Proverbs are a means of cultural communication: surpass time and place

By Youssef Kanjou

Proverbs are a means of cultural expression and derive from the experience of a speech community. They are closely linked to the emergence of knowledge among members of that community. Sayings can also be a record of important events that peoples have experienced.

Also, proverbs seem to be very old, appearing simultaneously with the discovery of writing, stories, literature and legends. For example, in one of the cuneiform documents from the Kingdom of Mari from the third millennium BC, we find the use of a popular proverb. The ruler of the city uses it in a letter to his son: “A bitch gave birth to blind puppies in haste.” This is still commonly used in the Middle East today.

Communication between peoples, whether directly or through other media such as books and newspapers, helps proverbs gain popularity and spread among nations. Thus, many proverbs occur in different countries in the same sense and with slight variations. The Arabic proverb, “You can’t carry two watermelons in one hand,” reads in German, “You can’t dance at two weddings.”

Mamoun Fansa lists in his book “Aleppo literary. Poems, History and Proverbs” (2018) many proverbs from the Syriac dialect of Aleppo and their equivalents in the German language. The percentage of similarities between the two languages is about 40%. Examples include:

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

Patience is the key to success”.

„Alle Wege führen nach Rom“ – dieses in Europa verbreitete Sprichwort meint, dass es verschiedene Wege gibt, um zu einem Ziel zu kommen. So führte auch diese aus der römischen Zeit erhaltene Straße über eine antike Brücke im Nordwesten Syriens sicher nach Rom. Foto: Youssef Kanjou.

“All roads lead to the mill.” (Arabic) “All roads lead to Rome.” (German)

“If a poet has died, his tongue does not rot.” (Arabic) ” who writes, stays.” (German)

“Who wants everything loses everything” (Arabic) “who wants everything gets nothing in the end.” (German)

“A small house can accommodate many friends.” (Arabic) “There is room in the smallest hut.” (German)

The large number of refugees from Syria in Germany will inevitably contribute to the adoption of more and more popular proverbs into the German language through oral and written communication.

Syrians use folk expressions and proverbs as a means of conversation to communicate with the German population during work and study, as well as in literary writings. A person’s original cultural environment often affects their newly learned language. Social media for Syrians in Germany shows beautiful examples of introducing Syrian popular expressions and proverbs, mostly dialectal, into the German language. Here are two examples:

“I’ll give you a word, make it a ring on your ear.”

“I sit odd, but I talk straight.”

Both mean “I tell the truth” And are used in a humorous video by “WDRforyou” in a dialogue at the Job Center. (Ausländer im Jobcenter – YouTube , from minute 6)

For a long time, the writer Rafik Shami was the main source for the transfer of Syrian social cultural heritage into the German language. Now there will be many people who introduce Syrian culture into German society by writing in German – be it in the field of literature, journalism or social media. In the future, we will see if this will introduce more Arabic proverbs and expressions into the German language. Conversely, many German words are used by refugees, even if they speak Arabic, when there is no Arabic equivalent.


In der arabischen Welt gibt es ein Sprichwort mit der gleichen Bedeutung: „Alle Wege führen zur Mühle.“ Und so führt die Straße sicher auch zu einer Mühle in Syrien, wie man sie im zweiten Bild sieht. Foto: Samir Ali.

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