The Tropical Landscapes of Proverbia: A Crossdisciplinary Travelogue
By Paul Hernadi and Francis Steen (University of California, Santa Barbara)
Style 33. 1 (Spring 1999): 1-20.

Posted only for scholarly/educational use. For permission to reprint, please contact Style, Department of English, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL 60115-2863.


Proverbs are brief, memorable, and intuitively convincing formulations of socially sanctioned advice. Virtually all cultures possess a repertoire of such formulations grounded in accumulated experience. Why has the quintessentially oral genre of proverbs remained popular in literate and even postliterate societies? By bridging current gaps between literary and folklore studies and between rhetorical theory and cognitive science, we attribute the staying power of proverbs in individual minds and social circulation to such prosodic, grammatical, and semantic features of memorability as alliteration and rhyme, childlike repetitive syntax, and analogical troping across different conceptual domains. We also note that by lending communal approval to individual dispositions toward recurrent situations, proverbs help to allay any sense of guilt, shame, or regret that humans often experience as a result of their facing a bewildering plurality of behavioral options.

1. What are proverbs?

"Where there's a will, there's a way." When you hear or read the words just cited, you will readily recognize that you have encountered a proverb. You should also find it quite easy to recall additional instances of this literary or, perhaps better, protoliterary genre.[1] Does this mean that you (or anybody else) can easily say what proverbs are? Hardly so, and numerous proverb scholars have in fact despaired of the task of defining the familiar subject matter of their expertise.[2] It appears that no definition can both map all of Proverbia and protect the neighboring lands of clichés, maxims, slogans, and the like from unwanted annexation. Rather than legislate necessary or sufficient conditions for Proverbian citizenship, we propose to issue residence permits to all brief, memorable, and intuitively convincing formulations of socially sanctioned advice.[3]

We prefer the word "advice" to "wisdom" -- the more frequently invoked alternative -- because we see proverbial descriptions and prescriptions as offering ad hoc strategies for thought and conduct rather than timeless truths. This view isn't difficult to justify, given the frequent occurrence of contrary proverbs. After all, how could you believe that "where there's a will, there's a way" if you also believe that "man proposes, god disposes"? To complicate matters further, "there is no place like home" may but need not be said ironically to ridicule parochialism, yet the familiar proverb's apparent contrary, "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence," is typically uttered in an ironic spirit to chastise unjustified dissatisfaction with the home turf. Clearly, a mental or printed dictionary of proverbs is not a foolproof "book of wisdom" any more than a mental or printed dictionary of ordinary words. Ordinary and proverb dictionaries alike list verbal means whereby humans facing different challenges of their lifeworlds can hope to attain, retain, and disseminate advice -- whether through the wise use of words in general or through the wise use of those special strings of "always already" quoted words called proverbs.[4]

Since we think that proverbs are as proverbs do, we propose to explore in the next four sections of this article when, where, how, and why they function. We have profited from recent work in several pertinent fields but venture into uncharted territory as our argument unfolds. In the sixth and final section, we provide a summary of our views in five plain-spoken "theses."

2. When are proverbs?

Proverbs have been collected from a very wide variety of cultures and, with a few possible but still disputed exceptions, no past or present culture is reported to have gone without them.[5] It is quite possible, therefore, that proverbial advice has been with us (that is, with the human species) for much of the last two thousand or more generations of roughly thirty years each.[6] Indeed, the capacity to coin, remember, and share proverbs, and thus efficiently transmit accumulated experience, may well have been one of the adaptive advantages that fully developed human language bestowed on its early users.

Since most of the history of the human species has been the history of oral rather than literate cultures, it is not surprising that the originally oral medium of transmission still affects the mental processing and communicative exchange of proverbs. Even when you read the sentence "Where there's a will, there's a way," you are likely to conceive of it as a "saying" rather than a "text" -- just as most jokes, even in written or printed form, carry with them the aura of oral performance. Proverbs "take us back" to the times when, as pre-literate children and pre-literate humans, we were mainly learning how to live through communal hearsay. But there is nothing simple-minded nor childish about proverbial advice as an oral means of sharing accumulated experience.[7] Indeed, the sea change from orality to literacy in the history of particular societies does not seem to threaten the survival of proverbs as a fairly distinct kind of verbal expression and communication.

