A proverb is a generalized statement popularly known and repeated and which expresses a truth based on common sense or experience. When it describes a basic rule of conduct it is known as a maxim. Proverbs transcend languages within similar climes, vegetation and cultural practices. As languages interact, proverbs are spread from one language to another; usually with slight adaptations. The English language, for example, is rich in proverbs because of its interaction through colonization with other languages.
A proverb is a short, generally known sentence of a language which contains a combination of wisdom, truth, morals, and traditional views in a metaphorical, fixed, and philosophical form and which has transcended many generations.
The Yoruba and the Igbo languages in Africa are rich in proverbs and their proverbs have very deep meanings. It is very easy, if you understand these languages, to identify which proverbs are original to them.
Let’s examine one Yoruba proverb that brings out its (proverb’s) function. “Owe l’ ęșin ǫrǫ. Ti ǫrǫ ba sǫnu, owe l’ a fi nwaa” A proverb is the horse with which we search for notions. Ęșin, horse, is an indigenous word, whereas horses cannot be said to be indigenous to Yoruba territories because of the presence of tsetse flies. However, the horse is likely to have come with the Yoruba when they immigrated to the South-western region of Nigeria and probably could not survive for that same reason.
Ǫrǫ can be literally translated as word but in this proverb, it goes beyond the literal translation; it is an idea or a presentation of wisdom that is based on the experience within the large community and which is found applicable to the situation at hand. It is an effective means of dissenting from a view or giving advice in a way that may be less offensive; because they are indirect.
Let’s look at this proverb “Ile l’ a ti nko ęșǫ r’ode” impacts on a child that it is the moral virtue impacted on a child in its background (family) that reflects its performance in the community. Lord John Russell’s (c. 1850) definition as “A proverb is the wit of one, and the wisdom of many” can be seen as its function; not its meaning. There is a complement to this proverb which says “Oju meji l’ o n bi’mǫ, Igba oju l’ o nwoo” which implies that the community has a role to play in the upbringing of the child.
Proverbs are used in conversation by adults more than children because adults have more experience in the use of words. Among the Yoruba, it is considered rude for a young person to use proverb without due reference to adults present, however, when an adult belittles himself the youth may apply proverb that will make him amend his uncomely deed. Proper application of proverbs is a skill that is developed over the years. Additionally, children have not mastered the patterns of metaphorical expression that are invoked in proverb use. Studying actual proverb use in conversation, however, is difficult since the researcher must wait for proverbs to happen.