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Culture

No pain, no gain: Why we still speak in proverbs

From "early bird" to "gift horse," there's a proverb for every situation. While they don't hold absolute truth, parents and advertisers find them useful. Wolfgang Mieder tells DW how to create one - and how they die.

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German proverbs

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DW: What's the difference between a proverb and a saying or slogan - or simply any other phrase?

Wolfgang Mieder: The definition of a proverb is incredibly complicated. You'd think there'd be nothing simpler, but there are literally dozens if not hundreds of attempts to define it. I'd say that a proverb can be defined as a widely known, fixed sentence that concisely expresses a maxim or piece of wisdom. A proverb must be a complete thought and sentence.

A saying is more of a visual expression that first has to be inserted into a sentence and expresses more of a visual image than a piece of universal wisdom.

Like, as the Germans would say, "Abwarten und Tee trinken" (Wait it out and drink tea)?

Exactly. Or, "Hit the nail on the head."

What do proverbs say about the culture they come from?

There are many proverbs that date back to classical antiquity. Like, "Big fish eat little fish." Or, "One hand washes the other." Then there are dozens of proverbs from the Bible in our European languages, like "Man shall not live by bread alone," or "Pride comes before a fall."

Then there are medieval Latin proverbs like "All that glitters is not gold." These are proverbs that have been translated into languages like German, English, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, and Russian. So it's difficult to say, if we take "One hand washes the other," that Germans have a particular way of working together. You can really only say that proverbs only slightly express the character of a nation - when we're taking about proverbs that only exist in German.

Wolfgang Mieder, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa

Wolgang Mieder, a native of Germany, is a professor at the University of Vermont

I published "A Dictionary of American Proverbs" in 1992, but actually the title was a bit silly. It should be called, "A Dictionary of Proverbs That Are Used in America."

My favorite American proverb is "Different strokes for different folks." I'm convinced that it never would have come about in Germany because the idea of developing yourself freely and independently of your neighbors is not exactly normal in Germany.

Would you say that a proverb says more about the zeitgeist than about the culture?

That's also true. Here's an example: "Morgenstunde hat Gold im Munde" (The morning hour has gold in its mouth). I've just discussed that in my new book. The earliest reference was in 1570, when it was called "Morgenstunde hat Arbeit im Munde" (The morning hour has work in its mouth). Then we have a reference from 1669 which reads: "Morgenstunde hat Brot im Munde" (The morning hour has bread it its mouth), which also makes sense. Up until 50 years ago, "Morgenstunde hat Gold im Munde" was by far the most popular German proverb, which has been proven with statistical studies.

You know the proverb, "Der frühe Vogel fängt den Wurm" (The early bird catches the worm). That's actually an English proverb that's just as popular in the US. After 1945, with the onslaught of Americanisms, it permeated the German language so much that statistically speaking both the German and English proverbs are used equally. I have the feeling that the German youth are just sick and tired of the silly Morgenstunde proverb. But they mean the same thing.

When you research the origins of proverbs, where do you start?

Proverbs are ubiquitous. In my own career path, that's given me the opportunity in my chosen home, America, to do more than narrow German language studies, since proverbs give me a key to all areas - from art history, anthropology, literary history and cultural history to journalism and communications.

Symbolic image of a head with a hole in it, Copyright: Colourbox

Proverbs are used in researching mental health

You could take any topic and ask which role proverbs play - even schizophrenia research. Proverbs are increasingly being used for schizophrenia, Alzheimer, and so forth, to find out what metaphors do to our brains.

Journalists also like to work with proverbs because they know that we know them - and then they play around with them. That's a phenomenon I once called "anti-proverb."

Günter Grass unfortunately passed away recently, but you could also look at his works and examine the role proverbs play.

Is it possible to create a proverb? Isn't that basically what ad agencies do?

If you take a look at textbooks for advertising, there's always a chapter on slogan writing. Take "Different strokes for different folks." That's basically a formula that can be replaced with other things: "Different X for different Y."

The largest collection of German proverbs that we have was compiled from 1867 to 1880 by Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander and is called "Deutsches Sprichwörter Lexicon." There are 250,000 proverbs in it. But how many does a typical native speaker know? Our passive knowledge incorporates perhaps 300. So how can there be 250,000?

An average proverb contains seven words. I'll take a shorter English example: "No pain, no gain." We'd just need to replace X and Y and we could invent at least another 100 proverbs that use this formula.

Let's say we want to invent a proverb - something like, "No Deutsche Welle, no good entertainment." Then your colleagues would first have to start repeating it.

Then you need a marketing department.

Yes. Every proverb begins as an individual statement. First it's a saying that we attribute to a particular person. Later, we forget who said it. A good example is "Die Axt im Haus erspart den Zimmermann" (literally, an axe in the house spares the carpenter). That came from Friedrich Schiller in "Wilhelm Tell."

Günter Grass is pictured with Willy Brandt in 1976, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Klar.

Günter Grass (left) is pictured with Willy Brandt in 1976

What are some sayings that could graduate to proverbs in 50 years?

A good example comes from Willy Brandt. As a politician, he played a very important role in Germany's reunification. At that time, he said many things that stuck around, like "Kleine Schritte sind besser als keine Schritte" (Small steps are better than no steps). I think that many Germans still remember that Willy Brandt said that. In my opinion, it's already a proverb, but it doesn't exist in any lexicon.

And a proverb has to make it into a lexicon to be considered one?

Someone has to make a decision at some point and say, by golly, that's a proverb.

In Mannheim at the Institute for German Language we have a huge databank full of German texts, especially from newspapers. There we can check whether a text like "Small steps are better than no steps" has been written 50,000 times. That helps to decide whether it's well known enough. But a certain amount of subjectivity is involved.

A text can go from being a one-of-a-kind, to being a saying whose author we know, to finally becoming an anonymous proverb. Here's a nice American example: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." We know that Teddy Roosevelt said it for the first time in 1900. A proverb doesn't have to be 100 percent anonymous. Every proverb was at one time invented by an individual.

We've talked about how proverbs are born. But how do they die?

It has in part to do with subjective decisions, when people say they won't use one any more. Proverbs that die are those that contain an image that is no longer current. In German we say "Schuster bleib bei deinem Leisten." A German teenager won't have a problem with the word "Schuster" (cobbler). But a German pupil might have trouble with the word "Leisten" (last). In English, the proverb is "Cobbler stick to your last." My students have two difficulties: Most of them don't know what a cobbler is, and they definitely don't know what a last is. The proverb is essentially dead.

Press microphone, Copyright: Fotolia/THPStock

Both the press and politicians love speaking in proverbs

Finally, it's important to mention that proverbs are not a philosophical system. They contradict each other. They're just like our lives: something happy, sometimes sad. Here are two English examples: Absence makes the heart grow fonder" and "Out of sight out of mind." Which proverb would you use when you daughter is lovesick? We choose the proverb that fits the situation.

Wolfgang Mieder is a world-renowned expert on proverbs and is professor of German and folklore at the University of Vermont. He has published numerous books on German and English proverbs, including "A Dictionary of American Proverbs" (1992). His most recent book, "'Goldene Morgenstunde' und 'Früher Vogel'. Zu einem Sprichwoerterpaar in Literatur, Medien und Karikaturen" was released in summer 2015. In 2012, he was awarded the European Folklore Prize.

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