MESSAGES OF PRACTICAL WISDOM
Every language has popular short simple sayings that express sharp observations about life. The name of these folk sayings is proverb in English, tục ngữ in Vietnamese, suyu in Chinese, proverbe in French, dicho in Spanish, proverbio in Italian, and Sprichwort in German. A proverb is cogently defined by Crystal (1997, p. 435) as “a short, pithy, rhythmical saying expressing a general belief.” With their ability to succinctly express life experience and make language more appealing, proverbs play an important role in daily communication. The most fascinating feature among world proverbs is the similarity in their practical wisdom. For instance, the sayings Yêu ai yêu cả đường đi in Vietnamese, Love me, love my dog in American English, and Ai wu ji wu (爱 屋 及 烏) in Chinese expound the “halo effect,” an undeniable psychological truth. Only their ways of expressing this truth differ. The poetry-loving Vietnamese talk about someone they love and the road that bears that person’s footprints -- if you love someone, you also love that road. The Mandarin Chinese saying Ai wu ji wu plays on the homophonous pair wu (屋) and wu (烏), with the first one meaning “house” and the second one meaning “crow” – if you love a certain house, you also love the crows that perch on its roof.
UNIVERSALITY OF LIFE EXPERIENCES
When comparing the contents of world proverbs, we will find plenty of similarities due to the universality of life experiences, as Hirsch, Kett, and Trefil (1988, p. 46) put it, “Proverbs reflect the accumulated wisdom, prejudices, and superstitions of the human race.” Thus, to advise people not to act too fast, a Vietnamese proverb says Đi đâu mà vội mà vàng, mà vấp phải đá mà quàng phải dây? (Where are you going in such a hurry that you stumble on stones and get ensnared in vines?) Offering the same advice are the following sayings: More haste less speed; Plus on se hâte moins on avance (French: The more one hurries the less one advances); Chi va piano va lontano (Italian: Who goes slowly goes far); and Yu su ze bu da (慾 速 則 不 達) (Chinese: Haste does not get you there).
It is only natural that contents in proverbs in related languages (e.g., English and German) are often virtually identical. Thus, the English saying Rob Peter to pay Paul and the German counterpart Dem Peter nehmen und dem Paul geben sound almost like each other’s word-for-word translation. However, as a native speaker of Vietnamese, which is totally unrelated to English, the author is thrilled to find the semantic parallelism among the contents of such proverb pairs as Được đằng chân lân đằng đầu (When they get to your feet they will want to get to your head) and Give him an inch and he will take a mile; Gieo gió gặp bão (Sow the wind and harvest the storm) and Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind; and Thờn bơn méo miệng chê trai lệch mồm (The twisted-mouthed flounder ridicules the mussel’s warped mouth) and The pot calling the kettle black.
TYPICAL STRUCTURE OF PROVERBS
Structurally speaking, numerous world proverbs share the fact that they are made up of two components that offer a euphonious syntactic and prosodic parallelism. For instance, Out of sight, out of mind displays the same construction as the following world proverbs: Xa mặt, cách lòng ; Loin des yeux, loin du coeur (French: Away from eyes, away from heart); Aus den Augen, aus dem Sinn (German: Out of eyes, out of mind); Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente (Spanish: Eyes that do not see, heart that does not feel); and Lontano dagli occhi, lontano dal cuor (Italian: Far from the eyes, far from the heart).
Among proverbs promoting morality, the straightforward English Honesty is the best policy stands out. Its message complements that of the Vietnamese Khôn ngoan chẳng ngoại thật thà (Honesty transcends wisdom). Reminding people of the fact that the company they keep can tell a lot about themselves are the Chinese Niu xun niu ma xun ma (牛 尋 牛 馬 尋 馬) (Oxen look for oxen, horses look for horses), the English Birds of a feather flock together, the French Dis-moi qui tu hantes et je te dirai qui tu es (Tell me who you frequent, and I will tell you who you are), the Spanish Cada cual con los suyos (Each one with its own kind), the German Gleich und gleich gesellt sich gern (Like and like associate well), and the Italian Dio li fa e poi li appaia (God creates them and then matches them). World proverbs warn people not to laugh at other people’s plight because what goes around certainly comes around, according to the Vietnamese Cười người chớ vội cười lâu, cười người hôm trước hôm sau người cười (Don’t laugh at other people too long; you laugh at them the day before and they will laugh at you the next day). The warning is more succinct in English: He laughs best who laughs last, in Italian: Ride bene che ride l’ultimo (Who laughs last laughs well), and in French: Rira bien qui rira le dernier (Who will laugh last will laugh well).
