A Proverbial Gold Mine

by A. Scott Moreau and Mike O’Rear

In this installment of Missions on the Web, we provide you with access to proverbs from around the world.

“A beautiful maxim in the memory is like a piece of gold in the purse.”
—French proverb

Proverbs — we love hearing new ones that put twists on life. They can make us laugh, they can make us pause, they can make us think more deeply, they can stop (or start) an argument. These capsule-like statements are the bread and butter of life in many societies, and are found in every culture. They capture the essence of wisdom (“wisdom is easy to carry but difficult to gather”) and foolishness (“don’t think you are eloquent just because a fool applauds you”) in each culture, cajole us to be better people (“if you follow an elephant through the high grass, you don’t get soaked with the dew”), point out our foibles (“a wise man never knows all, only fools know everything”), reveal our evil tendencies (“when the tree is down, everyone runs to it with a hatchet to cut wood”) and make witty observations on life (“bald people can always find a comb”).

Missionaries who learn a new language are surprised to hear how often proverbs are used in daily conversation. They are also learning the virtues of using them in ministry (e.g., Nussbaum 2002; Moon 2004). Learning them and using them correctly is part of the culture-learning process that is necessary if you are to communicate well in a new culture. In this installment of Missions on the Web, we provide you with access to proverbs from around the world. We suspect—but can’t prove—that there are proverbs available not only for every country, but even for every people group, of the world. We previously supplied proverbs links as a subset of a page on storytelling (Moreau and O’Rear 2004). We have taken what we did there and greatly expanded it for this article. The links page we provide is located at: www.mislinks.org/topics/proverbs.htm;1 browse there and take a look for yourself, since we don’t have space to describe all of them.

Several sites offer proverbs from a variety of countries around the world. Creative Proverbs (creativeproverbs.com/) offers a searchable database of twelve thousand proverbs; you can browse 1,500 of them. Searching on the term “tired” yields thirteen proverbs, such as “what makes you tired makes you stronger.” Clicking on Browse brings you to a page of countries for which proverbs are available. For Zimbabwe, there are five proverbs, including the observation, “a coward has no scar.” One Proverb (oneproverb.net/) lets you search or select from twenty-two lists (from Afghani to Zen). Alternately, you can click for a random proverb from the collection (we received “loving someone that does not love you is like loving the rain that falls in the forest”), get files for use on a PDA or IPod, or set up an RSS feed.

Proverb Resources (cogweb.ucla.edu/Discourse/Proverbs/index.html) offers several selections, including definitions (cogweb.ucla.edu/Discourse/Proverbs/Definitions.html), more than forty collections (not all in English) and links to journals and organizations, online articles, and reference resources.

Proverbatim (www.proverbatim.com/) offers twenty-five thousand proverbs from 140 countries and cultures from Afghan (sixty-nine proverbs) to Zulu (twenty-eight proverbs). The number of proverbs per country range from Germany with 2,196 to Mozambique (and several others) with ten.

Quotationz.com (www.quotationz.com/proverbs.asp) provides links to proverbs from 196 designations from “Unknown Origin” (4,808 proverbs) to Zulu (sixteen proverbs; “do not speak of a rhinoceros if there is no tree nearby”), but was so loaded with ads that we feel it important to warn you away from the site.

Wikiquote: Proverbs (en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Category:Proverbs) is a growing collection of pages that is part of the Wikipedia family of websites. It offers lists of proverbs on 101 pages, ranging from countries (Albanian) to cultures (Punjabi). Some are very extensive (Germany) while others are mostly shells needing to be filled (Frisian).

Wise Old Sayings (www.wiseoldsayings.com/wosdirectory.htm) offers a search option or a list by alphabet (of the first word in English). It is not possible to look for a country, and the search option searches the entire site rather than just the proverbs.

World of Proverbs (www.geocities.com/fiqabil/) offers proverbs from thirty locations. Clicking on one of the entries brings you to a second set of categories (mankind, geographic, flora ‘n fauna, object, and other). Click on one of those to see a short list of proverbs for that category. Once you are in a category, you can use the arrow keys at the bottom of the page to navigate within the source. The site has an annoying list of Yahoo Geocities ads on the right-hand column.

