” Proverbs are short sentences drawn from long experience.”
Cervantes, Don Quixote, 1605
Can you complete these Jamaican proverbs?
- “One one coco _____________ basket.”
- “No wait til drum beat before you _____________ you axe.”
- “If you get your han’ in a _____ mout’ tek it out.”
- “Ebry dyay debble help _______; wan dyah Gad wi help watchman.”
- Yu caan ______________ pahn cow back cuss cow kin.”
Well, how well did you do?
I’ll share the answers with you in a little while.
So, you may be wondering, what’s that language? Where are these proverbs from?
You’re looking at Jamaican proverbs, They are written in non-standard Jamaican English, or Jamaican patois (pronounced pat-wah),
Welcome to my first Jamaican Folk Wisdom post.
I promised you in my About Page that I’ll be sharing a bit of my heritage from now on, especially for the benefit of those of you who are not from Jamaica.
What is a proverb?
One of the oldest definitions of a proverb, dating back to 1605 is offered by Miguel Cervantes. He identified a proverb as “a short sentence based on long experience.”
Jamaican historian and newspaper columnist, Dr Rebecca Tortello defines it as “short excerpts from stories about life’s lessons.”
And Grammar About.com defines a proverb as ” a short, pithy statement of a general truth, one that condenses common experience into memorable form.
Proverbs are part of the oral tradition of a country. Heavily influenced by African and European ancestors, Jamaican proverbs originated from the language of slaves on Jamaican plantations.
These symbolic witticisms are often used to poke fun, says historian, Dr Rebecca Tortella. But they also contain nuggets of wisdom and life lessons.
“Replete as they are with cultural symbolism, proverbs convey important ideas about human nature, health and social relations that often transcend their culture of origin, even though occasionally to fully understand their meaning some grounding in that culture is helpful.. Although they can poke fun many express a desire for tolerance and respect. Many also express similar ideas, reflecting the idea that there is often more than one way to say any one thing.”
– Dr Rebecca Tortella, The Jamaica Gleaner
5 Jamaican Proverbs . . . Translated
So let’s not waste any more time. Let’s review the five Jamaican proverbs I quizzed you on earlier. The missing word of each proverb is now included in bold along with its English translation and explanations, courtesy of the National Library of Jamaica. Find the full list here.
Where the translations fall short, the images should illustrate the full meaning of the cultural sayings.
Jamaican Proverb #1 : “One one coco full basket.”
English Translation: Just keep adding one coco, then another, and another to fill a basket.
Explanation: Do not expect to achieve success overnight. It takes time.
Jamaican Proverb #2
Nuh wait til drum beat before you grine you axe.
English Translation: Do not wait until the drum beats before you grind your axe.
Explanation: Be prepared for all eventualities.
Jamaican Proverb #3:
If you get your han’ in a debil mout’ tek it out.
English Translation: If you put your hand in the devil’s mouth, take it out carefully.
Explanation: Act cautiously in getting out of difficulty.
Jamaican Proverb #4:
Ebry dyay debble help teef; wan dyah Gad wi help watchman.
Translation: Every day the devil helps the thief; one day God will help the watchman.
Explanation: We should not despair when it appears to us that unscrupulous persons continue to take advantage of us with no apparent deterrent. God never sleeps, and is fully aware of everything occurs. He will one day reward the efforts of the faithful.
Jamaican Proverb #5
Proverb: Yu cyaan siddung pahn cow bak cuss cow kin
Translation: You cannot sit on the back of the cow and curse the skin of the cow.
Explanation: We should not disparage or mock those who help us.
One of the characteristics of proverbs is that their messages can be expressed in more ways than one. So, what five pieces of wisdom did our Proverbs teach us today? I’ll sum them up for you:
- Be patient and work hard. Little efforts will lead to big rewards one day.
- Life is full of surprises. Prepare for eventualities. In short, have a Plan B or escape plan.
- When caught in a dangerous situation, apply caution and wisdom. If that doesn’t work, RUN!
- Payback can come at any time from the other direction.
- Be grateful. Never burn your bridges behind.you, or bite the hand that feeds you.
Which of these Proverbs or their explanations is a valuable life lesson you have learnt along the way? Share in the Comment box below.
Editor: This post was originally published on September 14, 2014. It has been edited and updated to improve coherence, clarity and comprehensiveness.