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Proverbs, commitment, and the evasion of responsibility

Damien Villers


This article will tackle the different degrees and types of commitment at work in proverbial interaction. After an introduction to the notions of “commitment” and “proverb”, formal commitment will be briefly discussed through formulae that contain stance markers. More attention will then be paid to the sociolinguistic approach which describes proverbs as a way for the speaker to avoid commitment and tension. This theory will be studied through notions such as polyphony or proverb duelling, and will be questioned through examples in which proverbs create tension intentionally or unintentionally, thus failing to disengage the speaker’s responsibility. Finally, commitment in proverbs will be broached through their alleged prescriptive nature. The study of the utterances in the last part will be led with the language functions theory as a framework, and will aim at showing that proverbs can perform numerous functions other than the prescriptive or “conative” one, therefore highlighting various degrees and types of commitment for the speaker.

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Introduction and definitions

  • 1 This notion would not be appropriate since using a proverb implies that you consider its content (...)

1 In this paper, the term commitment will not be used as the equivalent for the notion of “prise en charge”, which is too broad and has too many definitions (cf. De Brabanter and Dendale 2008; Coltier, Dendale and De Brabanter 2009). Thus, it will not refer to the general act of enunciation as is often the case in Speech-act theory, or to the attitude of the speaker towards the truth1 of a propositional content, as is often the case in studies on modality. It must also be distinguished from the notion of “promise” or “duty”. In fact, the term commitment will be used as a synonym for involvement to refer to the notion of responsibility with regards to the addressee.

  • 2 A detailed discussion on this matter can be found in Norrick (1985) or Villers (2014).

2 As for the term proverb, it will be used to refer to self-sufficient utterances with a generic meaning involving Mankind that are not associated with a specific author and that are current among the folk (and consequently have a stable form). This multi-criteria and system-based definition is the conclusion of a PhD thesis (Villers 2014) that evaluates the weight and relevance of numerous criteria, eventually separating them into obligatory ones (those in the definition) and optional ones (potential facilitators for proverb genesis and replication). Even if the definition of proverbs is a never-ending subject of disagreement2 among paremiologists, it is possible to notice a scale of consensus regarding defining criteria in specialised literature:

3- Criteria non-grata: structural implication, humour, old age, archaism.
- Controversial criteria: metaphor and figurativeness, morality, prescriptiveness, wisdom, concision, semantic implication, rhythmic traits, frozenness.
- Criteria with relatively high consensus: human activities, collective anonymity.
- High consensus criteria: grammatical autonomy, generic meaning, currency (also known as “commonness”, “traditionality”, “reproducibility”, “preconstruction” etc.).

4 Among all those criteria, one in particular remains relatively undisputed and is often described as the most important one: preconstruction. This notion implies that proverbs are not coined as we speak but retrieved from memory or “reproducible” (from a psycholinguistic point of view).

5 From a more cultural or ethnographic point of view, this makes them “common” and “current”, while stability – a less extreme and divisive notion than frozenness – may be seen as the formal or structural manifestation of preconstruction.

6 The other two criteria at the top of the consensus scale imply that proverbs are complete utterances with a generic meaning. When combined with the preconstruction criterion, it is possible to view proverbs as ideas formulated by others. This combination of factors makes them a very special category and one might thus think that their use entails a lack of involvement and even the will to avoid face-threatening situations. The aim of the present article is to delve into this issue and study the extent of speaker involvement in proverbial interaction.

Overt and covert commitment vs formal markers

7 Naturally, the speaker’s commitment may be of various degrees. In some particular cases, the proverb is accompanied by a marker that indicates the speaker’s attitude – or “stance” – towards its content, as in the examples below:

  • 3 Proverbs being inserted in subordinate clauses, as in examples [4] to [6], may pose problems in (...)

[1] As they say, [proverb] / [Proverb], as they say.
[2] As the saying goes, [proverb] / [Proverb], as the saying goes.
[3] You know what they say: [proverb].
[4] It is said that [proverb].
[5] I think that3 [proverb].

  • 4 This example is to be understood as a complete sentence and not as a concession followed by “but (...)

[6] It is true that4 [proverb].

  • 5 For a detailed study on such formulae and the image of the speaker and addressee by means of Jea (...)

