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A proverb is a short saying that conveys commonly held ideas in a certain culture. It can express a prevalent moral or a generally accepted observation about life based on experience. Proverbs are related to other phenomena in folk literature such as riddles and fables. They are all part of the oral tradition of a linguistic or cultural group. Examples of proverbs in English are:

  • A stitch in time saves nine,
  • A friend in need is a friend indeed
  • Better late than never.

Proverbs must be vivid and they must have the quality that they can be easily remembered. As a result, they use various linguistic devices such as metaphors: Too many cooks spoil the broth, rhyme: Rain before seven, fair before eleven and alliteration: Robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Because proverbs are usually spoken and not written, they relate to everyday wisdom people want to convey in speech. As a result, they relate matters or everyday interest, such as the weather: March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, folk medicine or observations about health: An apple a day keeps the doctor away and Early to bed, early to rise, religion: Man proposes, God disposes, family: Spare the rod and spoil the child, the law: A man's house is his castle, and supersititions: Marry in March, repent always.

Proverbs are usually illustrated with homely imagery using household objects, farm animals, pets, and events of daily life. Many proverbs are based on customs that are obsolete. For example, in English, the proverb If the cap fits, wear it refers to the medieval fool's cap used in parts of Europe. Quite frequently, a proverb's origin is unknown.The same proverb can be found in the same language in several forms. For example, in English, the proverb Money is the root of all evil is also used as The love of money is the root of all evil.

Comparison of proverbs found in various parts of the world have shown that basic human behaviors and observations about various aspects of life are similar across languages, cultures and continents. For example, the biblical saying An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth has an equivalent among the Nandi speakers East Africa: A goat's hide buys a goat's hide, and a gourd, a gourd. Often, the same proverb can be found in many variants in languages and cultures related by linguistic or social history,and even in unrelated languages. In Europe, a large number of proverbs have variants in most major languages. For example, the proverb known in English as A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush originated in medievel Latin and variants of it are found in Romanian, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, German and Icelandic. Its Latin form is Plus valet in manibus avis unica fronde duabus. In India, many proverbs are found in most Indo-Eurpoean languages of North India in various incarnations, quite often with similar wordings. The proverb mentioned earlier in the paragraph has its counterpart in Assamese as either: Duror rou-boraali, usoror kholihonaa (A small fish in the hand is better than a big fish elsewhere) or Kulaartu eri bukaartuloi aaxaa (It's stupid to want the one in the mud than the one in hand). In Bengali, a closely related language it is expressed as Durer sonaa, nikoter lonaa (The gold is far, the salt is near).

Most societies value their proverbs and have collected them for posterity. There are ancient Egyptian collections dating back to 2500 BC. Sumerian inscriptions have been found stating grammatical rules to be used in proverbs. The ancient Greeks also compiled their proverbs. Only later these proverbs from the Greeks and Egyptians found their way into Jewish writing and the Bible. Ancient Chinese have used proverbs for ethical insturction. Vedic writings of India have used proverbs to explain philosophical ideas. The biblical Book of Proverbs includes many such Christian sayings from ancient times. One of the earliest English proverb collections is Proverbs of Alfred (circa 1150-1180), containing religious and moral observations. In North America, the best known use of proverbs is found in Poor Richard's, an almanac published annually between 1732 and 1757 by Benjamin Franklin. He adapted many traditional European sayings into the American context. The number of proverbs that have been collected in the European nations of England, Germany, Sweden, Russia, Finland and Estonia have been estimated by scholars to be about two million.

Proverbs have been found in early writings of the easternmost Indo-European languages such as Assamese, Bengali, and Maithili. The Chrayapads that are regarded as common early writings of an undifferentiated form of these languages from the ninth through the twelfth centuries have used proverbs or similar sayings. One such usages is: Aaponaa maanse horinaa boiri (A deer's meat is its own enemy).

There are large numbers of proverbs, maxims or adages in the religious verses of Madhav Kondoli and Harihar Bipra who predate Sankaradeva, the most well-known Assamese Vaishnavite reformer and prophet from the middle ages. Madhav Kondoli translated the Ramayana into Assamese and one finds proverbs in large numbers towards the end of his Lawa-Kuxor Juddho (The Battle Between Lawa and Kuxo), and also in Bobrubaahonor Juddo (Bobrubaahon's Battle).

In one of Sankaradeva's early books, Horisodro Upaakhyaan (An Historial Narrative of Harischandra), he uses a saying in the following manner: Xaalgraam maatite notik deyo piraa, Ukonika bhoye kune muniyaase kexo (One puts the xaalgram, the black statue of Vishnu, on the ground, but gives a stool to a lowly dancer. Does anyone cut his hair because he is afraid of lice?).