It is true that wide-spread literacy forces oral instruction into competition with such written genres as owner's manuals and religious or secular guides to self-improvement. Yet some of the first extant instances of handwriting – students' practice slates – appear to reinforce rather than replace proverbs circulating more than forty-five hundred years ago (Alster, Proverbs of Ancient Sumer xvi). Plaques, engraved mottoes, embroidered shawls, diaries, letters, devotional manuscripts, and the like furnish additional evidence for the urge to record the proverbially apt.[8] It must be conceded that printed compilations, such as Erasmus' Greek and Latin Adagia from 1500 (translated as Adages) and John Heywood's Dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue from 1546 (reprinted as A Dialogue of Proverbs), have mainly advanced the spread of proverbs in subsequent literary and scholarly works. By contrast, the spirit of folklore animates the circulation of traditional proverbs and new proverb-like coinages in media like graffiti, the internet, and such technologically advanced vehicles of a post-literate "secondary orality" as radio talk shows and TV commercials. "Mother knows best" in a chicken soup commercial or "Make love, not babies" on a bumper sticker may strike most of us as humorous echoes of the content or structure of familiar sayings rather than hoary expressions of time-honored wisdom. But even today and in any medium of communication, both the assertion "He who hesitates is lost" and the contrary directive "Look before you leap" can be offered and espoused as excellent advice under the proper circumstances.[9] In short, the age of proverbs -- those quasi-quoted "passwords" to purported wisdom -- is by no means passé.

The persuasive force of proverbial assertions and directives can be either enhanced or reduced when they are mentally processed as "the speech of another" (Bakhtin 340). The persuasive force is intended to be enhanced if the proverb is being unreservedly used to illuminate a particular situation or action, and it is intended to be reduced if the proverb is being merely mentioned for scrutiny or some satirical purpose. [10] As far as speakers and writers are concerned, proverbs can thus be either used or mentioned, that is to say, either sincerely proposed or neutrally displayed (if not indeed ironically opposed) as candidates for the status of socially sanctioned valuable advice.[11] But in the end it remains up to the listener or reader to decide to what extent, if any, the time-tested advice transmitted by the ventriloquizing speaker or writer cogently applies to current circumstances. [12]

3. Where are proverbs?

We find it useful to distinguish and interrelate two principal locations of proverbs: they inhabit minds and circulate in societies. While the mental existence of proverbs situates them in brains, their circulatory existence situates them in the collective consciousness of a culture or subculture. Such an amphibious mode of being calls for a resolutely dual perspective in the study of proverbs: we must heed the often untranslatable linguistic features of their memorability along with their rhetorical power that can activate imaginative reasoning across linguistic and cultural boundaries.

What makes proverbs so eminently storable in the brain and so readily retrievable from it? As has often been noted, both features stem from the recourse of proverbs to certain prosodic devices, most of which are, or should be, familiar to students of language and rhetoric and to memory researchers.[13] Some such devices are phonemic (like the alliteration between "will" and "way"); others are syntactic (like the parallelism between "there's a" and "there's a" in "Where there's a will, there's a way"). Those two kinds of recurrence are characteristic of nursery rhymes and some other poetic genres, but more significantly, they are also reminiscent of the alliterative and rhyming babble of infants and of the repetitive syntax of young children and some mentally impaired or disturbed individuals. Could it be that even the most pragmatically minded users of proverbs subconsciously favor, and for that reason can easily recall, verbal utterances produced along the line of least physiological resistance? If so, the typical process of subordinating the acoustic patterns of our speech to meaning would clearly emerge as mentally more cumbersome, and therefore less memorable, than the process of organizing them according to some pre-lingual routine of quasi-musical repetition. Needless to say, the repetitive phonetics and syntax of "Man proposes, God disposes" or "Like father, like son" highlight rather than conceal or neutralize the striking semantic oppositions involved. [14] The frequent individual recall and wide social distribution of such proverbs may thus be due to their cognitive aptness and continued practical relevance even more than to their being produced by the speech organs with the repetitive efficiency of an industrial assembly line. While phonetic and syntactic regularity makes the vocal production of proverbs enjoyably economical, it is semantic energy and pragmatic potential that makes their mental reception enjoyably invigorating.

The figurative use of words so typical of proverbial discourse should also be seen as parsimoniously persuasive rather than uselessly extravagant in terms of mental effort.[15] After all, it is grammatically simpler and rhetorically more effective to deploy the ancient hiking metaphor of "way" than to say literally what we mean: "Where there's a will, there's an effective modus operandi for the realization of our objectives." Likewise, the double metonymy "Money talks" packs a great deal of social experience into a memorably concrete phrase whose effortless unpacking according to the appropriate context may well bring such abstractions as wealth (rather than actual currency) and influence (rather than actual speech) to the listener's or reader's mind. Much more will need to be said about the figurative use of language when we turn to considering just how proverbs are. Suffice it to note here that apparent tautology ("Boys will be boys"), hyperbole ("Old soldiers never die"), paradox ("The eyes are bigger than the stomach") and many other figures of speech and thought tend to join metaphors, metonymies, and the various phonemic and syntactical devices of memorability already mentioned in facilitating the mental storage and retrieval of proverbs.

