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Paroemics: The Linguistic Ecology of the Proverb

Every language has proverbs. English, Russian, and Japanese have not only the largest lexica but also the greatest number of proverbs, with the most comprehensive Japanese proverb dictionaries approaching a six-figure total. English in all its varieties differs from Russian and Japanese in the ecological prominence of proverbs in actual use, which is to say that speakers and writers of English no longer habitually recur to proverbs. When was the last time you uttered the words––or heard anyone else say–– A stitch in time saves nine?

By contrast, Russians and Japanese sprinkle their speech with proverbs at every turn. This paroemic predilection has nothing to do with the speaker’s class or education, nor with urban vs. agrarian social context. When a Russian resorts to the proverb na net i suda net––literally, ‘to a NO there’s no justice/court’––to express resignation before an insuperable impasse, they are employing a piece of paronomasia that conveys its meaning with a poetic punch not available to a purely discursive statement.

Beyond paronomasia, there is also the frequent special force of figuration conjured up in proverbs that is colligated  with their analogical imagery. When a Japanese says setchin-mushi mo tokorobiiki (雪隠虫も所贔屓) ‘even the dung beetle loves its own bailiwick’, a whole world far removed from contemporary mores comes to life that endows the utterance’s context with a particular purport. The linguistic ecology of modern-day English is all the poorer for having foregone the paroemic riches at its disposal.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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