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ON THE QUESTION OF A RUSSIAN PAREMIOLOGICAL MINIMUM

Grigorii L'vovich Permjakov

ON THE QUESTION OF A RUSSIAN PAREMIOLOGICAL MINIMUM*

1. As shown by our observations over the years, every adult Russian language speaker (over 20 years of age) knows no fewer than 800 proverbs, proverbial expressions, popular literary quotations and other forms of cliches. The majority of these cliches are widely used in conversational speech and literature, with the most wellknown expressions being used in a considerably abbreviated and transformed manner.

We often encounter the following type of expressions in oral discussion as well as in the texts of books and newspapers: kosa na kamen' (one has met his match), lozhka degtia (a rotten apple), pod lezhashchii kamen' (a rolling stone), rozhki da nozhki (skins and horns), rybak rybaka (birds of a feather), so svoim ustavom (when in Rome), ulita edet (beat around the bush), u razbitogo koryta (be back where one started, be no better off than before), khorosho smeiotsia (he who laughs last), etc. In similar manner proverbial transformations, popular verse or lines from songs often find their way into the headlines of newspaper articles, book titles, etc.

It is natural that a person, unfamiliar with the base forms of these expressions (for example, the foreigner who is beginning his study of the Russian language) is not in a position to understand what is meant here and in general whether there is any meaning in what, from his point of view, is pure nonsense. Indeed, can one possibly guess the meaning of the headline "Sem' nianek vokrug EVM (Seven cooks around the computer)" if he doesn't know the proverb "U semi nianek ditia bez glazu (Too many cooks spoil the broth)" and what it signifies?


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.

The contradiction is evident between the real (described) situation and that which is modeled in the well-known cliché, to which the reader (listener) is referred and which creates the required comical effect. (See, for example, the "Foto" section in Literaturnaia gazeta, 1973, No. 8. The photo shows a foal which has gone up to a book kiosk. One of the captions aptly reads: "Ne ovsom edinym [Not by oats alone.]") A short list of Russian basic sayings is presented below, conveniently accompanied by a listing of newspaper headlines as well as book and film titles which are associated with these sayings-but in a transformed format.[1]

  1. A larchik prosto otkryvalsia (Krylov). A larchik otkryvalsia prosto; Prosto li otkryvalsia larchik? [The little box just opened up; i.e. There is a simple explanation.]
  2. Blizok lokot', da ne ukusish'. Blizok lokot'. [The elbow is near, but you can't bite it; i.e. So near, yet so far.]
  3. Bol'shomu korabliu - bol'shoe plavanie....I malomu korabliu-bol'shoe plavanie. [Big ships travel far; i.e. A capable person can go a long way.]
  4. Bumaga vsio terpit. Bumaga-to terpit; Bumaga ne vsio terpit; Dazhe bumaga ne vsio terpit. [Paper is patient; i.e. You can write whatever you like on paper.]
  5. Volk v ovech'ei shkure. Ovech'ia shkura dlia volkov; Volkov v ovech'ei shkure. [Wolf in sheep's clothing.]
  6. V tesnote, da ne v obide. V tesnote i obide; I v tesnote, i v obide. [Cramped, but not offended; i.e. The more the merrier.]
  7. V Tulu so svoim samovarom ne ezdiat. So svoim samovarom. [Don't go to Tula with your samovar; i.e. Don't carry coals to Newcastle.]
  8. Gora s goroi ne skhoditsia, a chelovek s chelovekom soidiotsia. Gora s goroi...; Gora s goroiu skhoditsia. [Friends may meet, but mountains never greet.]
  9. Dal'she v les - bol'she drov. Chem dal'she v les... Dal'she v les-men'she drov. [The farther into the forest, the more the firewood.]
  10. Doroga lozhka k obedu. Lozhka k obedu. [A spoon is most valuable at dinnertime; i.e. It's all in the timing.]
  11. Druzhba druzhboi, a tabachok (denezhki) vroz'... A tabachok vroz'; ...A denezhki vroz'; Den'gi vroz'... [Friendship is friendship, except when it comes to tobacco (money); i.e. Friendship goes just so far.]
  12. Esli b znal, gde upadu, podstelil by solomki. Postelili solomki... [If I had known where I would fall, I'd have put the straw there; i.e. If only I had known, I would have done something about it.]
  13. Zhizn' prozhit' - ne pole pereiti. Zhizn' prozhit'...; ne pole pereiti. [Living a life is not like crossing a field; i.e. Life is not a bed of roses.]
  14. Za dvumia zaitsami pogonish'sia - ni odnogo ne poimaesh'. Dva "zaitsa" sin'ora Ijski. [If you chase after two rabbits, you won't catch even one; i.e. Do one thing at a time.]
  15. Zapretnyi plod sladok. Zapretnyi plod. [Forbidden fruit is sweetest.]
  16. Zastav' duraka bogu molit'sia - on i lob rasshibiot. Zastav' Iusia molit'sia... [Make a fool pray to God, and he'll smash his forehead; i.e. A fool can't do anything right.]
  17. Igra ne stoil svech. Stoit li igra svech? [The game is not worth the candle; i.e. It's not worth what's been put into it.]
  18. I na solntse byvaiut piatna. Piatna na solntse. [There are spots even on the sun; i.e. Nobody's perfect.]
  19. Kak auknetsia, tak i otkliknetsia. Kak auknetsia... [That which you shout will echo back; i.e. Curses like chickens come home to roost.]
  20. Kakov pop, takov i prikhod. Kakov pop... [As is the priest, so is the parish; i.e. Like master, like man.]
  21. Komu mnogo dano, s togo mnogo i sprositsia. Komu mnogo dano... [He who is given much, has much asked of him.]
  22. Kto ne rabotaet, tot ne est. Kto ne rabotaet, tot...est. [He who doesn't work, doesn't eat.]