Sankaradeva wrote his Uttoraakaando as a continuation of Madhav Kondoli's Ramayana. An example of the many of the proverb like verses in this book is Diyaa diyaa diyaa boxumoti jhaante baat (Dear Earth, Make a hole so I can hide). In another of Sankaradeva's early books Rukmini-Horon, a book from which verses are usually sung by women, there is the following proverb: Jaak bhoye polaau~, dunai taake paau~ bhet (In modern Assamese: Jote baaghor bhoy, tote hoy raati. Whatever I run from, I find it wherever I flee).

The Kirton, written by Sankaradeva in the 14th and 15th centuries. in the Brojobuli language, a later version of undifferentiated form of Assamese, Bengali, and Maithili, has used proverbs. Here is an example from the Kirton: Makorer haathe jehn runaa naarikol (In Modern Assamese, it is Baandore ki naarikolor mul buje: A monkey doesn't know what's inside a coconut.) The Kirton is Sankaradeva's most well-known and revered book.

Sankaradeva's disciple Madhavadeva also used proverbs in his verses. Madhavadeva's name has become a part of the Assamese proverbial folklore in terms of the verse: Kohoyo Madhava Daaxe ... (Says your disciple Madhava ...) that he used repeatedly. Madhavadeva's Bhokti-Rotnaawoli contains a large number of verses written in the form of proverbs. One such example is Ko bulibo nejaane, Rotnaawoli porhe (Can't read the alphabet, wants to read an epic). The Bhokti-Rotnaawoli had become a very popular spiritual and religious book in Assam after the passing of Madhavadeva. There are instances in the recorded history of Assam where generals have gone to war by taking oaths with the Rotnaawoli in their hands. There are other instances when kings have tied the Rotnaawoli in their chest to protect themselves from assassins. Even in the recent past, Kusal Kuwor, who was hanged by the British in 1942, for demanding freedom for Assam and India, shouted Paar koraa Roghunaath xonxaar xxagore, a verse from the Rotnaawoli meaning something like "Help me cross this ocean of life, dear Krishna." It goes to show that proverbs used in verse form by early authors can have an eduring effect on the life of a people.

Although the use of proverbs seemed to have gone down in the post-Vaishnavite literature of Assam, there are large numbers of instances of the same. Scholars have also found uses of proverbs and maxims in the historical chronicles of the Ahom kings, the buronjis.

The first collection of Assamese proverbs is known to be Phrases in English and Assamese written by Mrs. H.B.L. Cutter in 1877 from Sibsagar (Xiboxaagor). The second such compilation is Some Assamese Proverbs by P.R.T. Gurdon, published in 1896. Its second edition was printed in 1903. He classified 363 Assamese proverbs into nine categories.

  • Proverbs relating to human failings, foibles and vices
  • Proverbs relating to worldly wisdom and maxims, epediency and cunning, and warnings and advice
  • Proverbs relating to peculiarities of certain castes and classes
  • Proverbs relating to social and moral subjects, religious customs and popular superstitions
  • Proverbs relating to agriculture and seasons
  • Proverbs relating to cattle, animals, fish and insects
  • Additional Proverbs
  • Dak's agricultural sayings
  • Miscellaneous

After the publication of Gurdon's book, Assamese authors started publishing their compilations. Some such compilations are listed below. The list is taken from "Axomiyaa Khondobaakya-Kox", 1991.

  • Axomiyaa Potontor Maalaa baa Jujonaa, republished in 1927 as Assamese Proverbs by The Agency Company, Dibrugarh, Assam.This book has 429 proverbs.
  • Axomiyaa Proboson (Aaxaamor Niti-Xaahitya) by Indranarayan Bora, 1943. This book has 239 entries.
  • Potontor Maalaa, Prothom Khondo, by Prasanna Baruah of Komarkuchi, published in Bengali in 1934.
  • Phokoraa Jujonaa, by Ramakrishna Das, Guwahati, 1941
  • Jujonaa by Loghonuraam Das of Rongiyaa Proboson by Bhimxekhor Barua
  • Historical Sketches of Old Assam: Based on an Analysis of Popular Proverbs, Benudhar Rajkhowa,1917. This book contains 236 proverbs.
  • Axomiyaa Khondobaakya-Kox, Compiled by Benudhar Rajkhuwaa, Introduction and Addendum by Maheswar Neog, printed by Barua Agency, Guwahati, Assam for Axom Xahitya Xabha, 1991 (first published 1917). This is the largest collection of Assamese proverbs containing 2387 phrases.


  • Encyclopedia Americana International Edition, Volume 22, p. 704, Grolier Inc., Danbury, Connecticut, 1995.
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia, Volume 9, 15th edition, p. 749, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1998.
  • Axomiyaa Khondobaakya-Kox, Compiled by Benudhar Rajkhuwaa, Introduction and Addendum by Maheswar Neog, printed by Barua Agency, Guwahati, Assam for Axom Xahitya Xabha, 1991 (first published 1917). This article is based to a large extent on the chapter called "Bhumikaa" or Introduction by Maheswar Neog, pp. 13-4

Written on April 26, 1998.