Thanks to their phonemic and semantic memorability, proverbs re-produce their verbal structure much more faithfully than most other kinds of orally spreading "memes."[16] The verbal garb of fairy tales and jokes, for example, tends to change quite radically from one telling to the next.[17] By contrast, the wording of remembered or uttered proverbs tends to remain relatively stable even though their actual cognitive and emotive functioning is always co-determined by a given mental or social environment. The proverbs of oral traditions thus anticipate a pre-eminent characteristic of tacit cultural transformation in literate societies where certain textual vehicles remain quite constant while the notions and emotions riding in them undergo more or less radical change. That is to say, orally transmitted proverbs exhibit the dual capacity of written texts for long-lasting verbal stability, on the one hand, and mutable cultural significance on the other.

To be sure, the oral replication of proverbs cannot match the typographic accuracy of the mechanical reproduction of texts through the printing press. Rather like the replication of ancient and medieval texts through manual copying, the oral circulation of proverbs forms an apt if loose analogy to the differential reproduction of genetic designs under environmental conditions that selectively favor or reject certain results of random mutation. But even as some proverbs migrate across linguistic borders or through many centuries of slow but often profound transformation in the history of a particular language, they will strike us as the "same" proverbs if their conceptual framework is manifested through identical or very closely related image schemas.[18]

4. How are proverbs?

All proverbial traditions seem to make frequent use of figurative language. The Sumerian "Haste is chaff" (Alster, "Proverbs of Ancient Mesopotamia" 6) and the Venezuelan Criolle El que tiene rabo de paja no se arrime a la candela (Bashleigh 98) -- "He who has a tail of straw doesn't move close to the candle" -- may serve as a very ancient and a rather more contemporary example of intrinsically metaphoric proverbs. But it is just as easy to find seemingly literal proverbs with virtually mandatory figurative applications. In a culture where few people engage in repairing torn clothing, "A stitch in time saves nine" is seldom uttered in the proverb's originary context. Yet the generalizable advice of this proverb (that corrective measures need to be taken in a timely fashion) comes to us nicely "stitched" through the metaphorical suggestion of its sartorial validity. Likewise, "It takes two to tango" is rarely heard around dance studios, but the new-fangled saying (when applied as metaphorical "proof" based on a vividly envisionable analogy) can well serve to validate certain long-standing assumptions about collaborative activities. Or consider the following proverbs (respectively popular in France and China): Autant pèche celui qui tient le sac que celui qui l'emplit -- "He who holds the bag trespasses as much as he who fills it" -- and "A peasant must stand a long time on the hillside with his mouth open before a roast duck flies into it." The literal sense of the two proverbs -- to help put (stolen) goods in a bag, or to expect prepared food to fly into your mouth -- quickly becomes figurative when it gets transferred into a different domain by way of specific reference to some other kind of guilt by accessory participation or to some less absurd instance of idly waiting for unearned benefits.[19]

It is, of course, not surprising that Proverbia should be one of the most "tropical" lands on the face of language. Proverbial advice needs to be intuitively persuasive without the benefit of lengthy argumentation, and the cognitive power of analogy manifested in metaphor and some other tropes are often very helpful in that regard.[20] The "folk philosophy" of proverbs may chiefly concern itself with the human world surveyed by "folk psychology" and "folk sociology." But a great deal of proverbial discourse tropologically blends human affairs with semantic domains that correspond to such deeply ingrained cognitive specializations as might be called "folk physics," "folk botany," folk zoology," and the like.[21]

Proverbs reveal themselves once again as user-friendly by making their sharp analogical points rather smoothly: we don't have to labor hard in order to store and retrieve the cross-domain associations evoked by them. To the contrary, their analogical criss-crossing of conceptual domains permits the pleasurably labor-saving illumination of one domain by the intuitively satisfying application to it of inferences well established in another. Proverbs blending multiple domains can be particularly effective and sometimes even amusing. Just think of the easy-going and yet powerful integration of principles of gravity, organic growth, personality traits, and kinship relations when you next hear or say (perhaps with reference to certain behavior patterns in some members of the Kennedy clan): "The apple never falls far from the tree."

The following analysis of a rather typical proverb will shed light on the mental process whereby the figurative language spoken in Proverbia prompts its inhabitants to draw intuitively convincing inferences and, as a result, change their attitudes and perhaps even their future behavior. Chi semina vento raccoglie tempesta (Mondadori 53) is a succinct Italian reformulation of Hosea's prophetic warning: "For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind" (8:7). The image of sowing calls forth inferences about the routine biological growth of a small seed to a large plant. But the conspicuously law-abiding biological domain is blended here with the chaotically violent meteorological domain of winds and storms. Into this heady mix within the proverb's "sense" are added features of the likely human "reference": some action by an agent in a social setting. The resulting blend elicits the inference that the action in question will lead, as a matter of predictable necessity, to unpredictably destructive consequences.

