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G.Hulstaert, editor of the extensive Proverbes Mongo (Tervuren 1957) collection, focused attention on the type of oral tradition known as baili of the Nkundo-Mongo tribes in his article Devinettes Nkundo II (Aequatoria, XVIII, 1955, pg. 56-65, 81-90):

A côté des devinettes à la façon européenne, les Nkundo connaissent une autre sorte, qui semble aux Blancs un peu étrange mais qui jouit de la préférence des indigènes, sans doute à cause de la forme rythmique et aussi, je pense, à cause du parallélisme entre la "question" et la "réponse". Celle ci est parfois une vraie réponse a une devinette; mais d'autres fois cette relation ne nous apparait nullement et nous ne voyons comme élément pour les classer dans la catégorie des "baili" que le rythme et le parallélisme. Dans ces cas on constate fréquemment que le premier membre ou la "question" est comme une allégorie, dont le deuxième membre (la réponse) donne l'application; et c'est ainsi que la ressemblance avec la devinette est plus expresse. D'autres fois, le deuxième membre n'est que le complément du premier; c'est comme le posant dit la moitié d'un dicton, d'un adage, etc., le répondant devant compléter exactement.

Beaucoup de ces "baili", en effet, s'emploient encore en dehors de ce jeu. On les entend comme proverbes ou comme adages juridiques ou comme formule de salutation "losáko ".

Dans ces "baili", donc, on trouve une partie de la sagesse ancestrale des Nkundo. Mais la forme est souvent différente; le 'jilí" ayant toujours la forme rythmique et parallélique, tandis que le dicton ou l'aphorisme peuvent s'exprimer en une simple phrase courte.

La devinette peut donc être employée comme proverbe, etc. ou un proverbe peut servir de second membre d'une devinette.

Il arrive, ainsi, qu'en citant un proverbe on ne dit que la première partie, laissant à l'interlocuteur ou à l'assistance le plaisir de compléter; de sorte qu'on obtient, de fait, une devinette "jilí". P. ex on dit: bová bôosenjwa ngóya e! laissant à l'autre le soin d'ajouter: ilòmba mbúsa o! le sel est fondu hélas maman! la maison ensuite!! = après la mort, le médecin!

The boundary between riddle and proverb appears to be much less distinct in Bantu oral tradition than in the oral tradition of European peoples. While arranging the data on Southwest African oral traditions that are in the possession of the Finnish Academy of Sciences for two publications, Ovambo Proverbs and Ovambo Riddles, I have encountered the same images and ideas again and again in both collections. I sent a number of items recorded both as riddles and as proverbs to MA T. E. Tirronen, a linguist and missionary working in South West Africa. According to the explanation he furnished, the Ovambos, who speak Ndonga, Kwanyama and other dialects closely related to those, actually use most of these utterances as both riddles and as proverbs. Indeed, the collectors, who in many cases knew nothing about the analysis of types of oral tradition used in folkloristics, have, in individual cases, been able to list an obvious riddle along with the proverbs and vice versa. On the other hand it has been possible to observe that several collectors have been continuously collecting specimens of this transitional category which, as opposed to true proverbs (omayeletumbulo), are designated by the same term as is used to designate fables and stories (oongano).

Perhaps the most general feature is the fact that both the antecedent and response (the question and answer) appear in proverbs as parallel images. Some typical examples: "The thorn of an Omugowle tree pierced the foot of an elephant; a mushroom pierced the back of a termite hill." This proverb is explained once: giving birth is difficult. Although the answer to a riddle is regularly the second part of a proverb, in both images (the thorn and the mushroom which penetrated objects much larger than themselves) there is a discernible reference to the birth of a child.[1]

"Big-nose has not blown his nose; big feet has not softened the road." The proverb is explained as a warning that a known evildoer should not be immediately suspected as the cause of all evil. But in place of the second part of a proverb, "a person with a large penis did not make the girl pregnant" is encountered on one occasion as the answer to a riddle.

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.