8 This sample5, which includes the most common proverb markers, shows two opposite attitudes. In examples [1] to [4], the speaker merely signals that the statement is prefabricated while in examples [5] and [6], they overtly endorse its content through stance markers. These examples suggest that different markers may correspond to different degrees of commitment: overt commitment at one end, and overt disengagement at the other. Using the terminology of Jean Blaise Grize’s “natural logic” (Grize 1982), it is possible to distinguish between the notions of marked presence and commitment. One could thus state that the speaker is absent in examples [1] to [4] and [6] but present in example [5], due to formal traces such as the pronoun “I”. More importantly, and still in Grize’s words, the speaker is considered “neutral” in examples [1] to [4] and “engaged” (“engagé”) in examples [5] and [6] since a point of view is overtly expressed.

9 However, the application of this framework to proverbs has its limits as it would imply that those without such markers always correspond to a “neutral” speaker. Furthermore, one may wonder if the speaker really is “neutral” in examples [1] to [4]. This apparent neutrality is deceptive and it is necessary to study what may be named covert commitment. As a consequence, the cases where the speaker’s commitment is obvious, such as examples [5] and [6], will be left out in the present study. Likewise, twisted or parodied proverbs will be set aside since they betray a higher – and formally marked – degree of involvement due to their creative nature.

The evasion and regulation theories put to the test

  • 6 This concept was introduced in linguistics by Ducrot (1984).

10 Among paremiologists, the most common position is that proverbs reveal a lack of speaker commitment. Furthermore, they have often been described as “the wisdom of many and the wit of one”, or the “wisdom of nations”. Grésillon & Maingueneau (1984) or Anscombre (1994, 2000) have studied proverbs through the framework of polyphony6 insofar as several voices can be found to overlap when they are used: that of the proverb user (the secondary voice, or « énonciateur second ») and that of its creator, the primary voice, which has been forgotten and merged into the “voice” of the speech community. This collective voice was labelled « ON-Locuteur » (“THEY/WE-Speaker”) by Anscombre (1994, 2000, etc.) after Berendonner (1981) and his concept of « ON-Vérité » (“THEY/WE-Truth”). In other words, the polyphonic approach describes how the voice of the proverb user is blended with, or even hidden behind that of the speech community. In his description of proverbial speech acts, Kerdilès (96-97) goes further:

Le protagoniste au moyen du proverbe se désengage de son rôle et du même coup désengage le deutéragoniste du sien également. C'est ainsi que le deutéragoniste assiste à un discours décalé et devient tritagoniste […] Le protagoniste triche manifestement en signalant en quelque sorte « ce n'est pas moi qui le dis ». Le proverbe est ici une parade au sens ambigu de manifestation comportementale et d'esquive.
With a proverb, the speaker withdraws from their role, causing the addressee to withdraw from theirs as well. The addressee’s role in discourse thus shifts as they become a mere third party […] The speaker overtly cheats by stating something similar to “these words are not mine”. Proverbs are both a display of behaviour and an evasion technique.

11 Many specialists share similar views while linguists who favour the socio-linguistic approach have posited that proverbs automatically allow users to avoid tension and conflict due to their disengagement and evasive potential:

12- They have an “impersonal power”, the power to “release tensions” (Arewa & Dundes 70, 73).
- “Because the performer of a proverb projects the conflict and resolves it, the illusion is created that it can be solved in real life” (Abrahams 150).
- They allow the “shifting of responsibility for what is said away from the speaker” and “on to the anonymous past’” (Arora 392).
- Proverbs “appeal to reason” (White 168).
- They “allow people to say what needs to be said without creating additional social tensions” (Jacobson 81).
- They are “important verbal instruments for minimizing interpersonal friction and tensions” and that they even function as “social safety valves” (Raymond 301).
- Proverbs “allow the speaker to avoid direct confrontation” (Hildebrandt 17).
- They are a form of “indirect speech” that allows the speaker to “avoid pleading one’s own authority”, but also “neutralizing social tensions” (Lauhakangas 2007: 226). They have a “socially unburdening function” (Lauhakangas 2009: 95).
- Proverbs help with “socialization” and the “promotion of group solidarity” by making addressees “participate” in their interpretation and the “identification of shared referents”. (Dominguez Barajas 9-10).

13 What is most striking about all these theories is that they do not seem to present evasion or conflict-solving as a potential function or effect, but as the essence of proverbs. Therefore, counterarguments are not considered and their validity is not tested. Of course, in many cases, the evasive function of proverbs is unquestionable, as can be seen in this extract taken from BBC’s Merlin (1x04) where a character pretends to speak proverbially:

[7] – Merlin: Why do I always get landed with the donkey work?
– Gaius: You're a servant, Merlin. It's what you do.
– Merlin: My arms will be a foot longer by the time I get this lot inside.
– Gaius: It's character building. As the old proverb says, ‘Hard work breeds... a harder soul’.
– Merlin: There's no way that's a proverb. You just made that up!

