Yoruba Proverbs

By Prahlad, Anand | Western Folklore, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview
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Yoruba Proverbs


Prahlad, Anand, Western Folklore


Yoruba Proverbs. By Oyekan Owomoyela. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. Pp. xii + 502, acknowledgments, introduction, bibliography. $29.95 paper)

Oyekan Owomoyela's massive collection of over five thousand Yoruba proverbs is the largest of its kind to date and is a major contribution to African proverb study. In the tradition of earlier proverb collections, it is divided into chapters suggesting social themes: "The Good Person," "The Fortunate Person (Or die Good Life)," "Relationships," "Human Nature," "Rights and Responsibilities" and "Truisms." Each proverb is given in Yoruba, followed by an English translation and a brief explanation of the proverb's meaning. The obvious strengths of Yoruba Proverbs include the breadth of the collection and the commentary on each proverb. The introductory essay is impressive as well. Directed toward an audience of contemporary proverb scholars, it touches on topics of major concern to paremiologists. For example, Owomoyela engages the issue of what constitutes a proverb and how the Yoruba category of owe compares to the English-language genre "proverb"; he considers proverbial phrases, proverbial comparisons, euphemisms, and Wellerisms - forms that have been debated by proverb scholars - and concludes that the Yoruba "true" proverb, or owe, does not encompass such associated forms; he also explores the aesthetics and function of Yoruba proverbs.

The author's treatment of other topics in the introduction, though, is puzzling. For instance, his discussion of gender and contextual performance reflects attitudes surprising for a contemporary scholar, more consistent with proverb study of the early twentieth century than with more recent developments in the field. Acknowledging that a substantial number of Yoruba proverbs can be considered derogatory toward women, he explains these "manifestations of apparent male disparagement of or irreverence toward women" (15, italics in original) as responses to awe and veneration of women in Yoruba society, as "stratagems to relieve some of the tension born of the imperative of veneration" (15). While he acknowledges that sexism is an issue addressed by contemporary proverb scholars, he resists the idea that sexist attitudes could exist among the Yoruba.

Similarly disturbing is the author's emphatic argument against both contextualization and sourcing of proverbs. He states that such considerations are applicable to certain longer genres - epics, tales, praises, divination verses - but not to proverbs, and that "hardly ever does a user's individual signature inflect proverb usage, in either Yoruba or English" (26). While the traditional format of proverb collections does make it difficult to include such information as the names of specific performers or descriptions of situations in which proverbs are spoken, and most readers would not expect such information, one does wonder why the author presents what seems to be an ideological position on the issue, and why, since he raises the issue, he fails to consider seriously key works that do embrace a contextual approach, for instance, Kwesi Yankah's The Proverb in the Context of Akan Rhetoric (1989).

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