Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 3 : 7 July 2003

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.




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    M. S. Thirumalai
    6820 Auto Club Road #320
    Bloomington, MN 55438 USA.
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    B. Mallikarjun,
    Central Institute of Indian Languages,
    Mysore 570006, India
    or e-mail to
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  • The Editorial Board has the right to accept, reject, or suggest modifications to the articles submitted for publication, and to make suitable stylistic adjustments. High quality, academic integrity, ethics and morals are expected from the authors and discussants.

Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai


B. Syamalakumari


Proverbs and idioms beautify the language and establish the characteristic style of individual languages. Speech/Writing studded with proverbs and idioms are generally considered as flowery language, although an overload of it, for that matter any nicety, may not be relished much. Lack of knowledge or understanding of proverbs and idioms in a language prevents the learner from understanding the cultural niceties or peculiarities.

In my earlier article, ON PREPARING A DICTIONARY OF IDIOMS IN INDIAN LANGUAGES, (Language in India, June 2003), I suggested that the distinction between phrase, idiom and proverb is sometimes blurred, and that traditional Indian grammarians recognized the special status the proverbs occupy in wisdom, moral, or didactic literature. Modern attitudes and information, however, make a clear distinction between these three elements, although the overlap between them cannot be denied.


A proverb is defined as a short pithy saying in general use. It indicates the essence of the experience of at least a sizeable population of the speech community that uses it. Structurally speaking, proverb is a sentence and it essentially contains a predicate. It is a frozen sentence to which the speakers do not or cannot generally add words, or delete words from it, or even change the words as they like. Generally speaking, an utterance takes long years to crystallize and attain the status of a proverb, which reflects the experience of the members of a community, who, in due course, freeze and use it as a special sentence or sentences.

A proverb is structurally different from an idiom, which could be a noun phrase or verb phrase to be used in a sentence. One cannot understand the meaning of an idiom if one knows only the literal meanings constituting the idiom. A proverb, however, could be understood as such to a great extent even though an elaboration of the situation wherein the proverb is used is not given. Sometimes idioms are also used as proverbs to make a point.


Proverbs in any language depict the experience, culture and the way of life of the speakers and it is natural that languages spoken in an area will have proverbs which are thematically common. Sometimes even the literal expressions may also be common. Since the geography of a land has an impact on the history of the people occupying it, both geographical and historical facts affect the way of life of the people and their languages. Accordingly, proverbs will also reflect the differences in expression while sharing a common theme. Thus, proverbs in different languages of a country will indicate the commonness in the perception of life of its people and will preserve the unique cultural and social features of each of the speech communities. So, an understanding of the common proverbs in different Indian languages will enable us to understand each other better.


Indian languages and literatures abound in proverbs. Most Indian didactic literatures exploit the common wisdom and common language found in the proverbs used by people. Uncommon wisdom of common people becomes the content of such didactic literature, although the composer of such "literary works" often included his or her doctrinal ideas as part of such "literary" works. For example, some of the didactic works in Tamil that exploit the common wisdom derived from proverbs often include Jaina or Buddhist doctrinal understanding of human life and its problems.


Realizing the importance of the study of proverbs, in most of the Indian languages, linguists and folklorists have made several attempts to collect, compile, and analyze proverbs, and arrive at conclusions that help understanding our culture better. Comparative studies of proverbs across languages have also been made. However, learning to master the use of proverbs as an integral part of our mother tongue curriculum is not seriously attempted.

Mother tongue teaching in Indian languages becomes also the occasion to impart moral and ethical values as found in traditional literature. Use of proverbs for this purpose in mother tongue teaching has been a long tradition even before the advent of modern printed books and structured classroom instruction. However, it is common knowledge that at present proverbs of Indian languages do not find an adequate place in our mother tongue teaching textbooks. Because of this, the uncommon wisdom of our tradition is being lost, and students begin to look more for the translation of proverbs from English! The "modernization" processes in Indian languages curriculum and in Indian living in general seem to get away from the use of proverbs except for fun and frolicking. Many tend to use proverbs to make colorful expressions and not for illuminating life-giving subtle suggestions. They are not integrated into teaching morals and ethics.


In order to help restore some balance in this area of Indian language curriculum, I have taken up a project that would collect proverbs from a number of languages, compare them, and present them in a visual form.