By promoting the view that a certain contemplated action will have violent repercussions, the speaker may, of course, aim at a large variety of results. His or her intention may be to turn some people away from their wicked ways (as in the case of Hosea); or to create a disposition to see violence as justified and inevitable; or perhaps to prompt a community to gloat over an enemy's anticipated misfortune. But whatever pragmatic effect is achieved, the resetting of the listeners' emotive attitude depends not on complete correspondence (which obviously doesn't exist) between the separate cognitive domains of botany, meteorology, and human affairs but, rather, on the intuitively effective logic of a highly selective mental process of cross-domain blending.[22]

It should be added that the integrative function of proverbs is by no means restricted to figurative bridge-building among various domains of cognition alone. By forcefully attempting to change (or else solidify) our attitudes and dispositions, proverbs poke their stubby fingers deep into the emotive and conative pies as well. Their integrative potential reaches into the very structure of human awareness where cognition, emotion, and volition often lose touch with each other to the detriment of all three. We have seen that, from a formal point view, proverbs are either assertive or directive speech acts. Yet they don't just describe situations or prescribe actions but tend to make simultaneous appeals to our elementary beliefs, feelings, and desires from which our more complex worldviews, attitudes, and projects originate.[23]

5. Why are proverbs?

Gå til mauren og bli vis -- "Go to the ant and become wise" -- says a biblically inspired Norwegian proverb.[24] But where did the ant acquire its precious wisdom, its single-minded industriousness, and its skill in architectural engineering? If nature has so richly bestowed it, turning it into the "paragon of animals," why has it left us humans in such dire need of further instruction? Aren't humans, too, biologically adapted to conduct their lives with the requisite skills? It was said in ancient Japan that proverbs came from the gods as a form of supplemental instruction (Fujii 15), and Kenneth Burke speaks of proverbs as "medicine" (253). Are we to conclude that humans suffer from a congenital disability or disease because, perhaps, "some of nature's journeymen had made men and not made them well"? (Shakespeare, Hamlet III.ii.34-35).

In certain respects, of course, humans seem to have been made just fine. Think of the child learning to perceive and interact with a world of three-dimensional objects and to utter an intricately interlinked variety of meaningful words and sentences -- tasks so complex and mastered with such untutored ease that our fanciest computers are put to shame by the drooling toddler. She needs no proverbs to live; she is just as proficient as the ant, and cognitive scientists go to her to become wise (cf. Spelke et al.). But if human infants naturally learn to walk, why is it that grown-ups need proverbial crutches, and what exactly is the purpose those crutches serve? In short, why are proverbs?

Our ambitiously global answer can be summarized as follows: proverbs enhance the efficacy of human cognitions, emotions, and volitions by helping to streamline the mental and communicative processes through which beliefs, feelings, and desires are articulated and shared in a species largely dependent for its continued survival on socially sanctioned individual decisions. This sentence is a mouthful but will be persuasively unpacked, we hope, in our ensuing discussion of its intertwined biological, sociological, and psychological implications.

Proverbs solve problems that arise, we believe, because human beings are endowed with an imagination that permits them to conjure forth a thousand worlds while the ant has only one.[25] Nature cannot accommodate itself with sufficient speed to the ceaseless proliferation of possible futures, so proverbs are needed to give us brief, memorable, intuitively convincing, and socially sanctioned guidelines. They are compact packets of information whose effect, in actual use, is to frame the way you look at a situation, prompting you to adopt a certain cognitive perspective. Vakta dej för sockermun och pepparhjärta (Platen 43) -- "Beware of sugarmouth and pepperheart" -- counsels a Swedish adage, vividly evoking the possibility that a desired potential mate or a smooth-talking acquaintance will take advantage of you. Nit dos iz sheyn, vos iz sheyn, nor dos, vos es gefelt -- "Beautiful is not what is beautiful, but what one likes" (Sitarz 2) -- suggests a Yiddish proverb, making the mind contentedly settle on one of many possibilities that were or could have been entertained. The congenital condition that proverbs are designed to remedy is the very opposite of a deficiency disease: it is our overwhelming plurality of options, perspectives, and interpretive frames. The pharmakon of strikingly evocative proverbs acts by making a particular alternative take precedence for the moment, thanks to the intuitively convincing fit between some familiar advice and a given occasion.

