Puzzling Proverbs

Graziella Masindrazana and I did a presentation this past Wednesday on our project about puzzling Malagasy proverbs. Proverbs are called ohabolana. I have known of them for a long time, but didn't start seriously studying them until this Fulbright. Professor Masindrazana first got me interested in the topic of puzzling proverbs in November when I met her after we first arrived. Here is a clear example of a puzzling proverb. 

Ny tody tsy misy fa ny atao no miverina.

'Tody' is a word that means to return in kind or recompense. It also has the meaning of to arrive. So, the idea is that what you have done will come back to you, will arrive, that is, in your life at some later point in the future. 'Tsy misy' means there isn't any. So, the first part means, there is no recompense for what you do. The second part says, what is done returns. So, the proverb expresses a straightforward contradiction. Many Malagasy will hear it and understand the deep meaning, which is that one should be careful about what one does because there is always a chance that it will come back to one, but to an outsider such proverbs are very puzzling. They are also likely puzzling to a native speaker who slows down and tries to analyze them at a deeper level.  There are other proverbs like this one. We set out in our research to try to understand these proverbs and explain their origin and philosophical significance. For help we draw on some work of a former Fulbright Scholar, Lee Haring. He has an excellent chapter on ohabolana in his book Verbal Arts in Madagascar. He demonstrates in this book that Malagasy proverbs are essentially dialogic, that is, they involve a kind of call and response. They are like mini-dialogues. In the proverb mentioned earlier, it's as if one person says, "You know that there is no such thing as recompense for what you do," and then other person responds, "But what you do can come back to you." In the various forms that Malagasy proverbs take, you see this call-and-response form. This dialogic structure is a big piece of the explanation for their origin. The recipe for any paradox is two ideas that do not cohere with each other. So, if Malagasy proverbs tend to generate two ideas then we are more likely to see paradoxical proverbs when compared with proverbs in other traditions. It's also a basic fact of human psychology that people are more likely to remember things that are unique or different. So, it is because of these two things, we conjecture, that you see more paradoxical proverbs in Malagasy. Last we try to discuss there philosophical significance. This is related to the question: Why do ohabolana have a dialogical structure? In our view, it is likely due to some of the material realities the shaped the lives of the original Malagasy. They were rice farmers, at least in many places of the island, and this created a communal culture as farmers had to depend on others for proper irrigation. The food production was more collective and thus collectivism took hold in the worldview and also by extension in the patterns of speech. So, this is one of the philosophical lessons that we glean: proverbs are a window into a basic fact about the Malagasy worldview. Westerners are more direct and individualistic in stating their opinions whereas Malagasy are more comfortable forming their opinions with the help of others, that is, forming them collectively, reaching consensus (mamaritra iraisana). Here there is greater sensitivity to the perceptions of the group and more focus on the connection between others. These various aspects of the worldview are revealed, though not exclusively, through puzzing proverbs. 

 Graziella Masindrazana and me

Graziella Masindrazana and me

There is still more work to be done on this particular project, but we have made some great progress and it wouldn't have been possible without the insight and wisdom of Professor Masindrazana. I was lucky to have met her and learn from her, and I tried to make the most of it. As it is said, "Valala tsy indroa mandry am-bavahady." The locust doesn't sleep twice at the gate, or, in other words, if opprotunity knocks, you should answer. A big thanks to Professor Masindrazana for all the help and sharing all her seemingly limitless wisdom about the Malagasy language and, especially, Malagasy proverbs and worldview. 

 The presenters from the half-day of research event for Anglophone Studies

The presenters from the half-day of research event for Anglophone Studies