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On the Sources, Functions and Rhetorical Devices of English Proverbs

[Abstract] Proverbs, in colorful and vivid language, reflect important typical cultural values of every culture . Simple and popular, concise and pithy, they are passed on from gengeration to generation in the readable oral form and have gradually become a component indispensable to the dominant culture of that nation.
This paper contains three parts:  the sources of English proverbs、 the functions of English proverbs and the rhetorical devices of English proverbs.
Firstly, it introduces the sources of English proverbs. Proverbs have a long history.  They are brief and well-polished expressions embedded in philosophical ideas concerning different aspects of life. They are the summary of people experience in everyday life, so they originated from people’s daily life and experience. To be specific, they come from folk life, religion, mythology, literary works, other languages, famous writers’ wisdom, a nation’s history and so on.
Secondly, it mentions the function of English proverbs. Its function is to teach and advise people what they see in their lives. Many English proverbs guide people to adopt a correct attitude towards life and to take a proper way to get along well with others. Some other proverbs tell people what to do and how to do it, so the proverbs guide people’s daily life. From them, people may broaden their knowledge and outlook.
Thirdly, it describes their rhetorical devices. English proverbs are rich and colorful. With regard to the everlasting charm of the English proverbs, there are many different reasons. The most important one is the extensive use of rhetorical devices and rhythmatical ways, so their language is full of image and vividness and has a strong artistic beauty and power.
[Key Words] English proverbs; sources; functions; rhetorical devices


【摘 要】  谚语丰富多彩,生动隽永,反映了每个民族追崇的重要而独特的文化价值观。谚语简单通俗,精辟凝练,尤其以朗朗的口语形态承传沿用,渐渐成为民族主流文化不可缺少的一部分。
【关键词】 英语谚语;来源;功能;修辞格

1. Introduction
Proverbs are short sayings of folk wisdom of well-known facts or truths compendious expressed and in a way that makes them easy to remember. Because the proverbs are so brief, they have universal appeal. Many people love to pick up proverbs. The use of one or two in the original language is often a minor victory for the beginning foreign language learners. Proverbs may provide interesting little glimpses or clues to a people’s geography, history, social organization, social views, and attitudes. People who live along seacoasts and whose livelihood is dependent on the sea will have proverbs about sailing, about braving the weather, about fish and fishing. In cultures where old age is revered, there will be proverbs about the wisdom of the elders. And in societies where women’s status is low, there will be a number of sayings demeaning them.
Proverbs tell much about a people's traditional ways of experiencing reality, about the proper or expected ways of doing things, about values and warnings, and rules and wisdoms the elders want to impress on the minds of their young. The important character of proverbs ‘the shorter the better’ makes it easy to commit them to memory for ready recall when the occasion calls for serious or humorous comment or warning. Created by people in high and low status, humble folk and great authors, borrowed from ancient or neighboring cultures, proverbs have been accumulating over many centuries. Some are only locally known; many are shared around the world. If one wants to have better knowledge of English culture, he should be familiar with the sources and functions of English proverbs.

2. The sources of English proverbs
2.1 Originating from folk life
Proverbs are the summary of people experience in their everyday life. The summarized experience and reason are abstracted from the practice of people’s life and work. They express people’s simple and healthy thoughts, feelings and sentiments. More often than not, it reveals a universal truth from a particular point so as to enlighten people.
A great number of proverbs were created by working people such as seamen, hunters, farmers, workmen, housewives and cooks and so on, using familiar terms that were associated with their own trades and occupations. For example, Living without the aim is like sailing without a compass was first used by seamen; If you run after two hares, you will catch neither by hunters; April rains for corn, May, for grass by farmers; New broom sweeps clean by housewives and Too many cooks spoil the broth by cooks, etc. Such expressions were all colloquial and informal and once confined to a limited group of people engaged in the same trade or activity. But they were proved to be vivid, and forcible and stimulating, so later they broke out of their bounds and gradually gained wide acceptance. As a result, their early stylistic features faded in some way and many have come to become part of the common core of language, now being used in different occasions.