14 In this scene, Merlin, a servant, complains about his condition. His master decides to make up a proverb-like formula to justify the situation but Merlin sees through the deception. In other words, the mask worn by Gaius is broken and Merlin realizes that Gaius is the primary speaker or “voice”, and not a secondary one that borrows from the speech community as should be the case with a real proverb. Despite Gaius’s failure and the unforeseen perlocutionary effect (rejection), the intention to evade responsibility through proverbial language is very clear.

15 However, whether the evasion is successful or not, it is not accurate to say that the addressee is powerless or “trapped” when confronted with a proverb, as they may resort to proverbial evasion. For instance, the addressee can choose to answer with a counter-proverb, as in this extract taken from Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (Ch. 3):

[8] (Gildor) ‘That Gandalf should be late, does not bode well. But it is said: Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger. The choice is yours: to go or wait.'
'And it is also said,' answered Frodo: 'Go not to the Elves for counsel for they will answer both no and yes.'
'Is it indeed?' laughed Gildor. 'Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill’.

  • 7 Although the utterances in italics were coined by Tolkien himself, they are proverbial in his fi (...)

16 In this extract, Gildor (an elf) tells Frodo (a hobbit) that although Gandalf may be in danger, he should not help him. He opts for a proverb7 to express this potentially shocking viewpoint, which also turns out to contradict the expected course of action. Unimpressed with the elf’s indecisiveness and the means used to express it, Frodo uses the same weapon to mock him. Thus, it becomes clear that the addressee is neither powerless nor a mere “spectator” since Frodo rejects Gildor’s point all the while “playing along”. In a sense, proverb use may be compared to a game, as suggested by Funk (2007), who describes them by means of Wittgenstein’s game theory.

17 In this game, the addressee is free to participate by wearing the proverbial “mask”, which may lead to comical jousts. This is the case in the first episode of the seventh season of Stargate-SG1, in which soldiers explore an alien planet and try to convince the village’s elder that they come in peace:

[9] Villager: “They are travellers like us. They say that they are friends.
Shamda: ‘No one can be a friend if you know not whether to trust them’.
O’Neill: ‘Don't judge a book by its cover’.
Shamda: ‘Enemies’ promises were made to be broken’.
O’Neill: And yet, ‘Honesty is the best policy’.
Shamda: ‘He that has too many friends has none’.
O’Neill: Ah, but…‘Birds of a feather’…
Shamda: I’m unfamiliar with that story. What lesson does it teach?
O’Neill: It has to do with flocking...and be honest, I'm not that familiar with the particulars myself. The point is, we're not your enemy. Give us a chance to prove it”

18 Here, the elder is wary and suggests through a proverb that the explorers cannot be trusted. There is a lot at stake for both men: the safety of the village and the success of the mission, so the absence of involvement is quite unlikely. The proverb allows Shamda to accuse the explorers all the while being as little aggressive as possible, by quoting common words (at least common on his planet, where people happen to speak English). O’Neill notices his wisdom and chooses to use a proverb – current on Earth – in order to gain his trust. But neither of them is willing to give up and a proverbial duel ensues, until O’Neill has no proverb left to quote and eventually uses one that is not entirely appropriate. Both men then “drop the masks” and choose to return to a strategy of overt commitment by speaking with their own words and more directly. While this example shows that covert commitment may be a more accurate notion for proverbs than disengagement, it confirms their conflict-solving potential.

  • 8 This term was coined by world-leading paremiologist Wolfgang Mieder and is used, despite its aggr (...)

19 There are other ways for the addressee to counter a proverb by “playing the game”. Such ways include “anti-proverbs8”, which are not discussed in the present article, but also proverbial puns. These puns often play on the literal meaning of proverbs, or to be more precise, on the literal reading of the surface structure of figurative proverbs. This extract from Desperate Housewives (Season 4, episode 8) where Susan disapproves of her daughter’s boyfriend because of his piercings exemplifies this strategy:

[10] Julie: Okay, yes, mom, Derek has bought into The Who piercing craze, but aren't you the one who told me to not judge a book by its cover?
Susan: If the cover has holes in it, the book is no good!

