American Proverbs: An International, National, and Global Phenomenon

By Mieder, Wolfgang | Western Folklore, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

American Proverbs: An International, National, and Global Phenomenon


Mieder, Wolfgang, Western Folklore


ABSTRACT

Many of the proverbs current in the United States have their origin in classical times, the Bible, and the Middle Ages. As such, they were translated into many languages over the centuries, making up a common stock of proverbial wisdom in large parts of the world. But new proverbs were also coined in the United States with some of them having only a regional distribution while others belong to the basic set of commonly known American proverbs with a national dissemination. With the important political and cultural role of the United States and its version of the English language in the world today, both sets of proverbs, the international and national texts, have now a significant global influence. With English being the lingua franca of the modern age, Anglo-American proverbs are being disseminated throughout the world in English or as loan translations. In fact, English-language proverbs are now playing the role that Latin proverbs did in former times. In addition, the new American proverbs with their worldview of a democratic and future-oriented society also have a considerable influence on the sociopolitical discourse on the globe. KEYWORDS: American, dissemination, English, global, international, loan translation, national, proverb, regional, worldview

Proverbs as one of the smallest ubiquitous folklore genres have been collected and studied since die beginning of written records. Both paremiographers and paremiologists have been hard at work at publishing collections and treatises throughout the world. In fact, proverb scholarship has reached such a phenomenal level of accomplishment that it is difficult for the fledgling proverb scholar to deal with the plethora of valuable information (see Moll 1958, Mieder 1982, 1990, 1993, 2001). And yet, as is true for most intellectual endeavors, there still remains much work to be done in both areas of proverb studies. The varied use and function of proverbs as cultural signs and strategically placed rhetorical devices need to be investigated in much more detail by paying attention to different historical periods (Burke 1941, Seitel 1969, Obelkevich 1987, Profantová 1998). Much can also still be learned by socio- and psycholinguistic approaches that look at proverbs from the point of view of cognition, comprehension, and communication (Mieder 2003a). Above all, much more attention should be paid to the continued employment of proverbs in the modern age of technology, the mass media, the internet, and general globalization (Mieder 1993). But additional proverb collections based on serious lexicographical principles are also a definite desideratum, including regional, national, and international compilations. While much is known about common European proverbs, it is high time to assemble comprehensive and comparative African as well as Near and Far Eastern proverb collections. Such compendia will eventually enable paremiographers to isolate fundamental proverb types that connect peoples through common wisdom all over the world (Mieder 1990, Grigas 1996, 2000a). The following discussion represents an attempt to show how American proverbs relate to these issues as an international, national (also regional) , and global phenomenon.

THE INTERNATIONAL BASE OF AMERICAN PROVERBS

The sub-field of comparative paremiography can indeed look back on a strong tradition with several hundred polyglot collections having been assembled during the past centuries. This is especially the case for European proverbs with their common classical, Biblical, and Medieval Latin origins. However, many of these collections are mere enumerations of texts without any scholarly apparatus revealing the origin and historical dissemination of such common proverbs. It is for this reason that the Lithuanian paremiographer and paremiologist Kazys Grigas some thirty years ago was justified to begin the introduction to his significant comparative proverb collection Lietuviif potarles (1976) with the statement that "the correlation between national and international elements in proverbs of different nations has received very little attention" (Grigas 1976:294) . …

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