, but inside is chaff, FFC 236: 83).

 22
 8

3. Sanasta miestä sarvesta härkää (Take a man by his word, take a bull by its horn, FFC 236: 238).

 21
 14

4. Suu saatti suden ritahan, kieli kärpän lautasehen (The mouth brought the wolf into the trap, the tongue the ermine to the snare; cf. Hunger is sharper than the sword, S 2601).

 20
1

5. Itku pitkästä ilosta, pieru kauan nauramasta (Laughter from long joy, a fart from laughing long; cf. Deep laughter leads to tears, S 1356).

 19
15

6. Suo siellä, vetelä täällä, ei kuivaa kussaan (Swamp there, water here, not dry anywhere, FFC 236: 195).

 19
7

7. Jonka jalka kapsaa, sen suu napsaa (He whose foot kicks has food to put in his mouth; cf. He who shuns the millstone, shuns the meal, S 577: 6).

 18
11

8. Tulee mies merentakainen, ei tule turpehen alainen (A man comes back from beyond the seas, not from under the sod).

 18
13

9. Ei kaikki kultaa mikä kiiltää eikä kaikki hopeata mikä hohtaa (All that glisters is not gold, nor silver that shimmers).

 16
9

10. Jonka lehmä lähtehessä, sen käsi alinna (Whose cow is in the swamp has his hand in the deepest, FFC 236: 92).

 16
9

11. Aika hiiren haukotella puoli kissan persehessä (Time for the mouse to yawn when it's half inside the cat; cf. Too late repents the rat, when caught by the cat, S 1936).

 15
7

12. Kissa kiitellen elävi, katinpoika kaunistellen (A cat lives on praise, a dog by pats on the head, FFC 236: 381).

 15
7

13. Elä maassa maan tavalla taikka maasta pois pakene (Live in the country as they live, or leave, FFC 236: 192)

 15
6

14. Vuosi vanhan vanhentavi, kaksi lapsen kasvattavi (One year ages the old, two years grow a child, FFC 236: 389).

 15
11

15. Hullu kiitti hevostansa, mielipuoli vaimoansa, epätaito lapsiansa (A fool boasts of his horse, a madman of his wife, the skilless his children) FFC 236: 428)

 14
7

16. Jumalall on onnen ohjat, Luojalla lykyn avaimet, ei katehen kainalossa pahansuovan sormenpäissä (The reins of fortune, the keys to luck, are in the hands of God and not under envy's arm or at an evil person's fingertips).

 14
2

17. Parempi pyy pivossa kuin kaksi oksalla (A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush).

 14
9

18. Satehiksi päivän sappi, poudiksi kuun kehä (A ring round the sun for rain, a ring round the moon for fine weather).

14
4

19. Ei pidä mennä syhymättä saunaan (Don't go to the sauna if you're not itching, FFC 236: 193).

 14
4

20. Tikka kirjava metsässä, ihmisen ikä kirjavampi (A woodpecker in the forest is mottled, but a man's life is more so, FFC 236: 125).

 14
4


New popular proverbs


21. Lisänä rikka rokassa hämähäkki taikinassa (A bit of dirt adds to the soup, a spider to the dough, FFC 236: 372).

 10
 23

22. Mies tulee räkänenästä, vaan ei tyhjän naurajasta (A man comes from a sniveller, but not from an empty scoffer, FFC 236: 380).

 10
 23

23. Ei haukku haavaa tee, jos ei koira purra saa (A bark leaves no marks if you don't let the dog bite, FFC 236:155).

 6
 19

24. Ennen maa repee kun huora häpee (The earth will be rent before a whore repents, FFC 236:627).

 9
19

25. Pohjaton kuin papin säkki (Bottomless as a priest's sack).

 8
18

26. Kyllä vakka kantensa valitsee (The box chooses its lid, FFC 236: 115)

 5
18

27. Ei ole koiraa karvoihin katsomista (You cannot judge a dog by its coat, FFC 236: 279).

 11
17

28. Pienenee kuin pyy maailmanlopun edellä (It shrinks like a partridge before the end of the world).

 0
17

29. Rahalla saa ja hevosella pääsee (Money buys and horses carry; cf. Money makes the mare go, S l6l8: 4).

 0
17

30. Hyvä kello kauas kuullu, paha vielä kauemmas (A good bell [reputation] is heard far, a bad even farther, FFC 236: 246).