20 Here, Susan rejects her daughter’s argument but accepts to “play the game”, despite her anger, and replies to the proverbial allusion with a pun to avoid being beaten at the game she started herself. Conversely, the addressee may reject the game altogether if the message delivered by the proverb hurts their feelings or clashes with their principles:

[11] –Bianca: Well, I I know exactly what's going through your head. I know it better than anyone. You’re wondering if you could've done something different, if if if maybe you could’ve changed things and and it would’ve worked out better if you could’ve just stopped it. This is the worst hell that a mother can go through.
Krystal: You know better than anyone, because I did it to you. And now, what goes around comes around.
Bianca: No, there is no justice in this.
Krystal: Didn’t I learn? I did it all over again and now this is my punishment. Is this what you wanted? Well, I got it. I'm so sorry. I’m so sorry, Bianca.
Bianca: You deserve to be with your daughter, and she deserves to be with you, and she will. (All My Children, 2007)

21 In this soap opera, Krystal blames herself with a proverb suggesting that she deserves being separated from her daughter after robbing and switching Bianca’s baby, and telling her that it had died. However, Bianca, who does not resent Krystal and her forced choices, rejects the message and replies without entering the proverbial game by focusing on its deeper meaning: “there is no justice in this”.

22 In many cases, proverb usage is completely incompatible with any form of tension regulation, game, or evasion of commitment, especially when their pragmatic function is to convey hostility or to deliver an aggressive message, as in the examples below:

[12] Barbara Walters: But David, in asking for the death penalty, Susan Smith may be put to death. She may be electrocuted.
David Smith: Yes.
Barbara Walters: Do you realize that?
David Smith: Yes I do.
Barbara Walters: You could live with that?
David Smith: Yes I could, if Susan dies on the electric chair. I'd rather [have] her stay in prison, but if she dies on the electric chair, then you reap what you sow
(Cashing In On America, ABC, 1995)

[13] When it comes to homosexuals, lesbians, being a whoremonger, it's not about God. Factor in brothers on the down-low swinging from a woman's bed to a man's and back, intravenous drug addicts sharing needles, wanton sex, and what you have is a lethal mix. It's no wonder that AIDS is so widespread. You reap what you sow. (Essence vol. 37, The story of Aids? in black America, 2006)

23 In [12], a journalist interviews a man whose ex-wife killed their children. It’s only natural that the man’s words should betray a high degree of involvement and the desire to blame his wife. To do so, he opts for a proverb whose main pragmatic function is compatible with his resentment: condoning punishment, more precisely her execution. In [13], the proverb is used with a similar pragmatic function, that of blaming people for their own terrible fate. Moreover, You reap what you sow and its more modern counterpart, What goes around, comes around, may be used in order to express a threat: Turkey’s Erdogan famously used it (its Arabic equivalent) in 2012 to warn Syria’s Assad about his crimes. Similarly, An eye for an eye was used on numerous forums by white supremacists to justify the murders of Muslims following the 9/11 attacks. All these cases show that proverbial use is compatible with face-threatening and conflict-creating stances.

24 Many proverbs are offensive even out of context for they contain slurs or insults in their surface structures: A good Indian is a dead Indian; Always a bridesmaid, never a bride; A woman, a dog and a walnut tree, the more [harder] you beat them, the better they be, etc. Predisposition to conflict is also visible in proverbs that contain pejorative lexical elements such as Garbage in, garbage out; Never give a sucker an even break; A fool and his money are soon parted; Once a thief, always a thief; or Haters gonna hate. This is also the case with figurative proverbs that contain elements which might be offensive if meant literally such as It’s not over till the fat lady sings, Speak of the devil and he will appear, or You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. All these cases show that proverbs have more to offer than tension regulation and evasion of commitment. Even when they are not used with hostile intentions, their evasion potential is quite limited: as Kleiber puts it, the speaker still “takes responsibility for declaring the principle is valid” (Kleiber 55). As for the limits of evasion and regulation, they depend on the willingness of the addressee, and whether their feelings and principles are compromised by the “game”.

25 Finally, the game itself may create conflict and make evasion of commitment entirely impossible, even when the proverb does not convey any hostility. This is the case with people who despise proverbial language. In literature, the constant scolding of Sancho (for his proverbs) by his master Don Quixote comes to mind, as well as Jonathan Swift, who utterly rejects them in A complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation (18th century):

The reader must learn by all means to distinguish between Proverbs, and those polite speeches which beautify Conversation: As to the former, I utterly reject them out of all ingenious Discourse.

