How to Collect 1,000 Proverbs Quickly:Field Methods for Eliciting and Collecting Proverbsby PETER UNSETH, PH.D.Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics and SIL InternationalAbstract:This article presents techniques to equip researchers to help people recall moreproverbs in their language, expediting the collection of large numbers of proverbs.The focus is on collecting proverbs from languages without a written collection ofproverbs, especially endangered languages.“Proverbs cannot be collected in a hurry” (McKelvie 1970:5)1. Introduction.Collecting proverbs from languages where they have not been documented isvaluable for a variety of people: proverb scholars, anthropologists of several sub-disciplines,ethnologists, linguists, folklorists, missionaries, and also the people of the languagecommunity (and their descendants).The importance of collecting proverbs from languages where this has not previouslybeen done is increasingly urgent as this domain of language is being lost in manycommunities. As many of the world’s language communities are assimilating to broadersociety, they are losing their cultural distinctives and languages, which includes the loss oftheir proverbs. Various scholars differ in their estimation of how many of the world’slanguages are in danger of extinction. Krauss has estimated that as many as 50% of theworld’s approximately 6,000 languages will be lost by the end of the century and maybe40% more will be doomed, having lost domains and speakers (1992:6,7). Though acommunity may not be in immediate danger of losing their language, one social domain thatis frequently vulnerable is a community’s proverbial lore, its loss being an incremental stepin the loss of language and culture. One study among the Kikuyu of Kenya found that their“customs and oral traditions are being lost at a rate of 60 percent in each succeedinggeneration. So if a particular generation knew 100 proverbs, the next generation will knowforty and the following generation” will know even fewer, etc. (Healey and Sybertz1996:58). Clearly collecting proverbs from marginal or endangered language communitiesis a time-sensitive priority.In a strategic effort to fight this loss of proverbs, the African Proverbs Project haseven commissioned some researchers to collect “endangered proverbs” from languagecommunities where ethnolinguistic vitality is diminishing. Asogwa (2002) has collectedproverbs to strengthen the Igbo language, hoping that people of the community will be“lured back” to the language. Garcia et al. (2002) report that in working with a languagerevitalization program among the Jicarilla Apache that older speakers wanted to usetraditional proverbs as one of the ways to teaching the language and culture to the children.Himmelmann argues strongly and cogently for field researchers to document not justlinguistic structures, but language use, including different genres of speaking (1998).Naturally, this includes such genres as proverbs. Ideally, proverbs are collected in context,in real situations, while collecting simple lists of proverbs is a “staged communicative event”(Himmelmann 1998:185) at best. But collecting lists is the fastest way to collect asubstantial number of proverbs quickly, especially important for documentation ofendangered languages.How does a field worker elicit hundreds, or even thousands, of proverbs from peoplein a short time, since proverbs are not remembered as lists but are usually recalled in anappropriate context? How do we go about collecting significant numbers of proverbs in alimited time from a language community? Asking people to simply list long lists of proverbs1

in their language will only elicit a fraction of the proverbs in their language. The biggesthurdle is generally helping people to remember their proverbs in an artificial elicitationsetting. Therefore, the techniques presented here have been developed to provide moreefficient methods for eliciting proverbs. These techniques are all based on the fact that“Proverbs are difficult to recall from memory without an eliciting context or situation”(Herzfeld 1991:163, fn. 4). These techniques are written with an outside scholar in mind,but the techniques could be profitably used by a member of the language communityworking to collect proverbs from their own heritage.Some will rightfully object that simply collecting lists of proverbs, withoutdocumenting their use in contexts, is of limited value. They may say it seems more apractice from the past, when bits of folklore data were collected with little regard for theircontext. “Doubtless proverbs recorded in actual life situations, with the full complement ofsocial, situational, and discourse contexts would be the ideal data” (Yankah 1989:172).Arewa and Dundes stress the importance of studying the context and use of proverbs,“What are the rules governing who can use proverbs, or particular proverbs, and to who?Upon what occasions? In what places? With what other persons present or absent?” (Arewaand