 9
15

31. Itku pitkästä ilosta, pieru kauan nauramasta (Laughter from long joy, a fart from laughing long).

 19
5

32. Söis kissakin kalaa muttei kastais kynsiään (The cat would eat fish, too, but it wouldn't wet its paws, FFC 236:250).

 7
15

33. Kukas koiran (kissan) hännän nostaa, jos ei koira (kissa) itse (Who raises the dog's [cat's] tail if not the dog [cat] itself, FFC 236:118).

 3
15

34. Ei köyhyys ole illo kellekään, vaikka se välistä naurattaa (Poverty is no joy, although it sometimes makes you laugh, FFC 236: 665).

 0
15

35. Oma kiitos haisee (Self-praise stinks).

 2
15

36. Jolla on paikka paikan päällä, sillä on markka markan päällä (Who covers a patch with a patch covers a penny with a penny, FFC 236: 623).

 6
15

37. Kyllä routa porsaan kotiin ajaa (The frost drives the pig home).

 9
15

38. Kyllä sopu sijaa antaa (Harmony makes space, FFC 236: 631).

9
15

39. Siinä on yksi, sanoi suutari lauantaina (There's one, said the cobbler on a Saturday).

 0
15

40. Siinä mies kuin toinenkin, sanoi täi löylyssä (There's a man like any other, said the flea in the sauna).

 1
15


Every proverb is - with its foreign or domestic roots, its receding or spreading local redactions, its permanent or varying formulae, its modernisations great or small - an object of study in itself. But I shall address the following problem: why does the popularity of some proverbs appear to decrease, and that of others appear to increase? In what respects do the groups of proverbs 1-20 and 21-40 differ from one another? It is worth taking a close look at both groups: if we were able to discern the strengths that have lifted the latter to the peak of proverbial popularity and swept away the former, we should know much about the entire direction of the development or the Finnish psyche, general taste and style of speech and cultural history over a period of centuries.


The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 7:1998 & Issue 8:1998, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Among the group of old proverbs there are at least four tinged with a sense of destiny (numbers 8, 14, 16 and 20). Among the commonest proverbs of the 1930s there is not a single corresponding aphorism concerning the basic nature of life, death and human existence, not even biological and technical experiential and directional sayings such as number 18.

It can be disputed whether so small a sample group can be used to prove general tendencies in the psychology or cultural history of a people. It can also be claimed that the 20 proverbs under examination are not completely commensurate, and that they do not really represent the most popular proverbs of the time. The 'old' frequency statistics are, in fact, final in the sense that they are based on the entire surviving material; it is hardly likely that enough new manuscripts will be found that the composition of the group l-20 would undergo significant change. On the other hand, it is possible to make a more serious objection: since it is based on material gathered and censored by clergy and educated folk, it perhaps does not reflect the taste, preferences and opinions of the people, but rather those of the clerks of the period. It may well be that the saying, pohjaton kuin papin säkki (bottomless as a priest's sack) may have been more generally cultivated, centuries ago, than Jumalall on onnen ohjat (God holds the reins of luck), but that priestly preferences have made it seem otherwise. As already mentioned, my suggested development from a noble style to a coarser one may also reflect the taste of the collectors, not the folk, of old. There are, in other words, sources of error; unfortunately, there are no other objects of comparison available. I believe it to be certain that proverbs 1-20 were nevertheless all, in their time, very widely distributed proverbs, and, on average, much commoner than proverbs 21-40. The last-mentioned are based on material that is irreproachable from the point of view of frequency analysis in the sense that the competing collectors, whose object was simply the size of their collection, generally recorded all the proverbs they could possibly remember. On the basis of the giant collections of the Lexicography Foundation, the frequency statisitcs of the 1930s could be increased, for example, one hundredfold, in which case it would be most likely that there would be changes to the composition of the 21-40 group: some of the 15-variant favourites would no doubt be replaced by 14-variant proverbs such as these:

Ei hiiri heinäkuorman alle kuole (A load of hay won't crush a mouse, FFC 236: 57).