26 Similarly, Lord Chesterfield (an 18th century British man of letters) claimed in his correspondence to his son that “A man of fashion never has recourse to proverbs” while Oscar Wilde criticized them in A Picture of Dorian Gray: “they were made in winter, and it is summer now” (Ch. V, 1890). More recently, Stephen Leacock, writer and jack of all trades, described them as “outdated” in Winnowed Wisdom (1926). Even more recently, in 2017 and on the Internet, examiners for the English Language Testing System claim that they are only “for grandmothers” ( This contempt for the proverbial genre, even if limited to a minority, can easily be verified on Google and its Ngram viewer by typing things such as “stop using proverbs” or “stupid proverbs” and looking at the hundreds of hits. As a consequence, it is necessary to put into perspective the regulation and evasion potential – even in terms of game – that are generally associated with proverbs as they may backfire even when they are not used as tools of aggression.

The pragmatic reasons behind commitment

27 It has been established so far that the proverb user’s involvement may be of varying degrees (overt and covert) and that proverbs only allow limited regulation and evasion. It has also been established that they may be used as tools of aggression, in which case the speaker’s involvement is very clear. Thus, it appears that the pragmatic function of a proverb and the degree of speaker commitment are connected. This implies that commitment, even the so-called covert – marker free – type, may be of various degrees. Insofar as proverbs are “tools of conversation”, as Matti Kuusi (Kuusi 41) famously described them, they may serve numerous pragmatic functions. Krikmann insists on their “practical” and pragmatic nature and gives a non-exhaustive list of functions:

With the aid of a proverb one can aim to provide an endorsement to his statements and opinions, forecast something, express doubts, reproach someone with something, accuse someone of something, justify or excuse somebody, mock somebody, comfort somebody, jeer at somebody’s misfortune, repent something, warn against something, advise something or interdict somebody from doing something, and so on, and so forth (Krikmann 51).

  • 9 As it was designed for very specific purposes, the more generalising Bühler-Jakobson model will (...)

28 Even if non-exhaustive, this list seems to focus on cases where proverbs convey the speaker’s emotions or their desire to influence the addressee, and when their commitment is at its highest. These cases correspond to two basic functions of language. The most famous theoretical framework on language functions was originally designed by Karl Bühler in 1934 and later completed by Roman Jakobson in 1971. The resulting theory describes six language functions, each centered on a different element: the expressive function (centered on the sender and its emotions), the referential function (centered on the context and information), the poetic function (centered on the appearance of the message), the phatic function (centered on the “channel” and contact), the metalingual function (centered on the “code”, the words themselves); and finally, the conative function, which is centered on the “receiver” (addressee) and engages them through imperatives or vocatives for example. Michael Halliday (1975) developed a similar model of language functions while he was studying child development9. It is divided into seven functions: instrumental (expressing your needs), regulatory (telling people what to do), interactional (making contact), personal (expressing feelings), heuristic (gaining knowledge), imaginative, and representational (conveying information). In these two models, some functions are equivalent: the conative and regulatory functions, the referential and representational functions, the expressive and personal functions, or the phatic and interactional ones. Some others may seem slightly different but are actually compatible, such as Halliday’s instrumental function, which may be incorporated into the broader expressive one.

29 Quite surprisingly, an impressive number of paremiologists make the conative or “regulatory” function the primary one – and even the only one – in proverbs. This is especially true with linguists who have tackled them from a social-pragmatic point of view:

  • 10 The author actually identifies several types or “complexes” of functions in proverbs: 1) pragmat (...)

30- Proverbs imply an “injunction in social behavior” (Firth 265).
- Proverbs “provide an argument for a course of action which conforms to community values […] The strategy of the Proverb, in other words, is to direct by appearing to clarify” (Abrahams 150).
- Proverbs are “normative” or “conative” (Rodegem 124-128). But “norm” and “trying to convince” are a means to an end: “to seduce in order to subjugate for social regulation and group harmony”.
- They are “aimed at influencing other people” and “carry directive force” (White 152, 168).
- Proverbs are instruments for “social control” (Jacobson 75).
- They are “tools for social manipulation” (Hernardi and Steen 7).
- Although Krikmann is aware of their “polyfunctionality”, he claims their ultimate or most “strategic” function is the “imperative (prescriptive) one” (Krikmann 108).
- They contain or express social “norms” (Grzybek10 47-48, Visetti and Cadiot 345, or Palma 263).

  • 11 Regarding advertising and politics, one may refer to Mieder (2004) or Mieder (2005) for a more de (...)