Dundes 1964:71).But collecting significant amounts of this sort of data requires years of work. As analternative, this set of guidelines is prepared for scholars who will not be able to spend theyears that are needed to do such well-documented collecting within a society. Forresearchers with only short times available for field work, given a choice between collectinglists of many proverbs and collecting only a very few proverbs in context, it seemspreferable to collect lists which can later be studied in more detail. In languages which areendangered or whose homelands are inaccessible, this course of action is the onlyalternative. If lists of proverbs are collected, then data related to use and context can laterbe gathered by asking knowledgeable people about the use of specific proverbs.The ideal setting in which to gather proverbs is in the geographical location wherethe language community lives. When this is not possible, researchers can often work withan immigrant group of people from the language area. This might be in a refugee camp, orworking with rural people who have moved to a larger city, or even in another country towhich people have immigrated. It is generally preferable to work with more than oneperson at once, but sometimes only one person is available, possibly a student at auniversity. However, such a student is likely not the best person since they have studiedfor a significant time outside of the traditional culture and likely outside of the languagecommunity’s homeland. For example, an Ethiopian graduate student once admitted to methat if he went back to his home area and were to be involved in a lawsuit, he wouldinevitably lose since he did not know enough of the culture’s proverbs and rhetoricaltraditions. Arewa and Hymes reported a Nigerian graduate student with a similar deficit inhis familiarity with the use of proverbs in his home language (1964:70). Similarly, inCameroon Siran found that native speakers of Vute who had grown up away from thetraditional heartland could not explain proverbs well (1993:236,237).Though most of the work of gathering proverbs is usually done in person, it has alsobeen possible in some places to solicit proverbs in written form by having school studentssolicit proverbs from their families (Abrahams 1967:184, Kimmerle 1947:352, Kebbede p.c.2005, Tafari p.c. 2006), though this requires an adequate number of people who can writethe vernacular competently. Gathering written proverb data may also be possible throughethnic associations, through less formal literacy programs (such as connected withchurches), or simply via the social networks of people in the language community.Whether working with speakers in their traditional homeland or in a displacedcommunity, it is best to search for people who are recognized as good with proverbs,typically an older person. (It is also very useful if they can speak a language which theresearcher knows, rather than depending on a translator.) But even when a person who is2

excellent with proverbs is found, it is preferable if the person does not have to work alone.Proverbs are more easily generated if there is more than one person from the communityinvolved in the discussion. As people talk with each other, they remind each other ofproverbs and help each other quote partially remembered proverbs. Just one person maybe adequate to help with transcribing the proverbs, but it is generally easier to elicitproverbs in a group setting.To begin collecting proverbs, a scholar must find the best local way to speak of“proverbs”. Some languages have a specific word for them, others use a more generic labelthat may include idioms, riddles, euphemisms, or stories. (This exploration of the emic viewof proverbs and related speech genres can be valuable in itself.) If there is not a specificlabel for “proverb”, then a few examples should clarify what kinds of language forms aredesired, but do not spend much time rejecting forms that are not canonical proverbs.Gather a group of people together, (provide beverage and food as culturallyappropriate), prompt the conversation, turn on a recording device, and have fun.(Recording the conversation rather than transcribing it as it is said is preferable since itallows for the free flow of the conversation, with no pauses while waiting for the scribe tocatch up.) As much as possible, the conversation should be in the vernacular, since that isthe language most likely to help the people recall proverbs. The first step is to ask thepeople or person to simply tell as many of their proverbs as they can think of. This step willelicit only a limited list of the most common proverbs since proverbs usually need a contextto bring them to mind.Some researchers have staged proverb contests to stimulate people to recall moreproverbs (Yankah 1989:169). In this format, hearing another person recite a proverb oftenhelps stimulate the memory of other proverbs through a variety of associations.As people recite proverbs, they may produce