Some proverbs are related to some folk practice and customs. For example, Good wine needs no bush.[1] This proverb is from an ancient popular English practice. In the past, English wine merchants tended to hang some ivy bushes or a picture of ivy bushes on their doors as a symbol of wine selling. But some merchant’s wine was so good that it can’t be ignored without sign.  This in fact shows the past common practice that merchants of different trades would hang different particular things as signs for their goods.
Another example is involved with people’s wedding practice. English people believed that if the weather were fine and sunny on a girl-wedding day, the girl would most probably enjoy a happy marriage life. Otherwise, all sorts of misfortunes and tragedies would befall on her. Because of this custom, English people have got a proverb Happy is the bride that sun shines on.[2] This proverb originated from the common practice in ancient China. In the past, young girls didn’t have the right to decide whom to marry. Their parents had the final decision in their marriage. Usually, the parents would ask a matchmaker for help. The matchmaker went between two families and passed on the messages. Finally, the girl’s parents made the final decision whether the girl would marry the chosen boy or not. This is known as arranged marriage. Such a marriage, more often than not, would lead the couple to an unhappy life. Because they seldom or even never saw each other before, they knew even little about the other party’s behavior or manners, let alone his/her personality or virtues. It was often beyond the couple’s hopes to enjoy a happy marriage.
    Some proverbs came from ancient people deeply rooted beliefs such as their superstitious tendency and belief. In the past, English people believed that if a person spoiled salt from the salt bottle, misfortune and bad luck would follow. Then this person must scatter the spoiled salt from their left shoulders so as to drive off their ill luck. In turn, English people have got the proverb Help me to salt and you help me to sorrow. [3] Some proverbs come from people’s distinction between sexes such as their discrimination against women. It comes from a deeply rooted traditional viewpoint. Such as Three women and a goose make a market; Long hair and short wit; The more women look in their glass,the less they look to their house.
2.2 Originating from religion
Bible is essential for British and American cultures. It is said that their cultures are not integrated without Bible. It is safe to say that Bible influences every aspect of its disciples’ life. Consequently, many sayings and sentences in Bible have been popularly accepted. They have been deeply rooted among people and people frequently use them to cite a truth or express their ideas without paying any attention to their origins any more. These sayings are no longer only confined to religion and they have become proverbs which reflect English people religious faith such as Every man must carry his own cross This proverb is from Bible, Matthew, on the grounds of Matthew, the main idea is like this: “As the soldiers went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry Jesus’ cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a skull), they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watching over him. Over his head they put the charge against, which read, “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.””[4] From this, we can know that cross means sufferings. The proverb tends to tell us that everyone should put up with misery in daily life and undertake the life’s burden.
Another proverb is also from the Bible: One doesn’t live only by bread. It is from the Bible, Deuteronomy, the general idea is: “ Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with Manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”[5] From this, we can know that material is not the only thing that is indispensable to men. Spirit is also very important. Is one is only searched for material, he will be considered as animals, for the most distinctive characteristic between men and animals is that men have pursuit of spirit but animals haven’t. Many images in these proverbs have didactic meanings.
English people believe in Christianity, which is by far the most influential religion in the west. Every aspect of man’s life is touched by this religion, so that it has become part of western culture. And the Bible, which includes the Old Testament and the New Testament, is regarded as the scriptures. Almost every family has a version of Bible, so it has come to be one of the major sources of English culture. Many English proverbs show the doctrines of their religion. For example, Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.[6]According to the doctrines of Bible: all human beings are brothers and sisters, and they should help each other. So when you give hands to others, never keep the memory that you have helped them. Another example, If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch. [7] It implies that if one has little knowledge, it is difficult for him to teach others some useful things. Even if he tried to help others, he would do nothing good to them.