31 Although they use different terms, this (non-exhaustive) list shows that proverbs are often thought to be used to exert some kind of pressure on the addressee, and make them commit to a norm or a goal. To do so, the speaker needs to be committed, which explains why the conative function entails a high degree of involvement, even in the absence of stance markers. The claim that proverbs have a conative essence seems to be supported by the fact that they are abundantly used in advertising and political speeches11, which both aim at influencing people. Another serious argument in favour of the conative thesis is the notion of indirect prescription. This theory is defended by Rodegem, who notes that proverbs can be indirectly normative (Rodegem 134), but also by Norrick, who claims that they contain “indirect prescription” (Norrick 41). White also notes these “different levels of inference” in proverbs (White 168), which Doctor calls “overt prescription” and “covert prescription” (Doctor 55-57). The latter opposes these two notions: the first is found in their surface structures while the second is found in their “deep structures”. In more recent studies, Visetti and Cadiot posit that an indirect “deontic” level is reached through logical inference (Visetti and Cadiot 81). This “indirect prescription” theory was expanded by Krikmann and condensed as follows (Krikmann 108):

32 In this diagram, the author represents a “set of three degrees” which correspond to the different stages of human cognition: statement > evaluation > prescription. If we apply this diagram to a proverb such as The early bird gets the worm, we can find in its descriptive structure that early bird / get the worm is presented as valid. As a consequence, it is possible to infer that being late is bad, and that being early or proactive is good. This evaluative inference allows us to conclude that being early should be maintained.

  • 12 In a nutshell, Anscombre and Ducrot argue against the classical view of language as a tool for d (...)

33 Many more specialists describe proverbs through notions that may seem similar to that of prescription or normativity but are actually different. This is the case with Norrick, who defines proverbs as being potentially “didactic” (Norrick 47) or with the argument clincher theory, also known as “topoi”. Topoi are general ideas that allow the transition from one stage of reasoning to another (often transcribed as “P > Q”). For instance, if a speaker says “Max passed his exams” and the addressee answers “He studied a lot, you know!”, the implicit topos or “argument clincher” that allows the transition between these two stages is the common idea that “working hard greatly increases chances of success”. Among argumentation specialists who define proverbs as “argument clinchers” or “topoi”, one may cite Doctor (1993) or Anscombre & Ducrot (1983), who proposed the Théorie de l’Argumentation dans la Langue or “Theory of Argumentation in Language”12.

34 Insofar as many proverbs contain generally accepted ideas, it is perfectly safe to claim that many of them function as topoi. However, this cannot serve as an argument to support the prescriptive theory since the topoi theory is limited to the argumentative and logical point of view, whereas the prescriptive theory entails a more pragmatic point of view. Besides, the notion of argument is in no way limited to the normative or prescriptive dimension. It is also important to remember that the possibility of comparing proverbs to topoi is not due to their mere proverbial status, but rather to the fact that they are complete utterances with a generic meaning. Finally, the topoi model (P > Q) as applied to describe proverbs has been criticized by authors such as Fournet, who claims that it is not compatible with 30% of them, especially in the case of patterns such as “although P, Q” or “P is better than Q” (Fournet 120).

35 Among the three major studies that have focused on proverb functions, none of them makes the conative function the only or primary one. On the contrary, they all reveal the polyfunctionality of proverbs. The first of these studies was conducted on social networks and concludes that three primary functions can be observed: (1) “making evaluative claims about behavior” (the most common one in his corpus), (2) “teaching or promoting reflection by way of advice”, (3) “establishing interpersonal rapport” (Dominguez Barajas 70-72). Proverbs may also have a secondary function, that of entertaining and adding variety but only as a complement to one of the three primary ones. These functions are respectively equivalent to the emotive, conative, phatic, and poetic ones. The second major study is a chapter entirely devoted to proverb functions by Jesensek, who isolates three types of function: argumentative (topoi), pragmatic (speech acts), and textual (text-structuring and organizing). As for pragmatic functions, she lists four general types (Jesensek 145-157):

36- “assertive speech acts” (claim, describe, inform, etc.) which imply a “commitment to stating the truth”.
- directive speech acts (order, forbid, advise, etc.), which aim at “convincing” the addressee.
- commissive speech acts (promise, guarantee, comply, etc.), which “express intent”.
- expressive speech acts (praise, criticize, complain, etc.), which express emotions.

37 In the language functions framework, directive speech acts correspond to the conative function while commissive and expressive speech acts both correspond to the slightly broader expressive function. As for assertive speech acts, they coincide with the referential function, in which the textual functions may also be included. The last major study on proverb functions is a PhD thesis defended in 2015. In his conclusion, Widback summarizes his results and describes 272 specific functions that are encompassed in 14 general interpersonal and 2 textual functions:

The 14 interpersonal speech functions are divided into three categories: informative, opinion-giving and evaluative. The informative speech functions are Comment, Describe, Explain and Confirm. The opinionative speech functions are Reinforce, Defend, Argue, Object, Reprimand and Warn. The evaluative speech functions are Criticise, Soothe, Comfort and Insult. The textual uses identified in the material are that the proverbs summarise a theme or form a template for an ensuing utterance (Widback 167).

