When I was in the Peace Corps, in Mali, West Africa, I used the gathering of proverbs and colloqualisms as a tool to learn Bambara, the local language. Turns out the Malians are big on proverbs, especially the elders who use them as ways to offer advice to the young.
Dooni, dooni, kanoni be so dila.
In English: Little by little, the bird builds his nest.
Meaning: The Malian version of “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Dow be dow don, tow be dow don.
In English: Some people know one thing, others know another thing.
Meaning: You can’t know it all and that’s okay.
I always got excited when I discovered a proverb or phrase in Bambara that correlated with one in English. I remember learning that “to put your foot in your mouth” was exactly the same in Bambara and English—meaning that you had said something really stupid.
Cool! I knew that was a phrase I could use often.
The first time I used it (hoping to impress with my Bambara language skills) I got the word for foot (sen) mixed up with the word for breast (siin).
You should have seen the look on that guy’s face.
I’ve been collecting proverbs for a long time. Not surprisingly, they have intertwined with my writing life in a lot of ways.
PROVERBS AS WRITING PROMPTS
When I get stuck during my journaling time, with no idea what to write next, I reach for a proverb. There’s always something there that gooses my muse and gets the words flowing.
I have several books of proverbs that I keep close by:
- African Proverbs from Peter Pauper Press;
- “When the Road Is Long, Even Slippers Feel Tight” A Collection of Latin American Proverbs, by Roberto Quesada.
- Japanese Proverbs & Traditional Phrases, from Peter Pauper Press;
- The Soul Would Have No Rainbow If the Eyes Had No Tears and Other Native American Proverbs, by Guy A. Zona.
PROVERBS ARE GOOD FOR ARM CHAIR TRAVELING
Proverbs are almost as good as world travel, because through them you can learn about a people and their beliefs. Every culture and religion has embraced the pithy proverb as a way to express values and share advice.
- From the preface to Japanese Proverbs
Proverbs are time-honored sayings that pack a lot of meaning in a small space. For example:
Proverbs are reminders of the universality of human experience:
A loose tooth will not rest until it’s pulled out.
- Ethiopian proverb
They can shake a finger at you:
It’s a fine sermon about fasting when the preacher just had lunch.
- Ecuadorian proverb
Or encourage caution:
First we drink the wine
Then the wine drinks the wine
Then the wine drinks us.
- Japanese proverbProverbs can be funny:
He on whose head we would break a coconut never stands still.
- African proverbOr offer encouragement:
If we wonder often, the gift of knowledge will come.
- Arapaho proverbSome proverbs can be really obscure:
There are old men of three: children of a hundred.
- Japanese proverbHuh?!
Sometimes a proverb seems to speak directly to the issue I am currently struggling with in my writing life, like revision:
If you are building a house and a nail breaks, do you stop building or do you change the nail?
- Rwandan proverb
What about you? Have you ever been affected by a proverb? Ever used one to spark your writing?