The ancient Eastern world—Egypt, Greece, China, and India—is thought to be the home of proverbs, dating back to collections from as early as 2500 BC. King Solomon, who reigned in the tenth century BC, gathered many of them from other sources as well as editing and authoring others. Over five hundred were compiled into the book of Proverbs in the Bible. Proverbs were used in monasteries to teach novices Latin. Often colorfully phrased, at times even musical in pronunciation, proverbs served as teaching tools for illiterate populations that relied on oral tradition.
Interestingly, the proverbs have played a surprisingly prominent role in the speech of the Pennsylvania Germans, which includes—though isn’t limited to—the Amish. “It is natural that the Pennsylvania Germans should use the proverb extensively,” writes Dr. Edwin Miller Fogel in his book Proverbs of the Pennsylvania Germans “because of the fondness of the Germanic peoples for this form of expression. The proverbs are the very bone and sinew of the dialect.”
It’s been said that if you want to know a people, know their proverbs. “The ones that are common in the community are most likely in the oral tradition,” says Dr. Donald B. Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania. “Not particularly Amish, but part of the broader rural tradition of the area.”
The cleverness of a proverb, though, can be lost in translation. Here’s an example: Wer gut Fuddert, daer gut Buddert. “Good feed, much butter.” Here’s one that comes through a little smoother: Bariye macht Sarige. “Borrowing makes sorrowing.”
“The proverbs were an integral part of Pennsylvania German culture,” explains C. Richard Beam, retired full professor of German at Millersville University. The Old Order Amish is a society that does not permit higher education. Theirs is a culture learned from the simplicity of their ancestor’s lifestyles, and the Amish value this heritage. This simple lifestyle, passed virtually unchanged through the generations, provides an ideal base for the continual use of proverbs.