This book is targeted as a supplementary material for mother tongue learners (school children studying in Classes from IV to VIII), the adult neo-literates, and also second language learners of these Indian languages. Since visuals are more effective in motivating a learner and attracting his or her attention to the learning materials, proverbs are illustrated and presented. Supplementary materials are teaching/learning aids and are to be used as addition to the prescribed books. These serve as a welcome diversion from the textbook.

In addition to the primary objective of cultural value-based information that the learners will get through these illustrated proverbs, these readers can be used as language skill development materials. The illustrations can be used as cues for oral and written compositions. The proverb-related exercises will also include story building, conversational practice and vocabulary development exercises.


The following format is suggested for the book. The book will have 4 Sections.

  1. Introduction
  2. Pictorial Pages
  3. Index
  4. Model Exercises

The Introduction, the index, and the model exercises will be written in respective 17 languages. Thus, the materials will have 17 versions, each version presented as a separate book. The pictorial pages consisting of the illustrations of the proverbs are common for all the versions. The introduction will give, in brief, the objectives of the book and its uses. For the pictorial pages, 20 illustrated proverbs from each of the languages will be included. The selection will be in done in such a way that the pictures are not repeated. Thus, totally there will be 340 proverbs illustrated.

These pictorial pages will be presented in the order of their frequency of use in the languages. The proverbs with maximum commonness will go first. These pages will have only the serial number and the language code letters. A-Assamese, B-Bengali, G-Gujarati, H-Hindi, Ka-Kannada, Kas-Kashmiri, Ko-Konkani, Ma-Malayalam, Man-Manipuri, Mar-Marathi, N-Nepali, P-Panjabi, S-Sindhi, Ta-Tamil, Te-Telugu, and U-Urdu. The language codes presented in each pictorial page will also reveal that the proverb under consideration is found only in the various languages listed. Internal arrangement of the proverbs will be done in certain content order: pictures relating to human beings, animals, and other objects. The proverbs, which are contradictory to the contemporary attitudes towards national integration, environment, equality of gender, and focusing on other prejudices, etc., will not be chosen.

The index will contain the following information:

  1. The proverb illustrated and its literal translation in the script of the language of the concerned volume. For example, the volume is intended for Assamese children, the literal translation of the proverb will be given in the Assamese script.
  2. The meaning of the above either by giving the equivalent proverb or the thematically related proverb.
  3. If equivalent or thematic proverb is not used in the language of the particular volume, the idea communicated by the cited proverb may be given in a sentence.

Model exercises may contain the following minimum five different types:

  1. Look at the picture and tell which one of the given proverbs relates to it.
  2. Look at the picture and tell which of the given themes represent the proverbs.
  3. Look at the picture and the list of situations or contexts given below. State which of the given situations or contexts illustrates the best use of the proverb.
  4. Look at the picture, recognize the proverb and give some other proverbs related to it in meaning.
  5. Look at the picture, and tell which out of the given proverbs conveys opposite meaning to the one that is picturized.

Other exercises will be included. Application of the concept and actual use of the proverbs in an appropriate context will decide the nature and form of these exercises.


  1. Four groups are formed as follows.
    1. Assamese, Bengali, Nepali, Oriya, Manipuri
    2. Marathi, Gujarati, Sindhi, Konkani
    3. Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Kashmiri
    4. Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu.
  2. The members are all given the list of proverbs chosen for inclusion in the volumes. Each group will examine the pictures by turn. Then the groups will note down the following in a separate sheet.
    1. The members will write the Proverbs (in Roman script) from the languages of their group,that match the illustrations. They will indicate the language names. They will also provide a literal as well as a free translation in English (Meaning could be given in an equivalent English proverb also), wherever possible. The language to which the illustration of the proverb belongs will be given first in the list of languages for that particular illustration.
    2. Pictures that do not convey the meaning either correctly or approximately may be redrawn, and, if necessary, new visuals for the proverbs chosen for inclusion in the list may also be drawn.
    3. Arrange and number the pages for the volume after all the groups have given the information (Editorial Committee).
    4. Prepare the index for the respective languages.
    5. Prepare the exercises for the respective languages.
    6. Write an introduction in the respective languages based on the points discussed in this paper, and include additional information relevant to specific individual languages.

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B. Syamalakumari
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570006, India