utterances that may not fit theresearcher’s definition of what proverbs are. Though the researcher may think that some ofthe utterances being collected are not within the narrow definition of proverb, it is generallywiser to adopt the policy “if in doubt, collect” (Bryant 1945:21) and edit later.2. Using Situations to Remind People of Proverbs.After people can no longer remember any additional proverbs during this firstelicitation step, it is time to use additional methods to prompt people’s memories. Theseare not presented in any crucial order; they can be used as dictated by the situation. Also,they can be used cyclically, as new proverbs open up yet additional topics to be explored bya previous method.By suggesting situations in which proverbs are likely to be quoted, a researcher canhelp people’s ability to remember additional proverbs (Herskovits 1950; Asogwa 2002). Forexample, a researcher can pose situations such as “What proverbs might a father say to hischild who is slack in their household duties?” Or, “What proverbs might a mother say to herchild who is angry at a friend?” Or, “What might elders say to a person who is causingdiscord in the community?” Other likely situations that might call for naturally usingproverbs include consoling somebody who has been cheated, rebuking a lazy person,complaining about a gossip, seeking to identify the cause of misfortune. By helping peopleimagine themselves in appropriate settings we are able to help them remember moreproverbs.A related technique for eliciting additional proverbs is to prompt people by elicitingproverbs by topics.Ask people for proverbs about such topics as gossip, laziness,mediation, injustice, married life, treatment of elders, sorcery, etc. The topic may not beexplicitly mentioned in the proverb, but people are likely to remember it when prompted bythe topic that the proverb addresses.For example, the Saramaccan proverb “Highbranches, low branches” is 1about showing respect to elders, but neither “elders” nor1Thanks to Catherine Rountree for this example and helpful discussion.3

“respect” are explicitly mentioned. Researchers will get additional ideas for potential topicsfrom the proverbs already elicited. The more that scholars know about a culture (or aneighboring or related culture), the more appropriate topics they are likely to think of.Healey and Sybertz found that a number of topics “seem to be universal in all Africanlanguages such as animals, children, community, death, evil, family, food, hospitality,marriage, personal relationships, sickness, visitors and work” (1996:59). Scholars workingin other parts of the world will find some similarity with this list, but local distinctives, also.In addition, researchers can help people recall additional proverbs by mentioningvarious events, asking them to think of proverbs that are used at such events, or proverbsthat mention such events. It would likely that people can think of proverbs related tofunerals, weddings, betrothals, births, planting, butchering, harvesting, religious rituals,fishing, house building, reconciliation, fires, holidays, earthquakes, games, pilgrimages,elections, battles, seasons, etc.3. Using Types of People to Remind People of Proverbs.Proverbs often mention different categories of people, so researchers can help peoplecall to mind additional proverbs by asking for proverbs that mention different kinds ofpeople. Frequently there are proverbs about such different roles as debtors, merchants,matchmakers, craftsmen, herders, warriors, chiefs, bandits, religious leaders, mourners, oldpeople, musicians, potters, tanners, thieves, the blind, healers, supernatural beings,mediators, hunters, brides, grooms, ancestors, midwives, neighboring clans or ethnicgroups, etc.It may also be helpful to learn which types of people or occupations are seen ashigher and lower. For example, in many parts of Africa, blacksmiths are despised andfeared. (McNaughton 1988, Kusimba 1996). It is almost certain that there will be proverbsthat mention these lowest roles, as well as proverbs that mention the higher roles.It is also expected to find proverbs about relatives. A study of the kinship systemcan aid the study of proverbs, and vice versa, as scholars gain additional light on thebehavioral expectations related to various kin, such parents, children, siblings, andgrandparents as well as various kinds of aunts, uncles, and in-laws.Proverbs are also common about people with behavioral characteristics, such asbeing honest or dishonest, polite or rude, lazy or ambitious, truthful or deceptive, generousor stingy, brave or fearful. Other traits likely to produce proverbs include people whoflatter, feign sickness, gossip, exploit others, chatter, cause dissension, desire power, etc.4. Using Key Words to Remind People of Proverbs.An additional technique for stirring additional proverbs from people’s memories is toask for proverbs built on key words (Bauman 1963, drawing from the work of Cahan).Around the world, proverbs