38 Once again, these functions can be arranged into general language functions: while the “14 interpersonal” ones correspond to subtypes of the expressive, conative, and referential functions, the textual ones only match with the referential one. All in all, each of these studies identifies three language functions in proverbs, out of the six existing ones.

39 In fact, it is possible to claim that proverbs can actually perform as many functions as language itself. Naturally, the conative function is often present in them, as in example [8], where Gildor encourages Frodo to not meddle in the affairs of wizards. Prescription may be overt, as with imperatives, or may be indirect or “covert”, as seen with the “set of three degrees”. Furthermore, the conative function encompasses many cases where the proverb user tries to influence the addressee, from warning to comforting, not only ordering and forbidding.

40 Another possible function, which has only been identified in one major study, is the phatic function. In 2008, comedian Sean Lock performed in Live at the Apollo. Before his first sketches, he greeted the celebrities present in the audience in the first rows, all the while making a few jokes to break the ice with the rest of the audience. Among these celebrities was Rav Wilding, the rich and famous host of a TV programme named Crimewatch. After mentioning his name and greeting him, the comedian then added ironically that Crime does not pay, suggesting that in his case it had “paid”. Here, the proverb was intended as a mere joke or an ice breaker, not a comment on crime; that is why its main function could be described as phatic (centred on the channel and contact with the audience). Proverbs may also be used to summarise or describe facts, as in the Birmingham Post (21/03/2006): “Ignorance is bliss. That has been the defence of the adulterer throughout the ages”. In this case, the referential function prevails, as the proverb encapsulates the defence used by adulterers. In [13], too, the referential function prevails, for the proverb merely summarises an explanation that would have been too long:

[13] When we did our magic show for the seniors, my father had had to convince me to do the vanishing act. He explained the reality to me – Out of sight, out of mind – but I still believed that once the black curtain came down, I’d be gone for good. (Jodi Picoult, Vanishing acts 2005).

41 Naturally, in some cases, several functions may coexist. In the following extract, the referential function comes to mind, but it turns out that the intent is purely comical:

[14] “Who are you talking to?” said the King, coming up to Alice, and looking at the Cat’s head with great curiosity.
“It's a friend of mine — a Cheshire-Cat,” said Alice: “allow me to introduce it.”
“I don't like the look of it at all,” said the King: “however, it may kiss my hand, if it likes.”
“I'd rather not,” the Cat remarked.
“Don't be impertinent,” said the King, “and don't look at me like that!” He got behind Alice as he spoke.
A cat may look at a king,” said Alice. “I’ve read that in some book, but I don't remember where.”
Lewis Carroll,
Alice in Wonderland (Ch. 8)

42 Here, the purpose of the proverb is not to comment upon the absence of respect toward hierarchy, but merely to play on its literal meaning. It is true that the pun refers to elements (a cat and a king) that are actually present in the situation, but the referential dimension is secondary here, for the function of the proverb is not to bring information or to describe facts. The pun is clearly based on the code itself, on the very words in the proverb, and aims at creating a humorous echo. Therefore, its main function seems to be the metalingual one. A slightly different example can be found in this newspaper extract:

[15] Time and tide wait for no man. Engineers for BT are attempting to bring 21st century communications to Holy Island, but they will have to battle with the seas to do so. They are restricted by the tides that famously cover the causeway”. (Newcastle Journal, 27/06/2006)

43 Once again, the proverb has a metalingual function as the pun is based on the code, but its opening position and the necessity to efficiently convey information in a newspaper article suggest that it also has an informative purpose. As a consequence, it is harder to cast aside the referential function here, and it may be said that the two functions are present in this example. It is even possible to consider that the proverb was also chosen for aesthetic reasons, which would also give it a poetic function. This function is salient when a proverb rephrases an utterance in a more poetic way. For example, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, many international newspapers chose to fight violence through cartoons and satire. In numerous articles (Euro News, the Daily Mail, etc.) journalists chose to rephrase this stance with the more poetic The pen is mightier than the sword. Finally, proverbs may perform an expressive function:

[16] Eric Finan said he was relieved to hear that his daughter had not come to any harm. “She has been in contact with her mother in the last forty minutes to say she is on a bus to Cork. So all is well that ends well The Irish Times (09/07/2012).