World of Quotes: Proverbs (www.worldofquotes.com/proverb/index.html) offers proverbs in 348 categories (including nations and sub-national categories such as “American, Dutch”). Most of the categories have fewer than twenty-five proverbs, but a few have several hundred (e.g., Italian with 1,463).

The Matti Kuusi International Database of Proverbs (lauhakan.home.cern.ch/lauhakan/int/cerpint.html) is an indexed database of not just proverbs but also a massive bibliography linked to languages. The introduction to the site notes that “Matti Kuusi was the professor of Finnish and Comparative Folk Poetry Studies (today called folkloristics) at the University of Helsinki from 1959 to 1977.” At the end of his career he donated his entire collection to the library of the Finnish Literature Society, and the proverbs are available online. Kuusi was particularly interested in how widespread proverbs are, and every proverb in the database comes with a tag to indicate that.

In the search function you can search for particular words. You can also choose to browse the database by the thirteen main classes (from “the practical knowledge of nature” to “time and sense of time”), fifty-two subcategories, or 325 sub-subcategories. Click on this option (lauhakan.home.cern.ch/lauhakan/intmenu/index.html), choose a category, and then choose a sub-category. Once you choose a third level category, a frame opens up on the right side. In the frame is a list of all the proverb types within the major category, with the particular choice you made highlighted in green. Click on the label (e.g., C1) and you will see the proverbs of that type. If you want the associated bibliography for that label, click to the link above the table in the right frame. The logical divisions are easy to see and the display is easy to read once you are used to using the browsing system. This is a fascinating collection and winner of our blue ribbon award for its comprehensive nature, coherent categorization, and helpful bibliographies.

Of course, our intention is to provide access to proverbs as a help to missionary work and missiological thinking. The Network for Strategic Missions Knowledge Base (www.strategicnetwork.org/index.php?loc=kb&view=b&fto=1722&sf=Y) had ten articles dealing with proverbs (not the book in the Bible) when we checked. Each is worth reading.

The last resource we mention is the Wikipedia article on Proverb (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proverb). This is a great overview and includes important vocabulary, sources for further study, and links to additional websites. If the formal study of proverbs is new to you, this makes an excellent place to start.

In putting our MisLinks page together, we decided to offer the general collections and then subdivide the rest by geographic domain. Because there is not enough space to offer more than a representative sample for any of the continental regions, we chose a few countries in each to list. If the country where you serve is not included, we encourage you to use the Google (www.google.com/Top/Society/Folklore/Literature/Proverbs_and_Sayings/) and Yahoo (dir.yahoo.com/Reference/Quotations/Proverbs __Idioms__and_Sayings/) directories to see if it is in their list, as well as those global resources that have country or people group lists as described above. In addition, searching through a search engine for proverbs from the country, people group, or language by name will get you more specific resources than we have space to offer. In what follows, we will restrict our presentation to a country from each of the main geographic areas that we have identified as a representative sample of the types of links you can find on the whole page.

The most missiologically aware of all the sites on proverbs we found is the African Proverbs, Sayings, and Stories site (www.afriprov.org/), and for that reason it gets our second blue ribbon award. The site includes features such as: the African proverb of the month (www.afriprov.org/resources/proverbs.htm), the weekly African proverbs, an African proverbs calendar, a message board, and an online African stories database (www.afriprov.org/story/searchstory.htm). The proverb of the month includes the meaning of the proverb, the use of the proverb, and an application of the proverb, including biblical parallel(s). This is especially helpful for those who want to see how to move from understanding the proverb to using it in ministry settings. Additionally, John Pobee’s entire book, Proverbs and African Christianity, is available in pdf format from the Africa Proverbs site (www.afriprov.org/ebooks/pobeeforweb.pdf).

There are several sites offering proverbs from Kenya. Two of the sites noted in the world collections section above have proverbs from Kenya listed in two different sections: Proverbatim (www.proverbatim.com/kenyan/) and Wikiquote (Kikuyu: en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Kikuyu_proverbs; Swahili: en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Swahili_proverbs).

