Pashto Proverbs :: Khyber.ORG

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Pashto Proverbs

S.S. Thorburn

Adapted from book "Bannu; Our Afghan Frontier"

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We all of us know what a proverb is and ought to contain, but few of us could, without much thought, define our conception of it. A definition is difficult at all times; but in this particular case it is specially so, as many sayings hover on the borderland between proverbs, aphorisms, or moral precepts, and fables, so doubtful is the boundary-line between them.

The subjoined collection of sentences - which I venture to call proverbs - are almost all supposed popular truisms, so epigrammatically expressed as to have become household words amongst the people. This is the shortest, but at the same time, widest and truest definition of the term "proverb", which has occurred to me. Until the thought of a community on some social subject, which has become felicitously called "the wisdom of many" has been condensed and dressed by the "wit of one", or the few, into a bright brief sentence, the seedling has not been planted; and until that seedling has taken firm root, and grown up into a great tree, familiar to all within a wide radius of its birthplace, it cannot become a proverb. To attain such honorable distinction, then, a saying, no matter how much of "shortness, sense, and salt" it may contain, requires the sanctity of popularity; and to secure such general acceptation, it ought to be conveyed in simple language, yet with a certain amount of sparkle and jingle about it so that like a popular tune, it may tickle the ear of the multitude, and obtain an abiding place in their hearts. With this end in view, rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, metaphor, and hyperbole have all been liberally indented on in proverbial manufacture.

The essentiality of the "three s's" as "shortness, sense, and salt" have been termed, and of popularity, is universally true of all good proverbs in all countries, and in all languages. Let us suppose a man ambitious of having it recorded on his tombstone, "P.S. He made a proverb" all he has to do, and mighty easy it is, is to take as his ingredients the said "three s's" and mix them judiciously and well. Having done so, he can do no more, but the rub has still to come, for unless the public take the dose readily and pleasurable, no amount of puffing or persuasion can force it into their mouths.

The earliest popular book of proverbs is, I suppose, that common ascribed to King Solomon. Since his time, millions of new proverbs have sprung up, had their day, and disappeared, and millions are now existent, some old, some new; and the more the proverbs of different nations are compared together, the closer does the similarity of ideas on a numerous class of subjects appear, but of this more presently.

This collection is the first yet attempted of Pashto proverbs, and being the first, is necessarily very imperfect; but it contains specimens of prevailing Pashtoon opinions on all important social topics, and as such I trust it will be found valuable. It would have been easy to obtain many hundreds more, and in fact several hundreds were rejected, as being grossly indecent, wanting popular sanction, literal and recent translations from another language, or sayings already recorded in a slightly altered dress. Every endeavor has been made to exclude sayings evidently derived from the Persian or Arabic, but I have admitted them in cases where the derivation appeared doubtful, or the saying was so common that to exclude it simply for want of originality would have been ridiculous. I conceive that what is wanted in a collection of this sort is to obtain an insight into a people's hidden thoughts on their own social condition, and we can best do so by studying them from their expressed thoughts, which in the shape here given below, cannot lie. Every race of man, from the highest to the lowest in the intellectual scale, whose language is sufficiently copious and flexible must have numerous proverbs, which are unwritten and unconscious self - criticisms, accessible to all the world. Through them the innermost secrets of the brain can be exposed as plainly as the physical secrets of the brain can be laid bare by the dissecting knife. A knowledge of the proverbs current amongst uncivilized races is therefore invaluable for the purpose of elucidating their thoughts and feelings. But, in drawing our conclusions from them as to a people's social and intellectual status, we must not forget that as it is the leaders of public opinion who either invent or first give concurrency to a proverb, so the higher-toned proverbs of a people are in advance of their moral condition, and represent rather what their "best selves" would have them be and do, than what they are and do. Where antagonistic proverbs on the same subject are found, some refined and ennobling, others coarse and debasing, the latter will, in most cases, more truly represent popular opinion - that is, the opinion of the masses - than the former. Most of those given below were collected slowly and laboriously, between the autumn of 1872 and the hot weather of 1874; but with the exception of those under the headings of Husbandry, Class and Local, they are not all familial amongst the peasantry of the Trans Indus portions of the District, as some were obtained from Peshawar, Khost, and the Khattak Hills, and some are only current over a very circumscribed area. Nor must it be supposed that most of them are only known in this district (Bannu and environs). If the genesis and method of circulation of a proverb can be examined, with reference to the minds of those who speak them, the reason why many of the classes, which may be styled and ethical and cynical, should be almost universally known, will be manifest. Though mankind is divided into many races, some of which have neither apparent connection, in speech or descent from common parents, nor any sort of intercourse together, yet the Creator has made "the whole world kin" by endowing all men with like minds and passions. And the thoughtful of all races - except perhaps the very lowest in the scale, of the working of whose minds we as yet know little, be they white or black, Aryan or Semitic, civilized or savage - have long since, by the aid of the teachings of experience arrived at similar conclusions on the various feelings and influences which govern the actions of their fellows, and on the whole allow to each conclusion the same weight. The mainsprings of action being similarly judged, the amount of honor or shame attachable to any particular act, although depending to some extent on the degree of each people's enlightenment, is also in the case of many instincts and attributes, estimated alike. Thus we find that amongst most peoples whose language s have yet to be studied , proverbs relating to the passions, bravery and cowardice, goodness and wickedness, wisdom and foolishness, the weakness of women, the deceit of man, and other cognate classes, have a strong family resemblance. Pathans no doubt contrast less with Englishmen than many other races, yet the gulf between them is sufficiently wide to leave room for surprise at the similarity in meaning of many of the proverbial sayings current in their respective tongues.

