21 December 2015
World proverbs in speech, text and image
All the world over, wise people say “Nobody knows his own defects” and “What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over”.
You may find this an inspiring indication of the oneness of mankind, or alternatively depressing proof of the lack of originality of the human mind.
The current BL exhibition “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song” includes some small figures which are thought to refer to popular proverbs.
As described in the exhibition catalogue, “The gold-weight [above, from the collections of the British Museum] depicting two crocodiles with one stomach embodies the Asante proverb Funtufunefu, denkyemfunefu, won efuru bom, nso woredidi a na woreko, meaning that even though they have one stomach, they fight over food when eating.” (p. 123).
It’s from Ghana, and dated somewhere in the 18th to 20th centuries.
I’m reminded of European misericords, carvings under the seats in the choir stalls of medieval churches. These often show motifs which can be matched to popular tales or sayings. The examples below from the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam show a man banging his head against a brick wall and another falling between two stools. (These two images also occur in Bruegel).
European popular proverbs are written down, in the context of Latin literature, as early as the 13th century. The most common contexts are sermons and grammar books.
Arabic proverbs (more properly learned than popular) made their entrance in the West in 13th-century Spain, and were printed in erudite bilingual Arabic-Latin collections from the early 17th century on.
African proverbs, at least in those parts which were occupied by Britain and France, were not printed until the 19th century (see Moll’s bibliography).
The BL recently acquired a book which I think is typical of the first printing of African proverbs:
The context is a grammar of the Nbundu (Kimbundu) language, spoken in Angola. Early printed grammars of French (etc.) for English (etc.) speakers regularly included an anthology of proverbs. And so it is in this book of 1864.
Here the Nbundu original is given followed by the literal Portuguese translation, and then the Portuguese equivalent.
The monkey doesn’t look at his tail
Often the ant dominates the elephant
What the eyes see, causes envy
The rat is an expert in his hole
One who makes water often cannot lie down in a wet place
The witchdoctor starts with his own house and ends up outside
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies
Walter S. Gibson, Figures of speech : picturing proverbs in renaissance Netherlands (London, 2010) YC.2010.a.7023
Otto E. Moll, Sprichwörterbibliographie (Frankfurt am Main, ) Humanities 1 Reading Room HLR 398.9
Barry Taylor, ‘Los Libros de proverbios bilingües: disposición e intención’, in Corpus, genres, théories et méthodes: construction d’une base de données, ed. Marie-Christine Bornes-Varol and Marie-Sol Ortola (Nancy, 2010), pp. 119-29. YF.2012.a.22372
Barry Taylor, ‘Éditions bilingues de textes espagnols’, K výzkumu zámeckých, měšťanských a cirkevnich knihoven, ‘Jazyk a řeč knihy’, Opera romanica, 11 (2009), 385-94. ZF.9.a.4837
West Africa : word, symbol, song / general editors, Gus Casely-Hayford, Janet Topp Fargion and Marion Wallace. 2015.