frequently include reference to various body parts, insects,animals, weather, implements, geographical features, etc. Asking people to tell us proverbsthat mention “mouth”, “ant”, “donkey”, “rain”, “hammer”, “river” will inevitably bring tomind additional proverbs that are formed by using these words. For example, at themention of “donkey”, the present author can quickly think of three Amharic proverbs aboutdonkeys. A proverb may include a key word such as “donkey”, but the proverb may reallybe about a person who gossips. This mention of gossip can then lead to peopleremembering more proverbs about gossip.In preparing a list of potential key words, it will be helpful to prepare a list of localnames for creatures, birds, bugs, beasts, and fish, domestic and wild. To help with this,there are often illustrated books that will help with compiling such a list (such books areoften only available in larger cities). They typically have such titles as “A field guide to thebirds of ”, or “The larger mammals of ”. The pictures in these books can be used tovisually prompt the people who are trying to remember proverbs, a change of pace from allthe verbal interviewing. Some people will find it hard to stay focused on proverbs as they4

look at animal pictures, wanting to tell stories about some of the animals, the habits ofvarious creatures, etc., so this method works better with some people that others.Using nouns as key words is likely the simplest way to start. As people get used tothe idea of using key words to remind them of proverbs (and as the researcher learns moreabout the language and how to work with people from the speech community), other partsof speech can also be used. Verbs such as “cut”, “plant”, “kill”, “seek”, “die”, “cook”,“flatter”, “promise”, “die”, “marry”, “borrow”, “deceive”, “buy”, “gossip” are all likely to elicitmore proverbs. Some adjectives are also helpful in this, also, such as “good”, “evil”,“shoddy”, “expensive”, “poor”, “rich”, “smooth”, “deceitful”, etc. Many adverbs will alsoremind people of more proverbs; likely candidates include “poorly”, “well”, “quickly”, “very”,“belatedly”, “stealthily”, “insincerely”, etc. Also, words to indicate time and frequency willremind people of more proverbs, such concepts as “never”, “frequently”, “belatedly”,“always”, “seldom”, “occasionally”, “regularly”. Even conjunctions may be key words in theproverbs of some languages, especially if they occur in common formulae. For example,Owomoyela (1988) collected over 60 proverbs in Yorùbá that begin with ‘if’. The grammarsof different languages will configure these in different ways, but these types of concepts canbe profitably used to stir people’s memories.Some words are the basis for large number of proverbs. For example, in Finnish,there are “hundreds of proverbs about pigs, partridges and mice” (Kuusi 1998). In hiscollection of Yorùbá proverbs, Owomoyela (1988:360), found over 20 that mentioned“dog(s)”. In Kikuyu, Stevenson found “very many” proverbs about the “ubiquitous banana”(1927:243). Using words that are so productive as a prompt is likely assist people in callingmore proverbs to remembrance.It can also be profitable to note if no proverbs (or very few) are found using wordsthat might be expected to be productive. Kuusi notes the lack of proverbs about snakesand bears in Finnish, directly linked to taboos about these animals (1998). Yoffie noted anabsence of “proverbs about love” in a Yiddish speaking community, tying this to the customof marriages being arranged (1920:148). Not surprisingly, she listed a number of proverbsabout matchmaking.5. Using Structure to Remind People of Proverbs.It is also possible to aid people’s recollection of proverbs by asking them to think ofproverbs with a similar structure or pattern. For example, Yorùbá has many proverbs thatbegin with the structure “A kì í ” ‘One does not ’, Owomoyela (1988) listing 239 examplesof proverbs that begin with this structure. This is seen in such examples as “A kì í fi ogundán èsò wò” “One does not taunt a warrior to a fight.” If a Yorùbá speaker was asked toremember more proverbs that begin with “A kì í ”, such a reminder of this openingstructure would enable them to remember quite a number of such proverbs. Then bychanging the grammatical subject from a 3rd person singular pronoun (the initial word “A”),other proverbs may also be remembered, such as “Òran kì í yè lórí alábaun” “Troubles neverfails to implicate the tortoise” (Owomoyela 1988:325). Having found that this “kì í”structure can also be found medially within a proverb, the researcher may use suchproverbs to help remind people of more proverbs with this structure, such as “ ‘Orun ńyabò!’ kì í se òràn enìkan” “‘The sky is falling!’ is no individual’s problem” (Owomoyela1988:327).Asking for proverbs based on a structure was productive for the author when hefound the Oromo proverb “‘The ground is nice, too,’ said the old woman, falling off of herhorse.” The author asked an Oromo friend for other proverbs quoting “the old woman.”Being reminded of this structure in a proverb, the Oromo quickly remembered three more.In a similar fashion, other languages have many proverbs quoting a specific character, suchas Twi where a number of proverbs begin with the structure “The tortoise says ” (Akrofi1958).5

