One of the great delights about learning a language and its associated culture comes from discovering the little pearls of wisdom known as proverbs. Every culture has them, and every language has its own colorful way of expressing them. Some are nearly universal, while others are unique to one culture.
I’ve always been a serious collector of books of all sorts. While I was in prep school, I came across a delightful little book published in 1962 by the Peter Pauper Press, known for their very affordable small hard bound books. This one, by Wolf and Charlotte Leslau, was called African Proverbs.
I carried the book with me to college, to the language school at Monterey, and to Asmara. There I learned that Wolf Leslau was a scholar of Ethiopian and Eritrean languages, including Tigrinya and Amharic, as well as literature and traditional culture. I found myself engaged in much the same linguistic and cultural studies during my five years in Asmara, and collected a number of delightful and pithy proverbs and sayings.
Many of my books and other belongings disappeared during shipment home to the States, and after several moves, I lost track of others which either had been boxed and never unpacked or boxed and stored. As a result, I’m not sure where my original copy of the Leslau book is currently, but I bought a new copy after it was republished in 1985.
This book contains jewels from many African countries, including Ethiopia. At the time when it was written, many scholars including Leslau made no political distinction between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which is now an independent country, nor did he distinguish between other cultural and linguistic divisions – except one. He identified the origin of some as Galla, a derogatory Amhara name for the Oromo people. In at least one case I am aware of, he also ascribes a proverb to a Galla origin where I personally know it as well in Amharic and two different dialects of Tigrinya. Nevertheless, it’s a charming collection.
Here is one of my favorites of the proverbs identified as Ethiopian:
A cow gave birth to a fire: she wanted to lick it, but it burned; she wanted to leave it, but she could not because it was her own child.
Following are a few more Ethiopian gems from the book. Some are humorous, some profound, and some very similar to sayings in European and American traditions:
A coward sweats in water.
A silly daughter teaches her mother how to bear children.
Do not call the forest that shelters you a jungle.
If the palm of the hand itches it signifies the coming of great luck.
Love is like a baby; it needs to be treated tenderly.
One who runs alone cannot be outrun.
Only when you have crossed the river can you say the crocodile has a lump on his snout.
Save your fowl before it stops flapping.
There is no phrase without a double meaning.
What is said over the dead lion’s body, could not be said to him alive.
When one sets a portion for oneself, usually it is not too small.
When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.
When the bee comes to your house, let her have beer; you may want to visit the bee’s house some day.
You cannot shave a man’s head in his absence.
In addition to learning proverbs from friends and acquaintances during my travels, I bought a wonderful little book in Asmara that was a treasure trove of Tigrinya proverbs. Unfortunately, that book fell victim to the most common fate of many books: I lent it to someone who didn’t return it. However, I saved a few examples before the book was lost, such as this delightful bit of whimsical philosophy, the Tigrinya original (pronounced: tsibuq zereba ‘atsmi aganinti yisebbir) with translation, to which I added a cartoon sketch:
Pronounced hilmi derho, the literal meaning is “dream of a chicken,” but what it expresses is more like “daydream” or “castle in the sky” – or “time stupidly wasted hoping for the impossible.”
Another common type of proverb is in the form of a couplet or other short poem. With poetry as well as proverbs, a few metaphorical words can express a lot. In this case, four words, two rhyming couplets (pronounced kullu yihalif, fiqri yiterif), are profoundly expressive.
Everything passes; love remains.
The final example in this exploration of proverbs in my favorite, and is the reason I decided to explore this particular topic. It employs wit and surprise, and carries a powerful meaning behind a clever façade. Bear with me as I get a bit wonky about it.
I heard the proverb from several different sources, and in two different languages, as well as two different dialects of one language. The languages are Tigrinya and Amharic. The two Tigrinya versions are in a northern dialect, spoken around Asmara and the traditional province of Hamasien, and a southern dialect, spoken in Tigray province in northern Ethiopia, centered around the region known since ancient times as ‘Agamé. These two dialects are now emblematic of the cultural and political divisions which divide Eritrea and Ethiopia. Although the official language of Ethiopia remains Amharic, the Prime Minister and others in his party were originally Tigrinya speakers from Tigray.
These two Tigrinya dialects are not so distinct as to be considered separate languages, but there are many differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, and intonation. As might be expected, some of the vocabulary of the ‘Agamé dialect is more similar to its southern cousin Amharic, although the latter is significantly different from either version of Tigrinya.
Some years ago, I discovered a graphic which so perfectly suited this proverb that I used it with the text in a personal website that I maintained for several years. Here’s a sneak peek at the graphic:
The next graphic shows the three different versions of the text in the Ethiopic (also called Ge’ez) syllabary: Hamasien Tigrinya, ‘Agamé Tigrinya, and Amharic. The tranliterations of all three are below. They only reflect the variations in vocqabulary, not the differences in pronunciation and intonation between the three versions:
qesey biqesey inqwaqwiho b’igru yikheyyid
qesey biqesey inqwilalih b’igru yikheyyid
qes biqes inqwilal bigru yihedal
Finally, here’s a graphic which shows the Hama dialect written in the Ge’ez syllabary, a transliteration which tries to represent the more harsh consonants which have no equivalent in English, and then my translation:
Leslau listed this proverb as having a Galla origin, more properly called Oromo. Their language is a member of the Cushitic family, and as I never had any opportunity to interact with Oromo people, I have no knowledge of the language. Leslau’s translation of the proverb is:
If one is not in a hurry, even an egg will start walking.
As you may now realize, this proverb speaks volumes to me, and I wanted to be sure that you could not only enjoy it, but appreciate it. I had intended to post this several days ago, but for one reason or another, it just didn’t happen. Like the egg, it took its own good time before getting up and walking.