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The Survival of English Proverbs: A Corpus Based Account

Jonathan Charteris-Black  

The Survival of English Proverbs: A Corpus Based Account*

Mieder (1995) raises some very important questions regarding the status and use of proverbs in the modern age; in particular, he asks "Which texts from former generations are still current today?" "What are the truly new proverbs of the modern age?" "How familiar are people with proverbs today?" In this paper I hope to answer some of these questions using a new methodological approach – that of corpus linguistics. In addition, I hope to illustrate some of the types of modification they have undergone, to identify some of the characteristics shared by proverbs that have maintained their currency and to suggest some reasons for their survival into the next millennium.

The traditional practice for paremiologists (e.g. Whiting, 1968, 1977 1989; Simpson 1982) has been to establish proverb forms with reference to written sources and to illustrate cases where there are alternative canonical forms. Each entry is supported by quotations, spanning a period of time, commencing with that in which the proverb first occurred in written form. While this approach may be satisfactory from a diachronic point of view - illustrating gradual shifts in proverb forms - it provides little synchronic insight into contemporary proverb use. From this point of view it is problematic for a number of reason: it is dependent on written sources alone; since the initial stage is often a sifting of earlier reference works it is reliant on a large number of texts that are not in any sense contemporary. Lastly, as the primary aim of a paremiological reference work is to identify their standard citation forms it is therefore unlikely to include a number of the creative modifications that proverbs appear to be undergoing in contemporary English. For example, it is unlikely to include the following uses that occur in the corpus used in this study (with my italics):

Familiarity breeds adoration, not contempt
Over-familiarity breeds confusion
The hand that rocks the cradle stops the buck
Hell hath no fury like a Tory scorned
Hell hath no fury like
an arms dealer deprived
Some politicians believe nothing succeeds like repetition
But nothing succeeds like hot sex and celebrity
The road to hell is paved with case conferences
And it’s all work and no play a survey reveals
Has been very much an all-work-and-no-play scenario

Yet surely the authors of these texts assumed knowledge of the standard forms since, without this, it would be difficult to understand their authors’ stylistic intentions such as humour and irony? Taylor (1999) points out "We know very little about the development and spread of any particular stylistic peculiarities in proverbs" and Mieder (1999) comments "Proverb scholars would do well to pay more attention to the present use of English proverbs". A contemporary account of a paremiological minimum of English proverbs should describe their creative adaptation to the stylistic requirements of modern language use. Indeed, if we include proverb modifications, we may find that the common claim that proverbs are in decline may be much less accurate than has previously been thought and that they continue to constitute an important element in what Hirsch (1987) terms "cultural literacy".


From a methodological point of view Mieder (1995) upholds the traditional practice described above with a claim that a paremiological minimum of Anglo-American proverbs can be established by counting the number of references for particular proverbs in an established reference work such as Whiting (1989). I would like to suggest an alternative methodology based on combining the data available in reference works with that available in a corpus. Corpus linguistics is an approach to language description that is based on a database or corpus of language; a corpus integrates the enormous information storage capacity of computers with a software programme that allows the user to search the database. This allows the user to establish the frequency and other statistical information regarding the occurrence of language patterns. It will allow us to search for any string of words whether it is the full standard citation form of a proverb or its variations. Proverb variations - such as those above - are all those uses of a proverb that in some way differ from the citation form. If the corpus is large and representative enough we may be in a position to realise Hirsch’s (1987) goal of establishing the extent to which proverbs constitute part of a minimum of cultural knowledge for an educated speaker of a language. A corpus provides data both on proverb types and their frequency in contemporary language use and I share the view that "a dictionary of cultural literacy ought to be based on frequency analyses" (Mieder 1995)

Corpus based approaches originate in a suspicion regarding the reliability of the intuition of particular individuals as to the typical occurrence of language forms. It stands in antithetical position to traditional linguistics in which it was acceptable for specialists in the field of language to develop an argument regarding linguistic phenomena with reference to sentences that were invented often for the sole purpose of proving the very point they were aiming to illustrate. There was something inherently tautological about claiming that a particular theory accounted for the data when the data themselves had been selected for the purpose of illustrating the theory. Corpus linguistics reverses the relationship between theory and data, in that theory emerges in conjunction with the data rather than determining the data. The developments of the informational storage capacities of computers now allow us to interact with a large body of language data. Once a node or keyword is identified we can search a corpus so as to generate all the lines in which this string occurs. The node can be a word or string of words and the lines provide their collocational contexts. We can see an example for the string new broom in the following lines:

