Baskeet Proverbs (and the Difficulties in Documenting Proverbs)

When documenting the oral literature of a language in Ethiopia (and probably also elsewhere), local lay linguists and people interested in the promotion of their language often express – very early on – the wish that their proverbs be documented. Often the people expressing this wish already have a small collection of proverbs handwritten on loose sheets of paper or in an exercise book at home, and they are most willing to share this knowledge with a linguist.

When I worked on the Kambaata language, my assistant Tessema Handiso enjoyed it a lot to teach me the proverbs that he knew. When I printed a small collection of Kambaata oral literature to be distributed to the community at the end of my project, his proverbs were included in the booklet. During her fieldwork on the Alaaba language, my colleague Gertrud Schneider-Blum met an immensely dedicated Alaaba proverb collector, Shukuralla Mohammed, who shared more than 400 proverbs and the knowledge about their use with her. The valuable collection is published with an English translation and interlinear glosses in the book Proverbs finish the problems.

In Baskeet, I was also shown some small proverb collections that had been produced during school projects in the Basketo Special Woreda. While I am very happy to document what the speakers are especially interested in, I find proverbs a particularly challenging genre. At the beginning of the work on a language that one doesn’t know much about, it is tempting to collect proverbs because they are short, fairly naturally produced, non-elicited texts and they look – at first – so much more manageable than other texts that one could start to collect (e.g. stories). However, the density and brevity of the texts (usually consisting of only four to ten words) can make the grammatical analysis quite hard. It is not uncommon for proverbs to be verbless, to leave arguments unexpressed, to deviate from the regular constituent order of the language etc. They may also contain rare or obsolete vocabulary and grammatical structures.

And there may turn up additional challenges: Even if the grammatical structure of a proverb is quite straightforward, one often struggles with its translation and interpretation. A good knowledge of the cultural and social background is needed – at the least – to understand a proverb. The time spent to understand what a proverb means and when it is used to convey which kind of message is highly disproportionate to the time spent to record, transcribe and analyse it grammatically. In my experience, discussions between the linguist and the consultant(s) about the socio-cultural background and the meaning of a proverb can be very tiring for both sides and may often not lead to satisfactory translations and annotations, despite all efforts.

Beyond the question what a proverb means, I have also witnessed animated discussions about the genuineness of proverbs. Proverbs that were provided by one speaker were not considered genuine by another speaker, who qualified them as mere translational equivalents of proverbs from an other language (usually Amharic). As an outsider, it is difficult to resolve these disputes and all one can do is to state that, in fact, many proverbs are shared across languages of the area.

Finally, there is a terminological (lexical) problem associated with proverbs – at least in some languages in South Ethiopia. Although many languages have proverbs, they may not necessarily have a separate lexeme for this literature genre. In Kambaata, for instance, the word maa’uta is polysemous and denotes stories/fables and proverbs.* Consequently, I was sometimes told stories when I was looking for proverbs and vice versa.** While I have never heard the word for story (toss) being used to refer to proverbs in Baskeet (but I can’t exclude that people use it that way!), it was also difficult to get a translation for ‘proverb’ in Baskeet so that I could ask people for examples. I was given the term mayts’itts, which is related to the verb mayts’– ‘be like, seem’, and which is probably a loan translation of the Amharic term for proverbs and sayings, məssale (which is also derived from mässälä ‘be like, seem’).*** I’d be happy to know whether other languages in South Ethiopia also lack a “real” word for proverb.

If I have now managed to deter you from collecting proverbs during your fieldtrip, then this was not my intention. On the contrary, I believe that the native speakers’ wishes in a documentation project have to be respected to help the project be accepted and appreciated. Proverbs, however, may turn out not to be a good source for your linguistic analysis and your attempts to grasp their meaning and use could turn out to be very time-consuming. One would thus probably have to make do with recording, glossing and translating them literally.

But before this post ends in a too negative conclusion, I better include some Baskeet proverbs for you to enjoy (click on the proverb to enlarge; click on the recording link to listen to it being pronounced):

1. Provided by Ambaye Tsedeke (05 Jan 2011) [Recording Proverb 1]

2. Provided by Tamiru Admasu (10 Dec 2010) [Recording Proverb 2]

As explained to me, the above proverb can be used when a person praises himself and his past achievements while he is unable today to accomplish even the easiest tasks.

3. Taken from a proverb collection of the Saattsa School (analysed with Dutse Tamiru, 20 Jan 2009) [Recording Proverb 3]

Tentative message: Like a cat does not profit from the abundant milk production in its master’s house, there are situations where people, contrary to what others believe, do not benefit from the wealth of people around them.

© 2011-2 Baskettoethiopia All Rights Reserved

* Note that Kambaata stories often end a proverb (i.e. a moral).
** There is a word yanna ‘proverb, quotation’ (probably related to the verb y– ‘say’) that is used in the Kambaata schoolbooks to refer to proverbs. I am not sure how common the use of this term is in ordinary/daily language.
*** Source: Kane, Thomas Leiper 1990. Amharic-English Dictionary. Vol. 1. Pp. 202, 205. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
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