Ei hulluja kynnetä eikä kylvetä, itsestään niitä kasvaa (No need to plough and sow madmen, they grow by themselves).

Ei auta itku markkinoilla - turkki juoda pitää (No use crying at the market, sell your fur coat and drink the money, FFC 236: 331).

Ennen kesän lehmättä kuin joulun akatta (Rather a man without a cow for the summer than without a wife for Christmas night, FFC 236: 406).

Se koira älähtää, johon kalikka kalahtaa (It's the dog you take a stick to that yelps, FFC 236: 374).

Katsoo kuin lehmä uutta porttia (He stares like a cow at a new gate).

Älä luule luuta lihaks, pässinpäätä paistikkaaksi (Dont mistake the bone for meat, nor a sheep's head for a roasted turnip, FFC 236: 639).

Älä nuolaise ennenkuin tipahtaa (Don't lick before it drops, FFC 236: 630; cf. There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip).

Rohkea rokan syö, kaino ei saa kaaliakaan (The brave eat the soup, the timid die of hunger, FFC 236: 367).

Sanasta meistä, sarvesta härkää (Take a man by his word, take a bull by its horn, FFC 236: 238).

Sentähden seppä pihdit pitää, ettei kynnet palaa (Smiths have tongs so as not to burn their fingers, FFC 236: 368).

Ei talosta niin lähdetä kuin torpasta (You don't leave a house as you do a croft).

The general picture would hardly change: the Kalevala mode, the high style, the sense of destiny are, in this 'complementary group', represented even more weakly than among proverbs 21 to 40.

 

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 7:1998 & Issue 8:1998, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

It may be that Saarijärven Paavo had an attitude to life that was in some senses more 'aristocratic' than that of the subsidised small farmers of today; but in general it is hardly likely that variations in popularity of Finnish proverbs express such a 'social decline' in this folklore genre, but rather the general taming and civilisation of the backwoods Finnish country village, the multiple strengthening of social ties. Strong as is the danger of falsely subjective interpretations and wishful thinking in this kind of attempt at such an extensive comparison, I hope that the reader will have gained some impression of the interesting and far-reaching problems the little observations I have made concerning variations in the popularity of proverbs can give access to: the study of proverbs might, in the last analysis, lead to an examination of the national identity. Opinions will vary as to whether the boundaries of knowledge will then have been crossed, or whether we shall then only be arriving at the threshold of really interesting scholarly insights.

1953

Matti Kuusi
Helsinki
Finland

NOTES

*Reprinted from Mind and Form in Folklore. Selected articles of Matti Kuusi. Ed. by Henni Ilomäki. Studia fennica. Folkloristica 3. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura. Helsinki 1994, pp. 114-122.

  1. Equivalents are taken from the following sources: FFC = Proverbia septentrionalia; K = Matti Kuusi & Outi Lauhakangas, Maailman sananlaskuviisaus, Helsinki 1993; S = Burton Stevenson, The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Familiar Phrases. New York 1948.

  2. This proverb is, incidentally, an amusing proof of the purity with which the folk tradition has been preserved and how normatively literary sources influence the intelligentsia's use of proverbs. Variants recorded by around 60 students of Finnish began, without exception, Moni on kakku päältä kaunis (Many a cake is fine to look on; cf. Kalevala 33: 77). All the old and new folk variants I have encountered, on the other hand, begin: Kaunis ka(a)kku päältä nähden (Fine the cake is to look at).


 
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