2.3 Originating from literary works
Many English proverbs involve events or characters of English literature, especially from Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s insight into human beings, his sensitivity to the problem of state, and his genius with words have left an everlasting mark on the English language and the thinking of English-speaking people all over the world. Native speakers of English quote his works every day, often without realizing they are doing so. Although his plays were written over three hundred years ago, many English proverbs from his plays are cited commonly in daily English.
Shakespeare’s works are probably the most colorful literature origin of proverbs. For example, All is not gold that glitters. This proverb is from the great works of Shakespeare The Merchants of Venice. It shows us that those who have a good appearance are not really learned. So we should be careful not to be deceived by those who are superficially flashy but without substance. Another example, Patience perforce is medicine for a mad dog[8] is from Shakespeare’s works Antony and Cleopatra. It tells us that those who cannot endure anything would lose his temper likes a mad dog.
Many English proverbs are also from The Fables of Aesop. These proverbs are very concise and humorous, and they reflect the essence and the true meaning of life. It is very easy for people to understand them and to put them into practice. Many of them are passed down till today. For example, The camel going to seek horns, lost his ears.[9] The general idea of the allusion is: a cow showed off his horns in front of a camel. The camel was envious of cow’s horns, so he requested Zeus to give a pair of horns to him. Zeus was very angry, because he thought that the camel was greedy to ask for horns with his so huge body. At last, he made a decision that he let the camel have horns but with the cost of cutting off a part of his ears. This proverb tells us that if one is greedy to occupy everything, he will be punished by his greed.
Another proverb is also from the Fables of Aesop. “The grapes are sour”, as the fox said when he could not reach them.[10] The allusion, which this proverb came from, is generally like this: one day, a hungry fox saw a lot of ripe grapes hanging on the grape vine. He beat his brains hard but could not find a way to pick the grapes. The hungrier he felt, the angrier he got. Finally, he gave up. In order to comfort himself, “The grapes are sour”, the fox said while walking away. Nowadays, people widely use it to express that someone who wants to take hold of something with all his effort but fails to get it will lower the value of this thing.
There are also other proverbs, such as: A barleycorn is better than a diamond to a cock.[11] The allusion’s main idea is: when a hungry cock was searched for food, he saw a diamond. The cock said to the diamond: “To someone who admires you, you are a precious thing; but to me, you have no value at all, for all valuable thing can not match with a barley-corn.” Indeed, according to our common sense, a diamond is far more valuable than a barley-corn. But to a hungry man, especially to someone who needs grains badly, he would choose grains but not treasure, for treasure cannot satisfy his stomach. So this proverb tends to imply that different people have different views no the same thing. The submitting to one wrong brings on another.[12] The allusion, which this proverb came from, is generally like this: a snake was often ridden down by people, so he complained it to Zeus. Zeus told him that if he bit someone who firstly trampled on him, the next one would not trample him. It shows that if one put up with the mistake he made at the first time, he will make another similar mistake. So we should gain a lesson from the above allusion so as to avoid making the same mistakes.
2.4 Originating from Greek and Roman mythology
“Westerners are heirs to Greco-Roman civilization. Many ideas now prevailing in western countries can be traced back to the thinkers in ancient Greece and Roman. Greek and Roman mythologies are well known in the west and have beard on a strong influence upon people’s lives in western countries. It is natural that it becomes a common source of English proverbs.”[13]
Some proverbs are from Greek and Roman mythology. Each of them has an allusion. For example, The Devil too has Achilles’ heel.[14] According to the Homer, we can know: Achilles was a Greek hero. Except his heel, every part of Achilles’ body is swordproof, so his heel is his fatal defect. The proverb tells us that even the Devil has his weakness. No man is absolutely powerful. There is a similar example from Roman mythology. Not even Hercules could contend against two.[15] Hercules, a son of Zeus, was a hero in Roman mythology. He had incredible force, which helped him gain twelve heroic achievements. Although he was powerful enough, he couldn’t defeat a large number of enemies on his own. So the proverbs tells us that man’s energy is limited no matter how powerful he is. Another example, without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus grows cold.[16] Ceres is Roman goddess of grain and agriculture; Bacchus is the Greet god of wine; Venus is the goddess of beauty and love. From this, we can know that Ceres and Bacchus stand for basic necessity of life. So the proverb tends to express that love can’t be sweet without material support.