Does this mean that proverbs are tools for social manipulation? Indeed it does. Whether encountered on Sumerian clay tablets or Biblical scrolls, in medieval florilegia (Walther) or contemporary web pages (Ali and Sitarz), proverbs have long served to train moral reasoning, establish a locally predictable set of dispositions, and help define cultural identities.[26]But the use of proverbs for such pragmatic purposes as correcting, convincing, justifying, or consoling can appear in many different guises and need not be altogether conspicuous. Among the Chamula Mayans, for example, proverbs are "indirect means of social control": their rich ambiguity can serve to shame any transgressor who doesn't quite "get it" (Gossen 206, 211). The lively proverbial tradition of the Anang of southeastern Nigeria in turn plays an important part in legal arguments; Messenger found that judges at indigenous courts readily acknowledge having been swayed by the litigants' use of proverbs (64-73). People will use proverbs "to pass judgment on events, to give advice, to rationalize their past actions, or to criticize and praise others" (74-5), as Brunvand observes about English-speaking cultures of North America. But most of us, just like the Anang, favor proverbs that can "give point and add color to ordinary conversation" by being pithy or even amusing (Messenger 64). Furthermore, many didactic sayings like "Mother knows best" lend themselves readily to lightheartedly ironic use, and there seems to be wide-spread appreciation for such parodistic coinages as "Time wounds all heels" and "Where there is a will, there is a relative." It appears that proverbs not only supply a shared repertoire of standard sayings but manage to tap into playful modes of thinking which are enjoyably efficient and promote camaraderie between speakers and listeners. Social cohesion can thus be promoted even when a particular proverb or humorous mock proverb is not directly applied to some shared utilitarian purpose.

The cognitive efficiency of proverbs displays itself in the natural ease with which parents and grandparents enlist brief, memorable, and intuitively convincing sayings for gently guiding the young. Indeed, proverbs are often regarded as a one-way street through which the older generation passes its cognitive and moral tenets -- "the wisdom of the tribe" -- to the next (cf. Haring 123). After all, it is easy to believe and make others believe that "eggs can't teach the hen," as a generationally biased Russian proverb puts it (Mertvago 369). But proverbs convey life experience gathered in, and applicable to, specific situations, and what is good for the old gander may not always be good for the young geese. Often enough, the "early bird" has swallowed everybody's favorite worm or scares away the kind of worm that would delight birds of different feather, gender, or generation. Situationally rather than absolutely wise, proverbs belong in the toolbox of every practicing rhetorician but are by no means beyond the reach of vigorous contestation -- frequently through the antagonistic invocation of contrary proverbs.

The social uses of proverbs are complemented by their personal uses in internal information processing. Consider, for example, the possible impact of proverbial advice on deciding just when to make a decision. Should you look a little further before you leap? Perhaps so, but he who hesitates too long will surely be lost. Since humans face a large variety of very different situations, the complete stock of proverbs circulating in any culture is likely to contain much conflicting advice without offering meta-rules as to which rule to apply and how to apply it. In short, while internalized proverbs help us articulate our choices, they cannot tell us how to rank the available options. The validity of their respective advice (in this case, "Look before you leap" versus "He who hesitates is lost") usually requires further consideration according to the circumstances in which we find ourselves at a particular time.

Even so, as long as participants in a proverbial tradition attribute practical wisdom to it, proverbs can go a long way toward relieving individuals from the initial uncertainty, and eventual regret, often associated with the making of consequential decisions. After all, if proverbs cannot always help us make the right decision, they can at least help us think and feel that whatever decision we have made was in fact the right one. Whether you have decided to leap right away or to look (and therefore hesitate) a bit longer, the sense of acting or having acted in accordance with at least one kind of widely accepted traditional advice seems to confer cultural or even supernatural blessing on what was, ultimately, a personal decision.

Even today, the salutary effect of this kind of self-confidence cannot be overestimated. But the need for external sanction for personal decisions must have been especially great at the dawn of modern human mentality, which may lie no further back than between fifty and a hundred thousand years (cf. Mithen 22), when the imaginative projection of a range of possible futures and grammatical language had just begun to enable articulate private and public deliberations about the pros and cons of different courses of action. For many thousand years, the newly gained human sense of freedom and the concomitant frequent feelings of uncertainty, guilt, and shame could easily unsettle the mental balance of our prehistoric forebears (Hernadi 97-99, 101-102). Kenneth Burke saw proverbs, along with other kinds of literature, as part of our "equipment for living," but in crisis situations, proverbs clearly could and probably still can serve as part of our equipment for sheer psychological survival.

Should we conclude that the multiplicity of behavioral options faced by human beings in our relatively recent evolutionary past constituted an adaptive problem to which proverbs formed part of the solution? In other words, do we owe some of our neurological capacities for analogical thinking specifically to our ancestors' advantageous use of proverbs? There seems to be considerable evidence for the evolutionary significance of proverbial advice. Virtually no society around today has not "equipped" its members with a stock of memorable proverbs and well-traveled cultural channels for their circulation. Even if a few cultures turn out to have substituted a comparable form of analogical reasoning for proverbs (just as the Australian boomerang aptly served the purpose of the bow and arrow used in many other places around the globe), the nearly universal occurrence of proverbial advice suggests that proverb-using societies have long been contributing to the reproductive fitness of at least some of their members by making them both good co-operators and self-assured individuals.

