PROVERBS AND IDIOMS (definition and function)


According to Wikipedia, a proverb (Latin: Proverbium) is a simple and concrete saying, popularly known and repeated, that expresses a truth based on common sense or the practical experience of humanity. Proverbs are often borrowed from similar languages and cultures, and sometimes come down to the present through more than one language. Defining a proverb is a difficult task. Proverb scholars often quote Archer Taylor’s classic. The definition of a proverb is too difficult to repay the undertaking… an incommunicable quality tells us this sentence is proverbial and that one is not. Hence, no definition enables us to identify positively a sentence as a proverb (3). Another common definition is from Lord John Russell (1993), a proverb is the wit of one, and the wisdom of many.

Mieder has also proposed the following definition; ‘a proverb is a short generally known  sentence of the folk  which contains wisdom, truth, morals and traditional views in a metaphorical, fixed and memorizable form and which is handed down from a generation to generation’.(5). Proverbs are wise sayings that address the heart of the discourse in any given context truthfully and objectively. Proverbs in various languages are found with a wide variety of grammatical structures. In English, for example, we find the following structures (in addition to others):

  • Imperative, negative- don’t beat a dead horse
  • Imperative positive- look before you leap
  • Parallel phrases- garbage in, garbage out
  • Rhetorical question- is the pope catholic?
  • Declarative sentence- birds of a feather flock together.

The grammar of proverbs is not always the typical of spoken language often elements are moved around to achieve rhyme or focus (23). Proverbs are used in conversation by adults more than children, partially because adults have learned more proverbs than children. Also using proverbs well is a skill that is developed over years. In addition, children have not mastered the patterns of metaphorical expressions that are involved in a way that may be less offensive.  Proverbs come from variety of source, some indeed, the result of people pondering and crafting language. They are often and easily translated and transferred from one language into another. Proverbs are often borrowed across lines of language, religion and even time. It is often not possible to trace the direction of borrowing a proverb between languages. This is complicated by the fact that the borrowing may have been through plural languages. In some cases, it is possible to make a strong case for discerning the direction in one language, but prosaic form in another language.

There is longstanding debate among proverb scholars as to whether the cultural values of specific language communities are reflected in their proverbs. Many claim that the proverbs of a particular culture reflect the value s of that specific culture, at least to some degree.


In linguistics, idioms are usually presumed to be figures of speech contradicting the principle of compositionality. This principle states that the meaning of a whole should be constructed from the meanings of the parts that make up the whole. In other words, one should be in a position to understand the whole if one understands the meanings of each of the parts that make up the whole.

In phraseology, idioms are defined as a sub-type of phraseme, the meaning of which is not the regular sum of the meanings of its component parts. John Saeed defines an idiom as collocated words that become fixed to each other until metamorphosing into a fossilized term. This collocation of words redefines each component word in the word group and becomes an idiomatic expression. Idioms usually do not translate well; in some cases, when an idiom is translated directly word-for-word onto another language, either its meaning is changed or it is meaningless.

Idioms tend to confuse those unfamiliar with them; students of a new language must learn its idiomatic expressions as vocabulary. Many natural language words have idiomatic origins, but are assimilated, so losing their figurative senses. The non- compositionality of meaning of idioms challenges themes of syntax. The fixed words of many idioms do not qualify as constituents in any sense. Example: how do we get to the bottom of this situation? The fixed words of this idiom (in bold) do not form a constituent in any theory’s analysis of syntactic structure because the object of preposition is not part of the idiom rather it is an argument of the idiom. One can know that it is not part of the idiom because it is variable. What this means is that theories of syntax that take the constituent to be the fundamental unit of syntactic analysis are challenged. The manner in which units of meaning are assigned to units of syntax remains unclear. This problem has motivated a tremendous amount of discussion and debate in linguistics circles and it is a primary motivator behind the construction grammar framework.

According to O’ Grady William (1998), a relatively recent development in the syntactic analysis of idiom departs from a constituent- based account of syntactic structure, preferring instead the catena- based account. Any word or combination of words that are linked together by dependencies qualifies as a catena. The words constituting idioms are stored as catena in the lexicon and as such, they are concrete units of syntax. The catena- based analysis of idiom provides a basis for an understanding of meaning compositionality. The principle of compositionality can be maintained. Units of meaning are being assigned to catenae whereby many of these catenae are not constituents.

An idiomatic unit comes into existence from a figurative expression describing situations, phenomena, or human traits that usually exceed limits of neutral perceptions. Referring to Miko (1989) and his view of idiom as an expressively more moldable and more tangible expression than a literal naming unit, idiomatic images enable the speaker to cover sensitive pictures and phenomena hiding and mildening the unpleasant and undesired positions of everyday life expressed by linguistic means. In other words, idiomatic units can grasp the meaning of complex positions of life in a more refined communicative manner. Gibbs (1987) reports that people use idioms (mostly with an underlying metaphorical concept) to politely communicate subjective opinions and so in an indirect manner avoid responsibility for what is communicated.

Becker (1998) made an observation that successful communication is often at odds with the production of novel utterances. Idiomatic language can provide a basis for an interweaving network for embedding novel proposition, which results in the fact that a lengthy utterance is likely to contain more prefabricated frames and routine structures. Thus, one of the purposes of the use of idiomatic structures is keeping the focus on formulation of one’s novel ideas while maintain fluency through holistic retrieved of prefabricated complex structures from mental lexicon.

Carter (1998) suggest that idioms not only facilitate communication of stereotyped phenomena and play a maintaining role in communication, but also allow for both larger grammatical units to be built from their base and modifications resulting in generation of  a more creative and cognitively richer speech. According to Gibbs (1987), idioms appear to contain more meaning than roughly do their equivalent literal paraphrases. They convey more express in several sentences.

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