PROVIDING PRACTICAL ADVICE
Proverbs reflect daily living and offer wisdom for people as they cope with life. Give-and-take is expected in relationships, as suggested by the down-to-earth English saying You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours and the Vietnamese equivalent Có đi có lại mới toại lòng nhau (Reciprocation pleases both sides). The power of money is clearly expressed by the proverb Money talks, which has the Chinese counterpart Duo jin yin po lu li (多 金 銀 破 律 例) (Big money breaks the law) and the Vietnamese Nén bạc đâm toạc tờ giấy (A bar of silver tears up a document). Being discreet is a safety device, because Walls have ears, an English proverb whose practical wisdom is found verbatim in the Vietnamese Tai vách mạch rừng, the Chinese Ge qiang you er (隔 墻 有 耳), the French Les murs ont des oreilles, the Italian I muri hanno orecchi, and the German Die Waende haben Ohren. It is no shame to avoid violent behavior by senseless people, as suggested by the Spanish maxim Al loco y al toro darles corro (To a crazy person and to a bull, be ready to yield) or the Vietnamese Tránh voi chẳng xấu mặt nào (It is no shame at all to dodge an elephant).
Proverbs understand human psychology and therefore can provide people with down-to-earth advice. The Vietnamese adage Sự thật mất lòng is a word-for-word expression of its English counterpart Truth hurts. Because truth hurts, an astute piece of advice is offered by the French saying Toute vérité n’est pas bonne à dire (Not every truth is good to tell). Sweet-talking goes a long way, and it costs nothing according to the Spanish Cortesía de boca vale mucho y poco cuesta (Courtesy of the mouth has much value and costs little). Additional wisdom is provided by the Vietnamese Lời nói chẳng mất tiền mua, lựa lời mà nói cho vừa lòng nhau (Words do not have to be bought with money; select them carefully to please the listener). Count on what you have in hands only is the wisdom of the English saying A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, the Vietnamese Một con nằm trong tay hơn mười con bay trên trời (One bird in the hand is better than ten flying in the sky), the Italian Meglio un uovo oggi che una gallina domani (An egg today is better than a hen tomorrow), and the German Ein Spatz in der Hand ist besser als eine Taube auf dem Dach (A sparrow in the hand is better than a pigeon on the roof). Once injured, people may become paranoid and avoid situations that remind them of the previous mishap. Reflecting this psychological fact is the metaphorical Chinese saying Jing gong zhi niao jian qu mu er gao fei (驚 弓 之 鳥 見 曲 木 而 高 飛) (The bow-fearing bird flies high upon seeing a bent tree branch). This thought is expressed more directly in English as Once bitten, twice shy; in French as Chat échaudé craint l’eau froide (Burned cat fears cold water); in Spanish as Gato escaldado del agua fría huye (Burned cat flees from cold water); and in German as Gebrannte Kinder scheuen das Feuer (Burned children fear the fire).
PROVIDING HOPE AND OPTIMISM
Proverbs also provide mankind with hope. Indeed, life is not always tough, as the English saying After a storm comes a calm implies. This optimism is expressed in Chinese as Ku jin gan lai (苦 盡 甘 來) (After bitterness comes sweetness); in French as Après la pluie, le beau temps (After the rain, beautiful weather); and in Vietnamese as Sau cơn mưa trời lại sáng (After the rain, the sun shines again). When the sun shines again and people get another opportunity in life, they should take prompt action, as advised by the English proverb Strike while the iron is hot or the Vietnamese Cờ đến tay phải phất (When the flag is in your hand, do not fail to wave it). But when striking the hot iron or waving the flag, they should remember the importance of solidarity, which is expressed so clearly by the French proverb Une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps (One swallow does not make a spring) or the Chinese Gu shu bu cheng lin (孤 樹 不成 林) (One single tree does not make a forest).
World proverbs are an appealing source for discussing (both orally and in writing) about life from multiple cultural perspectives. The study of world proverbs has the potential to get parents, grandparents, community members involved in the students’ education, making it more significant and authentic. Comparing world proverbs enhances the students’ understanding of the universality of human behaviors and thus may turn the multicultural, multilingual classroom into a more accepting environment for all students. This humanistic educational activity also helps develop students’ divergent thinking skill as well as improve their cross-cultural communication.
Crystal, D. (1997). The Cambridge encyclopedia of language. NY: Cambridge University Press.
Hirsch, E.D., Kett, J.F., & Trefil, J. (1988). The dictionary of cultural literacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Lin, M., & Leonard, S. (1998). Dictionary of 1000 Chinese proverbs. NY: Hippocrene Books.
Titelman, G. (2000). Random House dictionary of America’s popular proverbs and sayings. NY: Random House.
Vu, N.P. (2000). Vietnamese proverbs, popular sayings, and folk songs. Hanoi: Van Hoc.
Dr. Đàm Trung Pháp
Texas Woman’s University