 

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.

 

  1. Chto poseesh', to i pozhniosh'. Chto poseesh'. [As you sow, so shall you reap.]
  2. Chto s vozu upalo, to propalo. Chto s voza upalo; So stola upalo. . . [What's fallen from the cart is gone; i.e. No use crying over spilt milk.]
  3. Iablochko ot iabloni nedaleko padaet. Iabloko ot iabloni...; Daleko li padaet iabloko? [The apple doesn't fall far from the apple tree; i.e. It runs in the family; A chip off the old block.]

Of course, this list is far from complete: our goal was to direct the reader's attention to the existence of basic sayings and to demonstrate clearly the necessity of mastering a paremiological minimum even for the purpose of such a comparatively simple task as looking at newspapers.

2. The presence of commonly-used proverbs, proverbial expressions and other clichés, which relate to the basic knowledge of everyday Russian-language speakers, raises the issue of the advisability of including such clichés in various kinds of dictionaries intended for the foreign-language reader. Indeed, inasmuch as there are language forms without whose knowledge it is impossible to understand ordinary conversational speech or a simple article taken from the press, there should also be reference books where an explanation of these forms can be found. And the most suitable place for such reference books, of course, can be the various Russian-foreign language dictionaries, primarily the instructional variety (including dictionary-minimums).

It should be noted that good bi-lingual and multi-lingual translation dictionaries (for example, K. Iudakhin's "Kirghiz-Russian Dictionary" or V. Radlov's "Experimental Dictionary of Turkish Sayings") always include many proverbs, omens, riddles and other clichés from the original language. As a rule, however, they are cited there for illustrating the normative use of this or that word in a given expression, that is, actually as "noted phrases": since if the word appears in proverbs, then it certainly is possible to be said.

Incidentally, many cliché expressions (at least those which are part of a given language's paremiological minimum) should be entered into dictionaries as independent linguistic signs on an equal footing with words and the most frequently-used phraseological expressions. There is a fairly sound foundation for doing so.

First of all, these clichés are actually special kinds of language signs, and most of all signs of typical (and logical) situations or of standard relations between objects. And we use them as signs of these relations. Instead of incoherently describing some frequently-encountered situations at length, for example "If something gives birth to another thing, then the properties of the thing which has been given birth are similar to the properties of that which gave birth," we simply say "The apple does not fall far from the apple tree." And everyone who knows his native language immediately understands what we have in mind. In other words we use the proverb as a sign of the standard situation described above. Incidentally, we address ourselves with words as signs of things or of concepts in exactly the same way. Thus, instead of describing a table as a household object used for setting food or placing writing accessories and consisting of a certain kind of table-wood propped-up on legs or pedestals, we simply say the word "table," that is, we name the sign corresponding to this thing. And every Russian person listening to us immediately recognizes what we are talking about.

Secondly, as a rule, the paremiological cliché represents nothing whole although it consists of several independent word-components. Here the general meaning of the cliché is not equal to the sum of meanings of its components (including as well the meaning of the syntactic link). This can be easily seen in the example of nonsentence maxims and phrases (by way of example, let us recall the lines from I.A. Krylov's fable "Quartet," which became a famous proverb: "And you, my friends, no matter how you sit down, you're not suited to be musicians."[3]) Approximately the very same can be found in ordinary proverbs. In order to see this, it is sufficient to compare any of these latter with a free (variable) combination of words which are homonymous to it. You can perform this operation with the proverb "Water doesn't flow under a rock lying on the ground [i.e. Nothing ventured, nothing gained]" and "It tears where it's thin [i.e. It never rains, it pours]" or any other and you will notice the difference in their meanings: unlike the free combination the sense of the proverb without fail will be metaphorical.

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.

 

It is especially important to describe clichés which are current in various paremiological concepts, for example, those like "Never hit a man when he is down" or "The same color summer or winter": the first of which is used as a proverb or as a legal expression, and the second as a riddle (with the answer: spruce, pine-tree) and as a proverbial expression with a direct motivation of a general meaning (people usually refer thus to a person who always wears the same clothes).

The main issue, however, does not pertain to the technical side of the matter but primarily to its solution. It seems to us that it is not only theoretically warranted to include the most widely-used Russian expressions in foreign-language dictionaries, but also highly practical: it will help students to handle their study of the Russian language more quickly and successfully.

NOTES

*Permjakov's article appeared in Slovari i lingvostranovedenie [Dictionaries and Linguo-Cultural Studies], ed. by E. M. Vereshchagin (Moscow: "Russkii iazyk," 1982), pp. 131-137. This translation is reprinted from Proverbium 6, 1989, pp. 91-102

  1. The examples were taken from the central press in recent years ("Pravda," "Literaturnaia gazeta," "Meditsinskaia gazeta," "Nedelia").
  1. This proverbial expression appears in a line by Pushkin "And before her was a broken trough," although it is current in the form given above and in forms produced from it.

  2. [Krylov's fable relates the adventure of a monkey, a donkey, a goat and a bear who decide to perform a concert even though none of them is able to play a musical instrument. When they realize that their music is not playing well, they reason that they are sitting improperly and in the wrong places. Regardless of the positions in which they sit, however, the music continues to sound bad. The expression is used ironically in situations when non-specialists attempt to get down to business - even though they may not be qualified for the matter at hand.]

  3. We say basic since the proverb sometimes may serve as a verbal model of several related situations, one of which usually is more significant.

Grigorii L'vovich Permjakov (1919-1983)

Translated by:
Kevin J. McKenna
Department of German and Russian
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405
USA


 
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