2.5 Originating from other languages
With the development of society, a language cannot avoid contacting with other languages. In the contact, the certain language surely absorbs some proverbs from others. With a long history, English language borrowed a large number of proverbs widely from many other languages including Greek, Latin, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, and other languages, among which Latin, Greek and French provide the richest nutrition. Most of the borrowed proverbs in English, due to the remoteness of time, have already assimilated or merged into the English language with their traces almost impossible to follow.
Many English proverbs originated from French.[17] William, Duke of Normandy, France, landed his mighty army at Pevensy and defeated Saxon king Harold’s men near Hastings. William was crowned as king of England, and then he opened doors to the continent and extended culture and commercial relations with France. Norman-France culture, language and architecture were introduced. The conquerors ruled England in a long period of time, and most of the governors used French as their formal language. Although England finally won her sovereignty, there were still many borrowed words from France remained. Especially, English people accepted many French sayings. For example, Don’t put the cart before the horse; Venture a small fish to catch a great one; If the lion’s skin cannot, the fox’s shall.
Many English proverbs came from Latin.[18] Because of the introduction of Christianity into Britain, the influence of the Norman Conquest and the Renaissance on English, Latin words had made their way into the English language. Among these Latin words there also included many proverbs, which gained wide acceptance of English people. Such as: Fortune favors the brave; He who says what he likes, shall hear what he does not like; I fear the Greeks, even when bringing gifts; There is no rule without an exception and so on.
2.6 Originating from famous writers’ wisdom
Famous writers provided one of the richest sources for English proverbs, which is only next to the proverbs of folk origin. We also can say that most proverbs, regardless of their initial, have been polished and preserved and popularized by famous writers in their works. It is generally agreed that such famous writers as Bacon, Pope, Franklin and so on contributed quite a lot to the creation, preservation and popularization of English proverbs.
Bacon is a distinguished English philosopher and writer. He is noted for a style of thorough exposition and alternative maxims. Many sentences in Bacon’s works have become golden saying and prevailed among people. For example, Reading makes a full man tells people that only by reading can a person become learned and profound. Another proverb Knowledge is power emphasizes the importance of knowledge and encourages people to study more and learn more.
Pope is another celebrated figure in English literature. He emphasizes education and knowledge very much. Some sentences from his works have been accepted by the readers and become deeply rooted among people. Take A little learning is a dangerous thing for example. This didactic proverb is a sentence in Pope An Essay on Criticism and it reflects his ideas about knowledge and learning.
Benjamin Franklin is a famous American statesman, scientist and writer. Many sayings from his works were widely accepted and enlighten people. For example, Little stroke fell great oaks.[19] It tells us that one never giving up pursuing knowledge, because only those who are strong-minded can be highly intellectual. Another example, God help them that help themselves.[20] It tends to tell us that so long as one values self-reliance and independence, he can create opportunities, seek competition and be ready for the risks.

3. The function of English proverbs
The functions of English proverbs are that they express some rules of conduct and quite often convey some advice or counsel. In other words, most English proverbs possess philosophic depth or instructive function. For thousands of years they have been instructing and inspiring English people, so they have been regarded as the guideline of people’s thoughts and deeds, which means English people are thinking or doing things by following the direction of their proverbs either consciously or unconsciously. English proverbs have become an important sources of inspiration just because they contain truth, wisdom, counsel, rule of conduct, etc. Following will mention two functions of English proverbs.
3.1 The function to advise
Some proverbs are intended to persuade and teach people. To persuade is to praise justice, to fight against the bully. To teach is to guide people to adopt a correct attitude towards life, to take a proper way to get along well with others. For example, Better die with honor than live with shame; Don’t have cloak to make when it begins to rain. Such proverbs sound very firm and resolute and they can strengthen people conviction and awaken people consciousness of life or better their thinking methods. They are very helpful for people to make distinction between right and wrong, to be clear about what to love and what to hate. Because they are good for people’s self-cultivation and they can call for deep thought, many people take these proverbs as their life motto.