The baili of the Nkundos presented by Hulstaert and the riddle-proverb or proverb-riddle are most probably related phenomena, although there are not many direct equivalents in the rather scanty data. Trees, fruits and birds are also central images in the baili of the Nkundos, and the parallel structure and didactic tone of the riddle proverbs are features common to both. At the present time it is difficult to present corresponding examples from the oral tradition of other Bantu tribes, since the publishers have usually adapted their data to the strict European dichotomy proverbs - riddles, without taking transitional forms into account.

For the time being we know regrettably little about the use of proverbs among primitive peoples, neither do we have a clear idea about the type of oral tradition or traditions known as proverbs and their relation to riddles, myths, fables, epigrammatic material etc. In this area the field observations made by trained investigators and experts from the areas in question themselves are probably of greater value than the armchair-speculations made by European and American theoreticians.

Post Scriptum

Dr. Leca Virtanen brought my attention to a debate concerning a type of south-east Nigerian riddle which took place in the Journal of American Folklore from 1958 to 1961. The riddle-type under discussion was called "Tone-Riddle" by Donald C. Simmons and "Proverb Riddle" by John C. Messenger Jr.

In Simmons's opinion the most important feature is the tonal symmetry of the question and answer: "The degree of tonal similarity between the query and its response varies from complete resemblance to almost complete dissimilarity". Internal symmetry is rarer: "the response of certain examples appears metaphorically analogous to the query". "Out of the ninety-four examples, the query is - - a proverb in three instances - - the response constitutes a proverb in twenty-four instances, and a meaningful sentence in seventy." (JAF 1958 p. 123-125.)

On the other hand, Messenger mentioned that he had found a type of riddle previously unknown "in which two proverbs are coupled" in south-east Nigeria during 1951-1952. "The proverb-riddle combines two adages which at first appear to be unrelated, but probing reveals that subtle connections between the two usually exist." "Occasionally the statements of the combined proverb riddles are used separately as independent maxims, or they may be employed as a form of greeting. Upon meeting an acquaintance, one might hail him with the first part of a proverb-riddle and receive the latter portion from him in return." (JAF 1960 p. 225-226.)

In the continuation of the debate Simmons accused Messenger of "serious analytical and methodological errors", above all of "ignoring the tonal relations of the spoken utterances." "What he calls proverb riddles are simply what I denominated tone riddles." Messenger rejected Simmons's claim that several of the 19 riddle queries in his examples have no proverbial nature "outside of their tonal connection in the tone riddle relationship". As to the tonality of proverb riddles "the degree of tonal similarity between query and response in the nineteen proverb riddles I reported varies from complete resemblance in nine cases to almost complete dissimilarity in three." (JAF 1961 p . 245-246 .)

Although the Efik and Anang tribes are near neighbours and speak related Ibo dialects, Messenger attempted to resolve the dispute by means of a rather dubious compromise suggestion: "It is conceivable that proverb-riddles and tone riddles are distinct phenomena, although superficially related." Neither writer seems to have observed on Hulstaert's remarks but Simmons "feels the tone riddle will be found to have wide distribution in Africa, but be confined to groups speaking a language in which tone phonemes are important for lexical and morphological distinctions." The Ovambo of Southwest Africa are one of these peoples. I do not presume to be able to make any statement concerning the tonal parallelism solely on the basis of texts, but I hope that T. E. Tirronen who is well acquainted with questions of tonality will be able to solve the problem.

Simmons's and Messenger's data have only one riddle example in common and there are no close parallels to any Southwest African riddle proverbs. Simmons's tone riddles have an abundant amount of sexual material, as do the Southwest African riddle proverbs. Although it is possible to discern additional image and idea parallels, it seems that this type of oral tradition in Nigeria, the Équateur region of the Congo (Léopoldville) and South West Africa exists in a common form with identical function (cf. Hulstaert's and Messenger's description) rather than as extensively known loan-riddles. At different places different proverbs have bean adapted into a common riddle framework.

(Translated by Eugene Holman.)

Matti Kuusi
Hallitusk. 1
Helsinki 17


*Previously published in Proverbium, 12, 1969, pp. 305-311.

1. The Ovambo texts with bibliographical references will be included in the monograph Ovambo Proverbs to be published in the FFC series.

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