A number of Somali proverbs are formed on the pattern, “Three are the marks of onewho ,” e.g. “Three are the marks of one who is a liar.” Finding proverbs in a pattern suchas this, the researcher can ask for more proverbs of this structural pattern.Similarly, in Spanish, Arora found that the introductory phrase “El que nace ” is veryproductive in proverbs, listing 125 of them (1968) then later documenting about 40 more(1998). Not surprisingly, in Portuguese (close both linguistically and geographically), shealso found 27 more (1998, appendix III).Other types of structures that may appear in proverbs include rhetorical questions,dialogues, questions and answers, comparisons. Also, there are likely to be proverbs whosestructure connects clauses with “if”, “because”, “even though”, “whenever”, etc. As anexample of the productivity of such a pattern, Owomoyela (1988) collected over 60proverbs in Yorùbá that begin with “Bí ”, the conjunction ‘if’.6. Asking People for Proverbs with Related Meanings.Using proverbs already gathered, proverb collectors can then use some of these toask people to think of proverbs that have similar meanings. For example, hearing a proverbthat reminds people to be generous, people may be able to think of more proverbs thatremind hearers to be generous. The meanings of the proverbs elicited may not always beso similar, but it is a useful way to help people think of proverbs in different ways.In a similar way, people can be asked to think of proverbs with opposite meanings,such as proverbs that advise contrary actions. For example, in Khmer, there is a proverbthat says “Too generous a nature makes one poor”, but also one that seems contradictory,“One with a generous nature will not be poor for long.” Similarly, in English we find “Lookbefore you leap” and “He who hesitates is lost.” Such contradictions can be on the surfacelevel, as in the Khmer pair, or the contradiction may be at a more abstract level of meaning,as in the English pair. In the process of collecting proverbs, it is unimportant if the proverbstruly are exactly opposite; the purpose of this technique is simply to help people think ofproverbs by suggesting categories of meaning.7. Using Proverbs from Nearby Languages.Another way to help people remember more of their proverbs is to mention proverbsfrom a nearby or related language to help them think of similar proverbs. This can be donefrom a language they know or by translation into their language. In the author’s experience,people are always fascinated by proverb collections from their neighbors, and it helps givevalue and motivation to work toward their own proverbs being collected and published. Theauthor once showed to an Ethiopian friend of the Silt’e people a newly published collectionof proverbs from Harari, a language closely related to Silt’e, with Amharic translations. Hewas enthralled, commenting that some were identical to proverbs in his language, whilesome were slightly different. This book was an important tool as the man worked with ateam that produced a book of proverbs in his language (Hussein and Awäl 1995). Publishedbook-length collections of proverbs are available for many languages of widercommunication, and articles containing shorter collections are available for a number ofother languages. For example, if a scholar is collecting proverbs from a Nigerian language,they should consider using a book such as Owomoyela’s (1988) A kì í: Yorùbá Proscriptiveand Prescriptive Proverbs. Or if doing proverb collection from an Ethiopian languagecommunity, using Cotter’s (1990) Salt for Stew: Proverbs and Sayings of the Oromo Peoplewould be helpful. Even an article of collected proverbs, though much shorter, can be useful.Such a collection of proverbs does not have to be in a language that the investigatorunderstands, as long as a member of the language community who can read it is part of theteam.Proverbs from related or nearby groups may also suggest structural patterns that arecommon in proverbs of the area. For example, proverbs from a number of languages ofIndia have enumerative constructions, such as “There exist three things which must becontrolled: lust, mind, and anger” (Doctor 1993:58). If collecting proverbs from a group6

