Every culture has a story to tell, and that story is told in many ways. Artifacts, legal records, letters, journals, art, music, dress, even the detritus of daily life uncover the ways of a people. Values and mores are realized through rituals, religions, oral and written histories, monuments and palaces, and many more touchstones of culture. In particular, language and the expressive arts have produced some remarkable observations of lives lived long ago.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a proverb is a “(s)uccinct and pithy saying that is in general use and expresses commonly held ideas and beliefs.” Usually arising from an oral tradition that can go back millennia, proverbs capture the soul of a people and their culture. As well, proverbs are designed to offer guidance in the tricky business of living among others and their often competing and confounding emotions and interests.
Take a look below at the sayings of various cultures. Think about how these proverbs arose. What is the message in each? What symbols and metaphors are used? How are these reflective of a way of life and past times? And then think how these proverbs resonate today. The symbols and metaphors may change, but we understand the wisdom of what is being conveyed. We grasp the thoughts that meant so much to the ancients and how with this wisdom these words became enshrined in time. And the ultimate realization? For all the diversity in this world, there really are shared truths to this great human experience.
Reflect on the following sayings and then scroll down for a free lesson plan below.
Proverbs From Around the Globe
- If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.
Source: Burkina Faso
More African proverbs
- Adam ate the apple, and our teeth still ache.
More Hungarian proverbs
- If you want your eggs hatched, sit on them yourself.
More Haitian proverbs
- Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you.
More Maori proverbs
- A fall into a ditch makes you wiser.
- A man’s ruin lies in his tongue.
More Egyptian proverbs
- A blind person who sees is better than a seeing person who is blind.
More Iranian proverbs
- When eating a fruit, think of the person who planted the tree.
More Vietnamese proverbs
- We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.
Source: Dakota (United States First Nation)
More Native American proverbs
- Blood cannot be washed out with blood.
More Afghan proverbs
- To learn about a culture’s social and moral universe through its traditional sayings
- To understand how cultural mores can have shared worldviews
- To compare different cultures and their worldviews
- To critically analyze and explain what a traditional saying means to a given culture
- To understand how oral and written traditions of a society pass on values to generations that follow
- To see both sides of a particular moral outlook or worldview
- To develop language and storytelling skills
Student Project #1
- What does each saying mean (50 words or less)?
Student Project #2
- Write an essay (200-300 words) giving your point of view on one saying
- Write an essay (200-300 words) giving the opposite point of view that you hold of the same saying. How would you rewrite the saying?
Student Project #3
- Write a short story that illustrates one of the sayings
Student Project #4 (Group Activity)
- Create a culture based on the following:
- Is it land-based or seafaring?
- What is its climate?
- Are there mountains, desert, rivers, oceans?
- What are its products (e.g., farming, horse breeding, trade)
- What values do you want to pass on to subsequent generations?
- Write five (5) proverbs that use the unique cultural elements above
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