Yet great caution is advised because, in the influential words of George Williams, "evolutionary adaptation is a special and onerous concept that should not be used unnecessarily" (v). A cultural practice may, after all, be both vital for survival and present in many, most, or all cultures without altering the human genome. For instance, the spread of the bow and arrow across vast geographical areas (Farmer 679) did not have to await the slow genetic evolution of some special bow-making ability in direct descendents of the first bow makers. It could, instead, rely on mental and physical capacities for toolmaking and cultural learning that had been gradually acquired by all humans over several million years of evolutionary history.

We draw a similar conclusion concerning the mental and cultural "technology" whereby proverbs at one point began to promote efficient decision-making and social cohesion on the strength of preexisting cognitive capacities. But we also note that the use of proverbs does not only utilize the brain's equipment for analogical reasoning; it also helps to refine that equipment, and brains well disposed toward processing certain types of utterances under certain circumstances may well have a slightly better than average chance of getting their genetic matrix duplicated in the next generation.[27] To some degree, therefore, culture proposes and nature disposes. Such an intertwining of nature and culture -- an instance of what Terrence Deacon calls the "co-evolution of language and the brain" -- seems to us to underlie the ubiquitous use of proverbs. For the "symbolic species," it may indeed be true that where there's a will, there's a way.

6. Summary and Outlook

Proverbs are brief, memorable, and intuitively convincing formulations of socially sanctioned advice. All or virtually all cultures possess a repertoire of such formulations and use them mainly as rhetorically effective means of transmitting accumulated experience. Based on illustrations from more than a dozen proverb traditions, we propose the following theses for consideration and further study:

(a) The protoliterary genre of proverbs emerges from oral traditions but continues to flourish in literate, typographic, and postliterate (i.e., computerized and televisionary) cultures.

(b) The initial verbal formulation, long-term mental storage, and frequent public retrieval of proverbs are facilitated by such prosodic, grammatical, and semantic features of memorability as alliteration and rhyme, repetitive syntax, and intuitively persuasive troping across different conceptual domains.

(c) The smooth functioning of proverbs in individual minds and in social circulation mainly relies on the cognitive ease and rhetorical force of imaginative analogical reasoning, which may be a major product of the co-evolution of language and the brain.

(d) By lending communal approval to individual dispositions toward recurrent human situations, proverbs help both to make human decisions more predictable and to allay any sense of guilt, shame, or regret that decision makers who face a bewildering plurality of options can experience in view of unintended adverse consequences.

(e) Recourse to a shared repertoire of proverbs may have been especially beneficial when grammatical language and the imaginative projection of possible futures had just begun to enable early modern humans to ponder the likely outcome of different courses of action, but most people still appreciate proverbial assurance that their own thinking is in line with the thinking they infer is going on in other minds.

We realize that our multidisciplinary travelogue has only offered selected snapshots of a vast and intriguing country. We also know that we and other researchers have just begun to probe the mental and social structures underlying proverbial discourse. Yet the campsite where cognitive linguists and psychologists have recently joined anthropologically trained folklorists and literary scholars is abuzz with enthusiastic explorers. If "where are bees, there is honey," increasingly detailed surveys of both the visible surface and the hidden depths of the lush tropical landscapes of Proverbia should soon be forthcoming.[28]


[1] Proverbs are protoliterary in both age and significance. In a seminal early essay, Kenneth Burke even considered them prototypical of all literature as "equipment for living." Yet to this day, most literary scholars show no awareness of the intellectually ambitious proverb research of the last decades. By bridging current gaps between literary and folklore studies and between rhetorical theory and cognitive science, our article takes a resolutely crossdisciplinary approach to proverbial discourse as a world-wide practice of popular culture.

[2] In Archer Taylor's formulation of 1931, "the definition of a proverb is too difficult to repay the undertaking[...]. An incommunicable quality tells us this sentence is proverbial and that is not" (3). In a well-informed encyclopaedia article of 1994, Peter Grzybek still concludes: "there is no generally accepted definition which covers all specifics of the proverbial genre" (227). Recognizing the contested character of all expert definitions, Wolfgang Mieder performed the interesting experiment of asking fifty-five educated nonexperts to write their definition of a proverb on a piece of paper. The following "composite definition" is based on words that occur "from four to twenty times in the collected definitions": a proverb is "a phrase, saying, sentence, statement, or expression of the folk which contains above all wisdom, truth, morals, experience, lessons, and advice concerning life and which has been handed down from generation to generation" (Proverbs Are Never out of Season 24).

[3] For a comparable approximation, see Brunvand's "popular saying in a relatively fixed form which is, or has been, in oral circulation" (74, italics in original).