Some other proverbs reveal and criticize the dark side of the ages or society. They attack the dirty practices of the society so as to remind people to keep conscious and maintain sharp warning. For example, The fox changes his skin, but not his habit; A leopard cannot change its spots. People tend to recite such proverbs when they are disclosing the evil in the society or when they are reminding others to keep alert.
3.2 The function to spread experiences and knowledge
Many proverbs summarize knowledge of people’s daily life such as The best wine comes out of an old vessel; Soft fire makes sweet malt. As people’s daily life is complicated and extremely trifling, such proverbs are numerous. They summarize people’s knowledge in their life and they tell people what to do and how to do it. They are just like an encyclopedia to guide people’s daily life. From them, people may broaden their knowledge and outlook so as to avoid making mistakes. Some proverbs of this type are concerned with a particular field, like farmer proverbs and meteorological proverbs. Peasants of different ages, in their over years’ work, practice and prove the farming experience and productive rules. From generation to generation, they sum up their experience and the farming rules into some vivid, concise and lively sentences. These sentences are farmer proverbs and they are practiced and testified year after year and they have been proved true and accurate. They reflect the peasants’ farming experience and agricultural law and show the working people’s wisdom. Farmer proverbs are a precious and valuable part of agricultural data. Peasants of different ages have some of them as guide in their farming. And meteorological proverbs, which summarize the fundamental meteorological knowledge of generations, are also a big help in people life. For example, April showers bring forth May flowers; A cold May and a windy makes a full barn and a findy; Dry August and warm does harvest no harm; A fair day in winter is the mother of a storm; A misty morning may have a fine day; Cloudy mornings turn to clear evenings.

4. The rhetorical devices of English proverbs
If we say the philosophic or instructive aspect of English proverbs is a good help to the people, then we can also say that the artistic or aesthetic aspect of English proverbs is accelerant that attracts people’s attention to make full use of them. English proverbs are always terse, figurative and with pleasant sound effect, which make them easy to memorize and pleasant to ears. Following we will discuss the rhetorical devices of English proverbs.
4.1 Repetition
(1)Sound in body, sound in mind.
(2)Fools learn nothing from wise men, but wise men learn much from fools.
(3)One boy is a boy, two boys half a boy, three boys no boy.
(4)A wise man thinks all that he says; a fool says all that he thinks.
From the above examples, we can find that the repeated word or idea has a reinforcing effect. With the repetition of the same word in close succession, we may notice that the main point of the sentence becomes clear. It can also be used to express strong emotion and give us an aesthetic feeling and a sense of logical progression of ideas.[21]
4.2 Phonology
4.2.1 Alliteration
(5)He who makes constant complaints gets little compassion. 
(6)A fair face may hide a foul heart. 
(7)The fairest flowers soonest fade.
(8)Time and tide wait for no man. 
From the above examples, we can find that these proverbs are vivid with rhythm. Because of rhythm, alliteration is a great help to memory. It can catch the attention of the readers and make the idea impressed deeply on the readers, so the proverbs are easier to remember.
4.2.2 Consonance
(9)In youth the hours are golden, and in mature years they are silvern, and in old age they are leaden.
(10)Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
(11)Where love fails, we espy all faults. 
 From the above-mentioned, consonance makes the proverbs more rhythmic and more appealing. It is also good for sound rhyme, musical effect and significant emphasis.
4.2.3 Assonance
(12)Where the needle goes, the thread follows. 
(13)Who that in youth, no virtue uses, in old all honor him refuses.
(14)A friend in need is a friend indeed. 
The repetition of the above vowel produces musical rhythm and sound euphony.
4.3 Comparison
4.3.1 Simile
(15)March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. 
(16)True friendship is like sound health, the value of which is seldom known until it be lost.
(17)A lamb is as dear as dear as to a poor man as an ox to the rich.