Leicester meet Rosslyn Park. The new broom that swept in with the new season
Avenue are back again. But the new broom seems to have swept
he recalls. "It needed a new broom, innovation and marketing. Instead,
in the desert. Under Monty's new broom, and working closely with RAF
John Robins, the new broom at Guardian, the UK composite, has
1m rights issue this week, as new-broom chairman Ron Trenter seeks to beef
Sir: In your editorial "New Broom for Ulster Unionism"
is therefore on hold until a new broom arrives at the Vatican. Given John
reap the rewards of Dieter Bock's new broom. Latest word in the City is to

The citation form a new broom sweeps clean occurs only twice in a 330 million word corpus as compared with 110 occurrences of new broom used to refer to an attribute of a human or an institution; we may, therefore, infer that new broom is a variation which has become the base form of a proverb. So, in this case, the identification of a proverb variation puts us in a position to establish its base form. The base form of a proverb is a collocationally closed form in which the lexical and syntactical content cannot be further modified. In some cases this will correspond with the citation form – but this will depend on the extent to which proverb variations are both possible and have taken root to become lexicalised word strings, fixed expressions or phrasal lexemes (Moon 1998a and 1998b). An appropriate corpus can enable us to identify the extent to which proverb modifications have become a feature of contemporary language and yields more empirical, quantitative evidence of proverb variations than has previously been the case. In order to be representative of a language the corpus needs to satisfy a number of criteria. It should be large, it should include both speech and writing, it should cover a range of varieties of a language and cover a range of types or genres of texts such as newspapers, books (fiction and non-fiction), radio and television broadcasts and magazines. Only when these criteria have been satisfied can we generalise from what is found in the corpus to the language as a whole.

 

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 9:1999 & Issue 10:1999, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

These criticisms seem quite convincing when we consider the significant differences between the findings of the above studies; for example Make hay while the sun shines - which occurs in the list of the top thirteen proverbs in Albig (1931) - occurs in Higbee & Millard’s (1983) category of most unfamiliar proverbs. Clearly there may be an important diachronic influence here given the length of time between the two studies but would we really expect such a rapid change in status if these lists were reliable? A further possibility worth exploring is that proverbs have undergone important processes of modification that account for the low occurrence of many citation forms. For example if we search our corpus only the first phrase for each of the 13 most frequent proverbs in Albig (1931) we find variations such as:

through the knee of my jeans - a stitch in time may have saved ninety! I
A stitch in time from the new Remmington
The "A Stitch In Time" series includes Walter
sewing machines to make sure of a stitch in time. The syndicate, made up of
dress. The experience proved to be a stitch in time for real-life bride-to-be
An apple a day keeps bowel cancer at bay
AN APPLE a day may, judiciously munched in Tokyo, keep the US sanctions away.
An apple a day may keep lung diseases at bay
FORGET an apple a day - latest research has shown
in a self-obsessed world, where do unto others before they do unto you is
inflicts; we are a people who do unto others; we like action - Vietnam,
the new leaders have begun to do unto others what once was done to them;
I always lived by a book of rules. Do unto others, turn the other cheek. And
Normal Judeo-Christian rules - do unto others, people in glass houses

It may be illustrative in this respect to compare the number of citation forms in Albig’s 13 most frequent proverbs with the number of variations of the type seen above. The results are shown below in table two:

Table Two: A Comparison of Citation Forms and Variations

13 most popular proverbs
(Source: Albig 1931)

Citation tokens

Variant form

Variant tokens

A stitch in time saves nine.

13

A stitch in time

41

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

6

none

6

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

0

A bird in the hand

21

Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

1

Early to bed (0,1) early

7

Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.

0

Never put off till tomorrow

2

Haste makes waste.

7

none

7

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

10

An apple a day

25

All that glitters is not gold.

6

All that glitters

30

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

5

Do unto others

39

Laugh and the world laughs with you.

9

Laugh and the world

10

Birds of a feather flock together.

6

Birds of a feather

190

There's no fool like an old fool.

7

none

7

Make hay while the sun shines.