near the Kannada, it would be wise to ask about proverbs of similar structure. As anotherexample, since both Georgian and Armenian proverbs are often built on dialogue (Sakayan1995), if eliciting proverbs from language communities near these groups, it would be wiseto seek proverbs with this structure.As an experiment, fifty Afghan proverbs ( were given to a man fromthe Brahui community in western Pakistan. His Dravidian language was not linguisticallyrelated to any language in Afghanistan, but his community shared a common religion and anumber of cultural features with Afghanistan. From these 50 Afghan proverbs, he wasreminded of 32 proverbs in his language (in some cases one proverb reminding him of twodifferent ones). He said of some, “We have that same proverb.” For others, he said, “Wehave a proverb that’s similar.”Sometimes the similarity was in both meaning and structure; when he heard “Toomany butchers spoil the cow,” he remembered the Brahui proverb “Too many midwivesmis-shape the baby’s head.” Sometimes he picked up on the meaning of a proverb and wasreminded of a Brahui proverb that had a similar application, though a different form, e.g. “Ifthere is only bread and onions, still have a happy face” reminded him of a very differentBrahui proverb instilling contentment. Listening to other proverbs, he was struck by aparticular word or phrase and reminded of an otherwise unrelated Brahui proverb thatcontained the same word or phrase. For example, the proverb “A broken hand can work,but a broken heart can’t,” reminded him of a Brahui proverb “A broken hand/arm alwayshangs from your neck.” The meanings of the two proverbs are totally different, but theidentical opening phrase of the Afghan proverb reminded him of the proverb in his ownlanguage.I consulted with a field worker collecting proverbs in a minority language in China.She found that a local proverb enthusiast from a minority group was a language purist andtended to withhold or reject vernacular proverbs that too closely matched proverbs fromstandard Chinese. However, in collecting proverbs, the assumed origin of a proverb shouldnot disqualify it from being included. In actual fact, many proverbs assumed by people tobe indigenous are borrowed across language lines, even if people assume they areindigenous. The fact that a proverb is used within the language community is enough toinclude it in a collection, even if its origin appears to be elsewhere. It may be helpful toremind such purists that proverbs migrate widely, being fully at home in several languages,so it is often not possible to identify a definite language of origin. For example, a proverb ofthe approximate form “No flies enter a mouth that is shut” is found in Spain, Ethiopia, andmany countries in between. It is embraced as a true local proverb in many places andshould not be excluded in any collection of proverbs because it is shared by the neighbors.During the collecting phase of research, the emphasis should be on collecting as broadly aspossible (Bryant 1945), questions of origin can be addressed later.8. Transcription and Cyclical Use of Techniques.Using this list of techniques will produce a significant number of proverbs. Bysystematically using these techniques cyclically, many more proverbs can be recalled.To expedite this, the proverbs that have been elicited and recorded should betranscribed, preferably by a native speaker. If a person who can write accurately in thevernacular is available, they can do this by on their own. If there is no establishedorthography for the language, the proverbs can be transcribed by some phonetic system,but such a form is much less accessible and useful to speakers of the language community.The medium for transcription will vary according to the ability of local transcriber: it may beas simple as writing proverbs on paper cards, or as sophisticated as keying them into acomputer database.After working to remember a large number of proverbs, the team of speakers needsa rest. This is a good time for the researcher to work with the transcription and writingnotes about those proverbs already collected. In addition to the proverbs themselves, for7

each entry there should be notes about keywords, topics, and structures that are found inthe proverb, (plus any notes about how a proverb is used). For example, in an entry for theHindi proverb “Clouds that thunder seldom rain,” the notes could include the keywords“cloud(s)”, “thunder”, “seldom”, “rain” and also the topics “weather”, “threaten”, and“bluff”.In future elicitation sessions, these notes are then used as an aid in preparingquestions that are likely to remind speakers of more proverbs. For example, if two proverbsare found that mention “scorpions”, then this suggests that there may be more proverbsabout scorpions. Or, if an enumerating proverb is noted, this will prompt the researcher toask for other enumerating proverbs. If proverbs about honoring elders are noted, thissuggests that people should be asked about more proverbs related to honoring elders, andalso about dishonoring them.By systematically following the clues provided by the key words, topics, andstructure of previously elicited proverbs, a researcher can help the team from the languagecommunity remember many additional proverbs in a s

in their language will only elicit a fraction of the proverbs in their language. The biggest hurdle is generally helping people to remember their proverbs in an artificial elicitation