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The Psycholinguistics of Everyday Life (Paroemics)

The language of thought includes inner speech, i. e., speaking silently to oneself, which can be a significant indicator of one’s mental state at any given moment, as well as over the span of one’s mental life. In this second respect, a person with a good knowledge of their native language’s stock of proverbs (paroemics) can habitually disinter them from memory in order to punctuate a thought linguistically. Here is an illustration.

Over many years I have been in the habit of looking down from time to time while walking in a city and have often espied stray pennies lying on the pavement, which I invariably pick up. Whenever this happens, my inner speech always silently utters the Russian proverb, копейка рубль бережет, a literal translation of which is ‘a kopeck preserves a ruble’, meaning that without that last kopeck/penny the ruble/dollar would not be what it is, being short one kopeck/penny. The literal meaning in Russian exploits one of the senses of the verb berech’ ‘to preserve, guard’, which is used in other proverbs as well (cf. береги честь смолоду ‘guard your honor from youth onward’). The transferred meaning, of course, goes beyond kopecks to apply to any whole that would be deficient if as little as one constituent unit were lacking.

Why a presumably sane person would want to repeat the same proverb every time he picks up a stray penny from the sidewalk is, of course, open to interpretation. Perhaps one reason is the prosodic structure of the proverb, which falls neatly into an iambic line so long as the word рубль ‘ruble’ is pronounced (as it normally is) with an epenthetic (inserted) vowel––a schwa, i. e., [ə]––between the two consonants of the final cluster. The paronomastic nexus of sound and sense evidently gives this particular individual pleasure above and beyond the trivial monetary gain that seems to attend his everyday life with some regularity.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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