Tuesday, December 03, 2013


While mulling over some questions about what society owes the knives in the drawer who aren't as sharp, I started chasing down proverbs. One handy collection (*) ranges from Solomon to Kipling but includes a lot of what we think of as traditional rustic proverbs. Many deal with working hard and hopefully, using resources wisely, and the effects of companions. In other words, a lot of simple rule-of-thumb advice that even someone a little slow on the uptake can internalize. (Though I remember several folk-tales about simple lads who took things too literally.)

Just for comparison, have a look at this (shorter) list from China. (At least one of the proverbs is the same: Teach a man to fish...) This is much more heavily flavored with respect for study and suggests a somewhat more involved social structure ("Do not employ handsome servants"). This list feels more rustic, and includes some pretty obscure admonition.

I have to include some from Liberia. Liberian proverbs are a little different; much more fluid and often requiring explanation for outsiders. From that last link:

African proverbs usually have two meanings: the literal or primary meaning, and the deeper or real meaning. The real meaning of African proverbs is not always apparent. This is precisely why they are called proverbs. For instance, the Ghanaian Akan, Dangme and Ga expressions for "to cite a proverb," bu abe, means "to bend," "curve," or "twist words," to make them complicated (Yankah 1986). Similarly, the Lugbara (Uganda) term that is used to designate proverbs, e'yo obeza, literally means "mixed words," "twisted speech" or "indirect talk" (Dalfovo 1997). The meaning of a proverb is not fixed, and so it can be modified. The user is free to reconstruct a proverb in order to make it appropriate in the particular context in which it is being used. To modify a proverb, one may delete, paraphrase, elaborate or transfer elements in it. The hearer must be witty to interpret and grasp the meaning of a proverb.

Compare the flavors yourself. I can't describe the differences in single phrases. All represent a useful body of wisdom--including the contradictions that describe life ("Look before you leap", "He who hesitates is lost"). I don't hear these much, though perhaps I don't travel in the right circles, and I suspect we suffer for it.

(*)It has odd comments sometimes, almost as though the author didn't realize that the Bible was known the whole time English was developing as a language.

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