KIDS’ BLOG! Proverbs II: Timeless Words and the Soul of a People

An ancient Viking rune symbolizing fertility and new beginnings. In modern times, it is often used as a symbol for the saying "Where there's a will, there's a way."

An ancient Viking rune symbolizing fertility and new beginnings. In modern times, it is often used as a symbol for the saying “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

In Part I, we discovered how proverbs, sayings that carry a message or truth, seem to be a part of every culture going back millennia. In the oral tradition, before writing could delve deeply into the world of ideas, societies needed ways to instruct people as to how they had to behave. Proverbs arose as an effective way to do just that. Their wise and often witty words and images embodied the values of a culture. And while cultural values can be quite complex, proverbs were popular because they conveyed that idea, that value, that moral in a distinctive and memorable way.

What makes proverbs memorable? Proverbs depend upon certain elements that affect memory and how our brains grasp and retain information. Two techniques for making proverbs stick are phonemic, which is using alliteration or the same letters and sounds to begin words, and syntactic, which is using a parallel structure. For example, look at the phrase, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” We hear that the w’s sound alike and that there is an intentional balance between the two phrases.[1] These techniques have a two-fold purpose: they make the meaning of the phrase obvious and the words themselves much easier to remember. It’s a simple, perfectly crafted sentence, but one laden with profound insight. These techniques are also evident in nursery rhymes, where the addition of rhythm and rhyme help the brain store information. We know this is true because no matter what the age, most people can still recall the nursery rhymes of their childhood.  (See Part I of Proverbs II: Timeless Words and the Soul of a People for more examples.)

The Roman philosopher and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero used loci in his De Oratore.

The Roman philosopher and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero used loci in his De Oratore.

What we are speaking of is the power of mnemonics. The dictionary defines mnemonics as “assisting or intended to assist memory; also: of or relating to mnemonics, Greek mnēmonikos, from mnēmōn mindful, from mimnēskesthai to remember.”[2] This idea of creating a strategy for memory took root in ancient Greece in the method of loci.

The method of loci was originally mainly used by orators to remember the points to be made in a speech, in their proper order….. In one of the method’s more straightforward forms, the orator would prepare by committing the layout of a complex but familiar architectural space (e.g. the interior of a temple) to memory, so as to be able to vividly imagine its various regions and features. He would then imagine objects, symbolizing the points to be remembered (e.g. a sword to represent battle), placed at various loci (strategic landmark positions, such as the temple’s niches and windows) around the space. The points could then be recalled in their proper order, whilst making a speech, simply by imagining moving around the space along a predetermined route, “seeing” the objects by coming upon them in their appointed loci, and thereby being reminded, in sequence, of the points they symbolized.[3]

Humans have three interrelated types of memory: sensory memory, short-term memory (STM, often called working memory) and long-term memory (LTM).[4] Memory is vital to existence. What we remember can keep us from harm, help us to develop skills, enable us to form bonds with others and create complex systems of social order—all the elements needed to survive. But memory has always been tricky because its close companion has been forgetfulness. We fear that what we learn will dissolve in that labyrinth of neurology inside the brain. That’s where mnemonics comes in.

According to in Dennis Coon, John Mitterer in Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior, “Mnemonic systems use mental images and unusual associations to link new information with familiar memories already stored in LTM. Such strategies give information personal meaning and make it easier to recall.”[5]

Terry Sejnowski is a computational neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. He explains how the brain doesn’t store memories in one place, but rather distributes them across its span. This is the key to mnemonics: they engage sight, sound, smells and other senses. ”They are more than just tricks. They are formed as memory extenders, yes, but they are also telling us about how a very deep part of the brain draws subconsciously on past experience.”[6]

Getting back to proverbs, these sayings easily embed themselves into a cultural consciousness for purposes of forging an identity, passing down knowledge and ensuring a legacy for future generations—all to capture the memory of a people. According to comparative literature scholar Avise Nissen,”Many proverbs are, in fact, mnemonics (or perhaps I should say many mnemonics are, in fact, proverbs).”[7]

So memories are formed from information constructed from associations, images, sounds and patterns located across the brain. It is a process that has been going on since time immemorial as humans evolved in abstract thought and went on to build the great civilizations.  The economy and simplicity of proverbs has resulted in their being one of the oldest and most enduring forms of communication, one that is shared by peoples across time and space. And while the ancients weren’t as familiar with brain mapping as we are today, their ingenuity in memorializing their lives using the symbols, images, sounds and evoked senses of proverbs (that is, mnemonics) cannot be disputed. Remembering and being remembered are part of our life force, evident thousands of years ago as well as today. And in no small way, it is with proverbs that these memories can be enshrined for the ages.

Lesson Plan


  • 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 compare and contrast ancient and modern proverbs and how they reflect their times


  • 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
  • To create a visual representation that captures in word and picture the message of a proverb

Student Project #1

  • Think of a cultural value that is important to you or that you think is necessary for a society to have (e.g., being honest). Explain this value and its positive effects (50 words or less). Now create a proverb reflecting this value using some of the techniques discussed above such as alliteration, syntax, rhythm and rhyme. Make sure it is memorable. Repeat it a few times, or show a classmate and see if he or she can easily remember it.

Student Project #3

  • Write a letter to a friend who wants your advice. See how many proverbs and common sayings you can use. For inspiration, read a clever example here.
  • What would you think if someone wrote a letter like this to you? Why don’t people write like this all the time? Wouldn’t it be easier? Under what circumstances would it be acceptable to use these kinds of sayings and proverbs?

Student Project #4

  • Create a poster to illustrate a proverb. Is this poster humorous, educational, motivational or instructive?
  • Show your work in how you conceptualized this poster to reflect the meaning of the proverb, and how you think the image will help the viewer to remember the proverb. See here for some examples.

Student Project #5 (Group Activity)

  • It is the year 2525. Create a culture based on the following:
    • On which planet do you reside?
    • What is its climate?
    • Are there mountains, desert, rivers, oceans?
    • What is your people’s name?
    • In what ways have your bodies evolved to allow you to exist on your planet?
    • What technology do you use to make your planet habitable?
    • What are your industries?
    • Describe the values of your culture
  • Write five (5) proverbs that use the unique cultural elements above. See how long it takes your group to memorize them all. How does understanding the culture help in remembering the proverbs?


Coon, D., & Mitterer, J. (2010). Introduction to psychology: Gateways to mind and behavior, [12th ed.]. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Cengage from around the world, alphabetized from 100 countries and cultures of proverbs and their messages across cultures


[1] Paul, H., & Francis, S. (1999, January 1). Hernadi & Steen: The Tropical Landscapes of Proverbia. Retrieved February 5, 2015, from

[2] Mnemonic. (n.d.). Retrieved February 5, 2015, from

[3] Ancient Imagery Mnemonics. (n.d.). Retrieved February 5, 2015, from

[4] Coon, D., & Mitterer, J. (2010). Introduction to psychology: Gateways to mind and behavior, [12th ed.]. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Rosenthal, J. (2005, July 16). Mnemonics. Retrieved February 5, 2015.

[7] Ibid.

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