The Yoruba, òwe, is a speech form that likens one thing or situation to another, highlighting the essential similarities that the two share. In the culture a great deal of importance attaches to the spoken word and speech generally. Believing that it carries great psychic properties, the Yoruba approach speech withdeliberate care, taking great pains to avoid careless, casual, or thoughtless statements whose damage might outlast lifetimes. The proverb Eyin lòrò; Bó bá balẹ̀, fífọ́ ní ńfọ́ (Speech is an egg; if it drops on the floor what it does is shatter) bears witness to this concern. In addition the Yoruba speaker strives to ensure that the idea he/she wishes to communicate reaches its target ungarbledand in as unmistakable a form as possible. If an explanation for such care was necessary one need only remember the importance of relationality in close-living communalism, especially when speech also happens to be the most available (and therefore most common) transactional medium. In such a context, to paraphrase another proverb, the judicious, not simply correct, application of speech causesthe kolanut to emerge from the pocket, whereas its careless use calls out the sword from its scabbard.
Resort to proverbs is the most important and most effective strategy the Yoruba have devised to optimize the efficaciousness of speech. The culture's richness in them, of which this collection provides some evidence, bears out the Yoruba insistence that bereft of proverbs speech flounders andfalls short of its mark, while aided by them communication is fleet, and unerring. The Yoruba assert accordingly, Òwe lẹṣin ọ̀rọ̀; bí ọ̀rọ̀-ọ́ bá sọnù, òwe la fi ńwá a (Proverb is the horse of speech; when speech is lost, proverb is the means we use to hunt for it).
Proverbs are often incisive in their propositions and terse in their formulation. They are deduced from close observation oflife, life forms and their characteristics and habits, the environment and natural phenomena, and sober reflection on these. Because they are held to express unexceptionable truths, albeit with some qualification, their use in a discussion or argument is tantamount to appeal to established and incontrovertible authority. This is one reason for their virtual indispensability in formal and informalverbal interactions in Yoruba society. They accordingly pervade all other (major) forms of verbal texts, in which their presence enhances the effectiveness of those texts.
Students of proverbs agree on the functions they perform in society. One such scholar,William Bascom, groups the functions into four types, passive and active, and all positive: mirroring the culture; affording members of thesociety a means of psychological and emotional release through the venting otherwise prohibited expressions; aiding in education and socialization; and maintaining conformity to accepted patterns, while also validating institutions, attitudes and beliefs (279-98).
Western folklore scholarship has characteristically acknowledged the aesthetic aspects of the proverb. Roger Abrahams, for example,describes them as "among the shortest forms of traditional expression that call attention to themselves as formal artistic entities." He goes on to cite their use of "all of the devices we commonly associate with poetry in English: meter, binary construction and balanced phrasing, rhyme, assonance and alliteration, conciseness, metaphor, and occasional inverted word order and unusual construction"(119). The statements are equally applicable to the Yoruba proverb, whose main features the Yoruba scholar Olatunde Olatunji lists as the following: a prescriptive function (meaning the outlining of rules of conduct); a characteristic sentence form (which might be simple, complex, sequential, or parallel); a high incidence of lexical repetition and contrast; and terseness (175). In addition, he...