[4]A special tone of voice or knowing look tends to indicate that the speaker of a proverb quotes rather than freshly generates a particular piece of advice. With or without such markers, the oral equivalent of so-called intertextuality flourished in proverbial discourse thousands of years before the invention of writing.

[5] For a general sense of the cross-cultural range of proverbial discourse, see Mieder's "International Bibliography." It appears that native American cultures have few proverbs; among the Eskimo, for example, none have been attested (Mieder, "Proverbs of the Native Americans.") Nevertheless, as Whiting admitted after reporting the apparent absence of proverbs among the original inhabitants of Australia, "there is always the possibility that proverbial sayings escaped the attention of foreign observers" (61). Gossen's painstaking field work among the Chamula Mayans is instructive: in a culture that prides itself on ambiguity and indirectness, it took him nearly a year to discover proverbial sayings ( 211).

[6] For an overview of recent findings that pertain to evolutionary chronology, see Boyd and Silk.

[7] While animals learn from their environments, including their social environments, there are precious few examples of one individual "pedagogically" assisting another. For an overview, see Heyes and Galef.

[8] Bowden offers a rapid survey of early recordings of memorable sayings in a dozen or so different cultures. For the Swahili tradition of embroidered proverbs, see Ali.

[9] All proverbs seem to fall into one of the first two classes (assertives and directives) in John Searle's fivefold taxonomy of illocutionary acts (1-29), and Searle's discussion of the two concepts largely applies to the less clearly defined but more familiar terms "description" and "prescription" we sometimes use in the present article. In an indirect way, formally assertive or directive proverbs can of course exert expressive, commissive, or perhaps even declarative illocutionary force as well (30-57), while proverbs couched in incomplete sentences (for example, "Out of sight, out of mind") should count as elliptical speech acts.

[10] We build here on the fruitful distinction between "use" and "mention," well known in the philosophy of language. See Quine for the most often cited skeletal exposition (23-26) and Lyons for more nuanced considerations (5-10).

[11] Detailed examinations of proverb use in actual conversations would surely indicate sufficient variety in the speaker's cognitive and emotive identification with the proverbial advice being given to qualify the view, expressed by Norrick in a pioneering article on proverbs as quotational speech acts, that "by quoting, the speaker perlocutionarily apprises the hearer of his intention to remain personally neutral or uninvolved" (147).

[12] Both in novels and in everyday life, Mikhail Bakhtin contrasts "externally authoritative" to "internally persuasive" discourses in a way that indirectly highlights the difference between distancing and internalizing attitudes toward proverbs. While "the authoritative text always remains […] a dead quotation" (344), according to Bakhtin, "the internally persuasive word is half ours and half someone else's" as it "enters into interanimating relationships with new contexts" and into "intense interaction […] with other internally persuasive discourses" (345-46). The ability of most people to internalize contrary proverbs may well be a consequence of the "intense struggle within us for hegemony among various available verbal and ideological points of view, approaches, directions, and values" (346).

[13] The literary medievalist Betsy Bowden suggestively associates some "translingual constants of style" that make proverbs memorable with some recently discovered structural characteristics of the human brain (442). She specifically discusses the "striking visual imagery" and "cohesive sound pattern" of proverbs, as well as their usual recitability within three seconds. The last observation is aligned with the cross-cultural examination of typical verse line length by the American poet-scholar Frederick Turner and the German neuropsychologist Ernst Pöppel.

[14] This can be seen very clearly in Machoni rafiki, moyoni mnafiki, a Swahili proverb whose phonetic regularity (three alliterations and two pairs of rhymes within four words) appears to conceal but actually stresses semantic contrast: "Friendly in the eyes, a hypocrite in the heart" (Ali 6). Cf. also the contrary proverb, Lisilokuwapo moyoni halipo machoni -- "What is not in the heart is not in the eyes" (Scheven 232).

[15] See Honeck, "Introduction," for a brief juxtaposition of the view of mental parsimony accepted here and the standard model of analogical (including metaphorical) thought processes, which posits that literal thinking must always precede the analogical and that, therefore, the latter is more costly. While the psychologist Honeck continues to embrace the standard view (A Proverb in Mind 104-6), the psycholinguist Gibbs joins Lakoff, Johnson, and Mark Turner in postulating "basic metaphorical conceptualizations of experience" (The Poetics of Mind 8). A recent debate between Gibbs and Honeck specifically focuses on the question of how the mind processes proverbs (see Gibbs et al., "Proverbs and the Metaphorical Mind;" Honeck and Temple's response, "Proverbs and the Complete Mind;" and a rejoinder by Gibbs et al., "How to Study Proverb Understanding").

[16] Dawkins' provocative analogy between genes and memes as respective units of genetic and cultural reproduction has spurred vigorous debate. For a recent systematic elaboration, see Lynch; for current developments, see the internet Journal of Memetics: Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission.