Kanga Writings (www.glcom.com/hassan/kanga.html) takes advantage of the popularity of the kanga (dyed cloth used as a wrap-around skirt or dress). Many have sayings on them, and this is a collection of over 140 of those sayings with the original Swahili saying, the translation, and the common meaning of the proverb. Swahili proverbs (www.mwambao.com/methali.htm) lists 384 Swahili proverbs with English translations but no explanation. The colors of the site (black background with blue links on the left) make the navigation links difficult to see.

With over four thousand years of continuous history, it is not surprising that there are numerous collections of Chinese proverbs available on the web. Three of the sites noted in the world collections section above have proverbs from China: Proverbatim (www.proverbatim.com/chinese/), Wikiquote (en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Chinese_proverbs), and World of Quotes (www.worldofquotes.com/proverb/Chinese/1/index.html).

Chinese Proverbs (compiled by Haiwang Yuan; www.wku.edu/~yuanh/China/proverb.html) lists several hundred proverbs. They are listed alphabetically by the pinyin spelling of the Chinese together with English translations and interpretations. The Culture link on the same page (www.wku.edu/%7Eyuanh/China/culture.html) offers links to Chinese stories as well.

The Sayings of Confucius (www.bartleby.com/44/1/) is an online e-text offered through Bartleby.com in html format. Each chapter is a separate page from the others; the site has almost as much ad space as text space, but at least the content is available. At the bottom of each chapter is an arrow to navigate forward or backward by one chapter.

While not specific to any country in the Middle East, several sites offer Arabic proverbs: One Proverb (oneproverb.net/arabicmid.html), Wikiquote (en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Arabic_proverbs), and World of Quotes (www.worldofquotes.com/proverb/Arabic/1/index.html).

Afghanistan has been a focus in world news for the past two decades. Like China, it has a rich heritage of proverbs that are available on the web. Two of the sites noted in the world collections section above have proverbs from Afghanistan: Proverbatim (www.proverbatim.com/afghan/) and One Proverb (oneproverb.net/afghanimid.html).

Afghana (afghana.com/SocietyAndCulture/proverbs.html) offers roughly one hundred proverbs with English equivalents and brief explanations.

The final region we will touch upon is Europe, which offers the richest collection of any of the continental regions we explored. Russian culture is a bridge between Europe and Asia, and many proverbs of life have arisen from that rich mix.

A good overview is provided in “European Proverbs” (www.vein.hu/library/proverbs/european.htm) by Gyula Paczolay (University of Veszprém, Hungary). Three of the sites noted in the world collections section above have proverbs from Russia: One Proverb (oneproverb.net/bwfolder/russianbw.html), Proverbatim (www.proverbatim.com/russian/),and World of Quotes (www.worldofquotes.com/proverb/Russian/1/index.html).

Russian Proverbs and Sayings (www.friends-partners.org/oldfriends/literature/russian-proverbs.html) is a collection of eighty-two proverbs from A Book of English and Russian Proverbs and Sayings (Dubrovin 1993).

An Irish proverb says that “a friend’s eye is a good mirror.” We hope you will be that mirror for us. Let us know of sites we missed. If you want, collect sites for a country we did not list and send the list for posting; we will be glad to add it to our MisLinks collection.

1. All URLS are assumed to start with http:// unless otherwise noted.

Dubrovin, M. 1993. A Book of English and Russian Proverbs and Sayings. Moscow, Prosvesheniye.

Moon, Jay. 2004. “Sweet Talk in Africa, Using Proverbs in Ministry.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 40(2): 162-169.

Moreau, A. Scott and Mike O’Rear. 2004. “Missions on the Web: And So the Story Goes…Web Resources on Storytelling, Myths and Proverbs.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 40(2): 236-242.

Nussbaum, Stan. 2002. “Goads, Or… Missiological Proverbs.” Connections 1(3): 28-29.


A. Scott Moreau is editor of EMQ and a professor in the Intercultural Studies department at Wheaton College Graduate School (Wheaton, Ill.). His email address is A.S.Moreau@wheaton.edu, and the Wheaton Missions Department web address is www.wheaton.edu/intr.

Mike O’Rear is the president of Global Mapping International (Colorado Springs, Colo.), which is dedicated to providing access to information for church and mission leaders, especially in the Two-thirds World. His email address is mike@gmi.org, and the GMI web address is www.gmi.org.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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