Paroimiai: Proverbs from Ancient Greece to Star Trek

Diogenianus, On Proverbs, Introduction 1.1-14

“Some say that the proverb is named from paths [oimai]. This is what roads used to be called. And men, however many things they found to be useful in common, they wrote these things along crowd-bearing roads so that the many people  who pass by might get some profit from them. They also say that [proverbs] this way the sayings of wise men may be known, like the passed-down words of the Pythagoreans. But some say that they are called proverbs from the fact that they illustrate something similar to what they are saying, that they happen to be parallels. There is also then the proverb that it a kind of allegory. Similar to this are the Aesopic fable, the Subaritic story, the Kuprion, the Libyan fable, the Scythian proverb. A fable, then,is that adaptation of advice for human beings through a story-telling remodeling from speechless animals and natural events.”

Διογενιανοῦ περὶ παροιμιῶν.

     Τὴν παροιμίαν ὀνομάζεσθαί φασί τινες ἀπὸ τῶν οἴμων· οὕτω δὲ αἱ ὁδοὶ ἐκαλοῦντο. Οἱ δ’ ἄνθρωποι, ὅσα κοινωφελῆ εὕρισκον, ταῦτα κατὰ λεωφόρους ὁδοὺς ἀνέγραφον ὑπὲρ τοῦ πλείονας ἐντυγχάνοντας τῆς ὠφελείας μεταλαμβάνειν· οὕτω καὶ τὰ τῶν σοφῶν ἀποφθέγματα γνωθῆναί φασι, καὶ τὰ Πυθαγορικὰ παραγγέλματα.  ῎Ενιοι δέ φασι προσηγορεῦσθαι τὰς παροιμίας ἀπὸ τοῦὅμοιόν τι ἐφ’ οἷς λέγονται δηλοῦν παροιμίας τυγχανούσας. ῎Εστι δὲ ἡ παροιμία τρόπος καὶ τῆς καλουμένης ἀλληγορίας· παράκειται δὲ αὐτῇ λόγος αἶνος Αἰσώπειος, Καρικὸς αἶνος, Συβαριτικὸς λόγος, Κύπριος, Λιβυκὸς αἶνος, Μαισωνικὴ παροιμία· μάρσιπος. Αἶνος μὲν οὖν ἐστὶ κατ’ ἀνάπλασιν μυθικὴν ἀναφερόμενος ἀπὸ ἀλόγων ζώων ἢ φυτῶν ἐπὶ ἀνθρώπων παραίνεσιν.

In an episode from the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (102: “Darmok”), the crew of the Enterprise encounter an alien race whose language confounds them—although they understand the individual words, the sentences end up being just beyond their grasp. Over the course of the episode, Captain Jean-Luc Picard realizes that the Tamarians’ communication operates largely through a shared heritage of proverbs—here treated as ‘allegory’—and eventually manages to grasp enough to convey some meaning to his new contact.


Apart from the fact that the episode has Picard quoting from Gilgamesh and brandishing a copy of the Homeric Hymns near its end (one of the  episode’s writers earned a BA in Classics!), it is most fascinating for the explanatory exchange presented in the clip above.

Commander Data: “They seem to communicate through narrative imagery, a reference to the individuals and places which appear in their mythohistorical account.”

Counselor Troi: “Imagery is everything to the Tamarians. Tt embodies their emotional states, their very thought processes, it’s how they communicate and how they think.

Commander Data: “The situation is analogous to understanding the grammar of a language but not the vocabulary.”

This is all pretty cutting edge linguistic material for the time and for television at any time. The comments on imagery and emotion and their integral connection to communication draw on the work of Lakoff and Johnson on cognitive metaphor, similar work by Mark Turner on image schemas, and a whole range of modern studies on the way that language works in the human brain.  At the same time, it also reflects an adaptation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the basic idea that language shapes the thought processes of its speakers at a cognitive level—in its strongest form, that the language we speak shapes the way we see the world.

Turner 1996, 4-5:  “narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining. It is a literary capacity indispensable to human cognition generally. This is the first way in which the mind is essentially literary.”

Continue reading “Paroimiai: Proverbs from Ancient Greece to Star Trek”