44 In this example, it is safe to assume that the objective of the father is not to embellish his statement, because of the emotions triggered by the disappearance of his daughter (shock then relief). Therefore, the poetic function can be cast aside. Given that the proverb summarises the situation, one may be tempted to claim it serves a referential function. In fact, it mostly expresses the father’s feelings. It is thus reasonable to claim that its main function is the expressive one. Ultimately, proverbs can perform as many functions as language itself, even if these functions may coexist.


45 This study has revealed that proverbs entail various degrees and types of commitment, even in the absence of stance markers. The notions of disengagement or evasion of commitment have been put into perspective, thanks to the concept of game, and their limits have been established through examples where the proverbial strategy backfires, fails, or even aims at creating conflict. Finally, the varying degrees of commitment have been linked to the various pragmatic functions of proverbs, which have been identified in order to invalidate the prescriptive or conative theory, in which the sole function of proverbs is to make the addressee commit to a norm or a goal shared by the speaker. This tendency to reduce them to one function can be explained by the desire to solve the proverbial riddle and to circumscribe a genre whose nature is disputed. To try and achieve this, many linguists focus on one approach or one criterion – here, pragmatic function – instead of opting for a multi-criteria approach that would better suit the multifaceted nature of proverbs.

46 In order to yield more significant results, the notion of commitment in proverbs has yet to be broached through elements such as intonation and prosody. Another important criterion is corpus exploitation. Indeed, the number and types of pragmatic functions that one is able to identify depend on the type and the size of a corpus. Therefore, it is imperative to analyse a variety of corpora so as to address the polyfunctionality of proverbs. This very point was the main difficulty in this study: due to the gigantic sizes of the corpora used, News On the Web and Corpus of Contemporary American English (both on, it was only possible to focus on a limited number of proverbs. Such quantitative constraints have consequences: while the primary functions appeared in numerous examples and hits, the less frequent functions could not be found, especially the phatic, metalingual, or poetic language functions. This flaw is even present in the three large-scale studies mentioned in the third part. To identify the remaining functions, the corpus-driven approach had to be combined with a corpus-based one. The premise that all language functions may be found in proverbs allowed to target much more specific corpora or contexts – even specific proverbs – and thus confirm this postulate, underpinning the variability of commitment.

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1 This notion would not be appropriate since using a proverb implies that you consider its content “true” at least in the context of use, with the exception of ironic uses.

2 A detailed discussion on this matter can be found in Norrick (1985) or Villers (2014).

3 Proverbs being inserted in subordinate clauses, as in examples [4] to [6], may pose problems in terms of classification. Indeed, proverbs are traditionally described as being grammatically autonomous but intonation may also help the proverb “stand out”.

4 This example is to be understood as a complete sentence and not as a concession followed by “but…”.

5 For a detailed study on such formulae and the image of the speaker and addressee by means of Jean-Blaise Grize’s logical framework, see Fournet (2005: 146-158).

6 This concept was introduced in linguistics by Ducrot (1984).

7 Although the utterances in italics were coined by Tolkien himself, they are proverbial in his fictional universe.

8 This term was coined by world-leading paremiologist Wolfgang Mieder and is used, despite its aggressive connotation, by numerous specialists such as Anna Litovkina, who specializes in these proverbial puns. Common synonyms include “twisted proverbs”, “parodied proverbs”, or “perverbs” in the Oulipo movement.

9 As it was designed for very specific purposes, the more generalising Bühler-Jakobson model will be preferred when commenting on proverb functions.

10 The author actually identifies several types or “complexes” of functions in proverbs: 1) pragmatic functions in specific contexts and interactions, 2) collective and social functions such as stabilising social norms, and 3) a “modelling function” for situations. This last semiotic function was named after Permyakov and follows Burke’s principle according to which proverbs are “strategies for dealing with certain situations” (Burke 256).

11 Regarding advertising and politics, one may refer to Mieder (2004) or Mieder (2005) for a more detailed study.

12 In a nutshell, Anscombre and Ducrot argue against the classical view of language as a tool for describing reality and posit that argumentation is the most central function of language.

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Electronic reference

Damien Villers, “Proverbs, commitment, and the evasion of responsibility”Anglophonia [Online], 28 | 2019, Online since 20 December 2019, connection on 20 January 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Damien Villers

Université de Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes, EA 801

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Licence Creative Commons
Anglophonia – French Journal of English Linguistics est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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