[17] As a result, Sperber's concept of transformative cultural epidemiology applies better to the way in which fairy tales and jokes spread from mind to mind through ever different oral mutations than to the much more precisely replicative "contagion" characteristic of proverbs.

[18]Lakoff and Turner, who consider metaphor and metonymy figures of thought rather than speech, have indeed no difficulty basing many of their pertinent remarks on translations culled from W.S. Merwin's Asian Figures. See also Paczolay's well-documented collection of 106 proverbs that occur in at least 28 of his 55 surveyed European languages and, often enough, have additional equivalents in non-European tongues.

[19] Frege's distinction (56-78) between "sense" (Sinn) and "reference" (Bedeutung) is adapted here to an often mentioned but not very clearly defined and variously named distinction between the respective meanings of proverbs in the "proverb situation" on the one hand and in the "reference situation" on the other (cf. Grzybek 227-30).

[20] The capacity of metaphors to do much more than just "embellish" speech was already praised by Aristotle (Poetics 1459a), and it has received a great deal of fruitful attention in the past several decades. We have learnt much about the metaphoric dimension of cognition (including perception) from I.A. Richards (30-31, 108-9, et passim), Lakoff and Johnson, and Lakoff and Turner, but find an approach to tropes as particular instances of "conceptual blending" especially congenial (Turner and Fauconnier, as well as Fauconnier and Turner).

[21]Steven Mithen reviews some recent findings in the study of child development and relates them to evolutionary history as follows: "Young children have intuitive knowledge about the world in at least four domains of behavior: about language, psychology, physics, and biology. And their intuitive knowledge within each of these appears to be directly related to a hunting and gathering lifestyle long, long ago in prehistory" (50-51). See also Hirschfeld and Gelman.

[22] The always selective recourse of metaphor to just a few relevant features was already pointed out by Richards: "A table does not walk with its legs; they only hold it up" (117). The role of selectivity in all quasi-metaphorical cognition has been further explored in recent studies of the "conceptual integration" occurring in "blended mental spaces" (see Fauconnier, Fauconnier and Sweetser, Fauconnier and Turner, Turner and Fauconnier).

[23] The three pairs of terms just used for articulating the cognitive, emotive, and volitional directions of awareness have been adopted from Hernadi (115-26). A similar cognitive, emotive, and volitional triad is specifically (albeit implicitly) applied to proverbs when Kenneth Burke says that proverbs "name typical recurrent situations" yet mainly treats them as emotive "attitudes" and action-oriented "strategies" for dealing with the kinds of situations "named" -- that is, cognitively identified -- by particular proverbs (253-55).

[24] Cf. "Go to the ant, you sluggard, watch her ways and get wisdom" (Proverbs 6:6).

[25] The ability to represent absent worlds starts with dreaming, a mental process we share with other mammals (Dement 82). The imagination -- "an unleashing of the hallucinatory power of dreams into the waking state" -- requires a complex system of cognitive adaptations for distinguishing between the virtual and the real that appears to be unique to humans (Steen 18). Since the sturdy human imagination surely evolved in mutually supportive conjunction with language, we concur with Derek Bickerton's phylogenetic linking of language competence to the kind of well-organized and efficient "off-line thinking" that can perform "rehearsals for future actions" because it is "detached from the thinker's immediate environment" (97). But, in our view, Bickerton unnecessarily assumes a one-way influence when he insists that "language is the only thing that could have provided us with the means to free our thoughts from the exigencies of the moment and to structure them into complex wholes" (100).

[26] Proverbs are exceptionally well suited to exert uncoerced persuasion because their socially sanctioned authority, once it is embraced by an individual, relies on genuine trust in folk wisdom rather than potentially violent enforcement. They may even be the best examples for what Bakhtin, in another context, described as words that are "simultaneously authoritative and persuasive -- despite the profound differences between these two categories of alien discourse" (342). Even so, the ability of most people to sustain the cognitive tension between two or more internally persuasive yet contrary proverbs bears out Bakhtin's view that "our ideological development is […] an intense struggle within us for hegemony among various available verbal and ideological points of view, approaches, directions, and values" (346).

[27] Rather than assuming that acquired characteristics can be inherited, we are invoking here the long-standing evolutionary principle called the Baldwin Effect, according to which an advantageous behavior, once it has appeared in a population, may gradually alter the gene pool of the species which has adopted it. See Baldwin and, for a current appraisal, Turney et al. The same co-evolutionary interplay between language and the brain that facilitated the thematic formulation of accumulated experience characteristic of proverbs may also have promoted the narrative formulation of remembered or imagined events as a universally human mode of both cognition and discourse. Cf. Donald on the transition from mimetic to mythic culture (201-68).

[28] For updates on recent and future work, see Steen's on-line bibliography.

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