No other reasonable explanation than that indicated above can, I think, be offered for the remarkable parallelism between the proverbs of different countries. It may be contended that proverbs on such subjects as are in harmony with the fixed belief of the vast majority of mankind (such as the influence and effect of the passions, the uncertainty of life, the existence of a Supreme Being) spread from one center. But though no doubt some few have thus obtained an almost universal circulation, such a hypothesis cannot be entertained for a  moment in respect to the large number of analogous proverbs which exist in all languages of which we have knowledge; and we must fall back on the theory that their genesis is to to be accounted for by the common but independent experience of different minds. So great is the antiquity of proverbs of the description to which I have been referring that few can be traced back to their origin. It may be said of them that they have been for centuries the heirlooms of the whole human race. Still considering the separate generation theory as the true one (although by the way, during the crusades, there must have been a considerable interchange of thought as well as blows between Christians and Musalmans) and applying it in the present case we are confronted by a new difficulty, which is this. The Pathans, being what they are, it is unlikely that they were themselves the creators of all their finer proverbs, for there are in some of them a delicacy of expression, and a subtle knowledge of the finer workings of the human heart - points whose depth and force are but feebly conveyed in my translations - but it could not have been until some stranger - some wandering minstrel, returning pilgrim, or holy Syed or Akhoond fresh from the western schools of learning - had, with the practiced touch of the skillful artist, reduced the loose, struggling utterance into shape, that any of them received the epigrammatic pointed ness which converted a popular truism into a proverb. In the process, the sayings of other tribes were either reproduced bodily, or with some slight but necessary alterations suitable to the special condition of the particular tribe. In support of this theory, I may mention that when I had fairly exhausted the proverbs of the Pathans of this District (Bannu and environs), I received a number from Khost, and some from Peshawar, most of which, on examination, proved with the exceptions previously noted, to have either been already collected or old friends in new dresses.

Proverbs are to a Pathan what Biblical texts are to the Christian - a rule of life or conduct which cannot be gainsaid; and as various shades of meaning are evolved out of one and the same text, so proverbs are applied in various ways. In both there is often a curious antagonism, arising in the latter, case from some cause which I am not competent to explain; and in the former, from the diversity of human opinion, whence arose that now well worn saying "Quot homines Tot Sententiae".

Of the sentences given below, a few of which cannot be classed as proverbs, a somewhat limited number only is common in the mouths of the poorest and rudest Pathans. Still so many as they know are constantly on their tongues, and those whose daily food is assured to them have a large repertory, from which they are always drawing. When we would quote from books, an illiterate people quote their proverbs, and allow the same weight to them as we do to the dicta of some known and trusted author.

List of Proverbs categories as appears in Bannu: Our Afghan Frontier by S.S. Thorburn

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