Definition of the proverb has been elusive to scholars through the decades. Scholar Archer Taylor once said, “The definition of a proverb is too difficult to repay the undertaking.” While clearly defining a proverb may be an unhelpful pursuit, it is possible to note that proverbs share common features that make them identifiable:

  • short verbal saying
  • Offer wisdom or socially sanctioned advice
  • Use metaphor to relate the situation in the proverb to the situation of the receiver or speaker of the proverb.
  • Classify situations and provide ways to resolve them

Proverbs therefore serve the common purpose of alleviating social tension and providing advice in face of a given situation.

Our Analysis 

We attempted to analyze each collected proverb in three ways, all of which are presented in Alan Dundes’ The Wisdom of Many: Essays on the Proverb. 

  1.  By Formula: Dundes noted that proverbs tend to fit into a few different formulas:
  • Better ____  than ______.  Ex: “Better late than never.”
  • A ______ is a ________.    Ex: “A proverb is a true word.”
  • ______ never _______.      Ex: “Barking dogs never bite.”
  • ______ or _______.            Ex: “Live free or die.”

2.  By Image: what type of image does the proverb convey?

  • Humorous, serious, sad, etc 

3.  Message: the interpretation and use of the proverb


After collecting and examining our proverbs, our group formulated the following conclusions:

  • Students tended not to know as many proverbs as adults and professionals.
  • Religious proverbs: Biblical to humerous  
    • The Hebrew Proverb, “Do not rejoice at your enemy’s downfall.” vs the Yiddish Proverb “Do not rejoice at your enemy’s downfall, but also do not help them get up.”
    • The Catholic Proverb, “There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.” vs. its usage in a less literal context
  • In diasporic communities, proverbs also serve to teach children about family’s heritage culture.
    • learned in more formal contexts such as language schools or from religious instructors as seen with Spanish, Chinese, and Jewish proverbs
    • Seen in Russian culture to push national ideals 
  • Friends vs Family
    • Jewish proverbs: equal influence in proverbs
    • Spanish proverbs: family over friends
    • Chinese and Christian proverbs: friends over family
    • Russian proverbs: the group over the individual
  • Chinese proverbs follow a formulaic structure and put more emphasis on sounds in certain instances than other proverbs.
  • All of the cultures examined had a fair mixture of light, humorous proverbs and serious proverbs, except for those in Chinese.
  • Structure of proverbs were more broad than suggested by Dundes


Proverbs Presentation (as a pdf)


Spanish Proverbs

Chinese Proverbs

Jewish/Yiddish Proverbs

Catholic Proverbs

Russian Proverbs


  • William Baddoo
  • Zachary Benjamin
  • Hannah Margolis
  • Madison Minsk
  • Allie Norris
  • Vi Nguyen
  • James Wen
  • Rachel Zhao


  • Family
  • Friends
  • Relationships
  • Catholic Proverbs
  • Jewish/Yiddish Proverbs
  • Spanish Proverbs
  • Chinese Proverbs
  • Russian Proverbs