As we can see from the above examples, simile explains abstract, complicated ideas in simple and concrete way.
4.3.2 Metaphor
(18)Money is a good servant but a bad master.
(19)Knowledge is a treasure but practice is the key to it.
(20)Hope is the poor man’s bread. 
As we can see from the above examples, an implied comparison between two different things that share at least one attribute in common.
4.3.3 Metonymy
(21)A light heart lives long.      
(22)A soft answer turned away wrath.
(23)An iron hand in a velvet glove. 
(24)A close mouth catches no flies. 
As we can see from the above examples, unlike simile, the comparison in metaphor is implied. It requires greater ability on the part of the reader to make out the hidden association or insight, so metaphor is generally more complicated and more involved than simile. The above proverbs enrich and strengthen the reader’s existing association and bringing about greater rhetorical effectiveness.[22]
4.4 Personification
4.4.1 Inanimate objects personalizing 
(25)Wall has ears.  
(26)Money makes the mare go.
(27)The pot calls the kettle black.
4.4.2 Animals personalizing
(28)The fox knew too much, that’s how he lost his tail.
(29)Nightingales will not sing in a cage.
(30)The tortoise wins the race while the hare is sleeping.
(31)Two sparrows on one ear of corn make an ill agreement.
4.4.3 Plants personalizing
(32)A great tree attracts the wind.
(33)A single flower does not make a spring. 
4.4.4 Abstract ideas personalizing
(34)Truth conquers all things.
(35)Opportunity seldom knocks twice.
(36)Virtue dwells not in the tongue but in the heart.
In the above proverbs, there are including three parts of personification. Using personification makes the proverbs more vivid and more attractive. It can impress the readers deeply.
4.5 Parallel
(37)In for a penny, in for a pound. 
(38)In youth the hours are golden, and in mature years they are silvern, and in old age they are leaden.
(39)The least said, the soonest mended. 
As we can from the above, parallel structure can create a good visual image and help readers move quickly from one idea to the next. Parallelism gives emphasis, charity and coherence of ideas, and it also gives the rhythm of the proverbs. It helps the readers to catch the idea of the speakers or writer easily and pleasantly.[23]
4.6 Synecdoche
(40)Two heads are better than one.
(41)Great minds think alike.
Here the words “head” and “mind” are both represent “a person”.
4.7 Hyperbole
(42)A thousand years cannot repair a moment's loss of honor.
(43)The world is but a little place, after all. 
(44)An unfortunate man would e drowned in a teacup.
Hyperbole is a commonly used a sign of great emotion as shown in the above examples. There is no intent to deceive the reader, instead, in the speaker’s mind he is truly describing his intense feeling at the time.
4.8 Pun
(45)Measure yourself by your own foot.
Here the word “foot” has two meanings: one means human’ heel, the other is dimensional unit. So the above proverb has two different meanings, which create a pun.
(46)Rue and thyme grow both in one garden.
Here the word “rue” has two different meanings: one is the name of king of flower, the other means regret. The word “thyme” and the word “time” have the same pronunciations. These two reasons make a pun.

Proverbs are the outcome of language. They come from people and are used by people.“ Proverbs, as a prominent scholar once said “the mirror of a nation” and “the living fossil of a language”, do play an important role in different languages and cultures. In the words of Francis Bacon, “ the Genius, wit and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs.””[24] There are a variety of proverbs almost all English speakers are familiar with. They regard these words of wisdom with respect.
To sum up, the major sources of English proverbs are the experience of the common people, literary works, religious scripture, mythology, translated loans, and history. So we can gain some basic knowledge of English culture through learning English proverbs, which plays an important role in cross-cultural communication. Because of using rhetorical devices and rhythmical ways, English proverbs are filled with image and vividness, which can catch the attention of the readers and make the idea impressed deeply on the readers. They also reveal a universal truth from a particular point in order to enlighten people. So proverbs give people advice or warnings in dealing with everyday issues, and point out the path to knowledge and self-cultivation.


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