6

Make hay

48

TOTAL

76

433

We can see that in this sample of proverbs there is much more evidence of a variant form occurring than the citation form of the proverb. There are variations for ten of the thirteen proverbs and for nine of these there is a much greater likelihood of a proverb occurring in a variant form than there is in its original citation form. The most extreme example of this phenomena in my own sample was with the proverb the last straw that breaks the camel’s back which occurs only six times in citation form but 421 times in a contracted form the last straw. We should then consider the findings for proverb variations and see how far they differ from those for citation forms.

In this account of proverb variation I will use the following typographic conventions: the base form of the proverb will be shown in italics; while a novel element or variation will be underlined. I identified four major types of variation from the citation form of proverbs; these are summarised in table three below:

Table Three: Types of Proverb Variation

Variation
Type

Description

Example

Substitution

Lexical substitution of one element while the syntactical pattern is unchanged.

  1. Give them an inch and they will run a mile.
  2. The proof of the cake is in the eating
  3. Out of the frying pan and into your wardrobe

Contraction

A clause is omitted – usually this is the second clause.

  1. He is refusing to give an inch
  2. When in Rome
  3. Birds of a feather

Antonyms

A form of the proverb which has the opposite meaning to the original (e.g. by omission or insertion of a negative morpheme).

  1. All that glitters is gold
  2. Not letting sleeping dogs lie
  3. You can teach an old dog new tricks

Expansion

Another linguistic element is inserted into the proverb

  1. Casting synthetic pearls before real swine
  2. My bark is definitely worse than my bite
  3. The proof if the pudding, they say, is in the eating

Table four shows the results for the types of variation found in a sample of 500 proverb variations:

Table Four: Comparison of Proverb Variations

 

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 9:1999 & Issue 10:1999, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

In this paper I have described some stylistic modifications of English proverbs, in particular, contraction and substitution; the modified form has, in some cases, replaced the original citation form as the base form of the proverb as a result of contraction. I have argued that a paremiological minimum of English proverbs is best identified using a large corpus like the Bank of English and that it should include all types of proverb variation as long as the form can be related to a proverb citation form. I have claimed that length and repetition of form are central characteristics of proverbs that exhibit vitality and repetition of use. I believe that issues of style are of considerable importance to any concerned with how proverbs are used in contemporary English and in the identification of a paremiological minimum. They should also be useful to those engaged in specifying a minimum cultural knowledge of English. Indeed, we may find that, as the influence of corpora on lexicography grows, reference works will need, increasingly, to accommodate the type of variations described here.

References

*The author acknowledges the use of data drawn from the Bank of English corpus created by COBUILD at Birmingham University in the preparation of this article.

Albig, William 1931 Proverbs and Social Control. Sociology and Social Research 15:527-535.

Charteris-Black, Jonathan 1995 (b) Still waters run deep- proverbs about speech and silences: A cross linguistic perspective. De Proverbio: An Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies.Vol 1 No 2. URL: http://www.deproverbio.com/

Higbee, Kenneth L., and Richard J. Millard 1983 Visual Imagery and Familiarity Ratings for 203 Sayings. American Journal of Psychology 96:211-222.

Hirsch, Eric D. 1987 Cultural Literacy. What Every American Needs to Know. With an Appendix "What Literate Americans Know" by E.D. Hirsch, Joseph Kett, and James Trefil. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Mieder, Wolfgang 1995 Paremiological Minimum and Cultural Literacy. DeProverbio: An Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies. Vol 1 No 1. URL: http://www.deproverbio.com/

Mieder Wolfgang 1999 Popular Views of the Proverb. . DeProverbio: An Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies. Vol 5 No 2. URL: http://www.deproverbio.com/

Moon. Rosamund 1998 (a) Fixed Expression and Idioms in English. Oxford: Clarendon

Moon Rosamund 1998 (b) Frequencies and Forms in Phrasal Lexemes in English. In A. P. Cowie (ed.) Phraseology: Theory, Analysis, and Applications. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Pp. 79-100

Penn, Nolan E., Teresa C. Jacob, and Malrie Brown 1988 Familiarity with Proverbs and Performance of a Black Population on Gorham's Proverbs Test. Perceptual and Motor Skills 66:847-854.

Simpson, John A. 1982 The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. Oxford: OUP

Taylor, Archer 1999 The Style of Proverbs. DeProverbio: An Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies. Vol 5 No 1. URL: http://www.deproverbio.com/

Whiting, Bartlett Jere 1968 Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases from English Writings Mainly Before 1500. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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

Whiting, Bartlett Jere 1989 Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

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


 
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