From A to Z, and from the “alif to the yā”: An Insight into Arabic Proverbs and Sayings
We’ve all come across funny literal translations at some point that made us laugh, especially when we understand both languages concerned. The Dutch saying “Het is weer hetzelfde liedje”, for instance, literally translates to “it’s the same song again”, while it actually means “it’s the same old story”. “Appels met peren vergelijken” translates to “comparing apples with pears”, while the English saying is, “comparing apples to oranges”. These subtle differences can lead to hilarious moments, even though the proverbs seem so similar. In this article, we explore Arabic proverbs and discover the cultural similarities and differences with Dutch and English proverbs.
He who wants to be a master must start as an apprentice
To start, it might be useful to explain the differences between proverbs and sayings. Proverbs are figurative statements that contain wisdom. They are always complete sentences that cannot be altered. Sayings, on the other hand, are much shorter. They are fixed phrases without a verb that can be incorporated into a sentence.
Proverbs and sayings are centuries old. Did you know that the first proverb book in the Netherlands was published in 1480? Proverbs are probably even older than that. Proverbs and sayings have various sources, including the Bible, classical antiquity, and other languages. Many sayings that we still use today originated during the Middle Ages. “The genie is out of the bottle”, a proverb indicating you no longer have control over a certain development, is loosely based on a story from One Thousand and One Nights.
Want to learn more about One Thousand and One Nights and other Arabic stories and fairy tales? Then read our article “Arabian Tales: The Magic of Fairy Tales and Stories”.
Cut from the same cloth
So far, we’ve only discussed European proverbs and sayings. However, proverbs and sayings come from all corners of the world, and they provide an insight into the mindset of a people and culture, including the Arabic world.
There are many Arabic proverbs and sayings that are quite close to Dutch and English equivalents or even completely the same. Take “من شب على شئ شاب عليه” for example. This expression, when translated, can be read as “who grows up with something, grows old with it”. Basically it means that you continue to do what you learned at a young age in later life. The Dutch expression “jong geleerd is oud gedaan” and the English “start them young” carry a similar message.
Also, the Arabic proverb “يقتل عصفورين بحجر واحد” is almost the same in wording and meaning as its English and Dutch equivalents. This can be translated as “killing two birds with one stone”, which is similar to “twee vliegen in één klap slaan” and “to kill two birds with one stone”.
The meaning of proverbs and sayings is not always obvious. There are plenty of Arabic sayings where the meanings still sound mysterious, even when translated. Once you know the meaning, however, you can probably find a Dutch or English proverb that means (almost) the same.
A rotten date
The meaning of the Arabic “يأكل التمر ويرجم بالنوى” is not that clear. When translated, it becomes: “he eats the dates and stones with the pits”, but it means that you quarrel with or hurt those you depend on. The Dutch and English languages have equivalents that also involve eating: “de hand bijten die je voedt” and “to bite the hand that feeds you”.
Like two drops of water
Two other well-known English proverbs and sayings are “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” and “like father, like son”. Both say something about children resembling their parents. There are also Arabic sayings for this, though they use slightly different words. The phrase “ابن البطّ عوّام” means “the son of the duck is a floater”, or like a duck floats, so does its son.
There’s also “طب الجرة عتما بتطلع البنت لإما”, which means “Flip the jug on its head, a daughter grows up to be like her mother”. While the latter part of this proverb clearly conveys the meaning, the first part suggests there’s more to this saying. This expression is believed to originate from a story about a girl who grew up and married. Her mother-in-law often sent her to the well to fetch water with clay jugs. On her way back she often stumbled and lost all the water in the jugs, which sometimes even broke. Years later, her daughter was sent to the well to fetch water, and on the way back, she stumbled and dropped the jugs. They broke and all the water ran out. When she came home crying, her grandmother could only laugh. According to her, she was like her mother in every detail. Quite a fun story.
Forewarned is forearmed (with camels!)
Finally, the third Arabic proverb I want to highlight is “كانت النصيحة بجمل”. This can be translated as “the advice was worth a camel”. This might sound a bit strange at first, but there’s a story behind it. According to an old tale, a man lived with his wife and two daughters in the desert. One day, he set out to find another way to earn money and support his family. Eventually, he worked for a wise man whom he helped for twenty years. When he decided it was enough, he went home with all the money he had earned over those years.
However, the wise man suggested giving him three camels instead of all that money. The man accepted this and was about to leave with his camels when the wise man offered him advice in exchange for one camel. He again accepted the offer and exchanged a camel for advice. This happened three times until the man had traded everything he had earned over the years for advice. And the worst part: he didn’t even understand the advice!
On his way home, he had to overcome three obstacles. Thanks to the wise man’s advice, he managed to save his own life, become rich, and return home safely. So, when someone says that advice is worth a camel, they mean that good advice is very valuable when used correctly.
Worth it’s weight in gold
The closest Dutch saying is “goede raad is goud waard” (good advice is worth its weight in gold), while in English it is “someone/something is worth its weight in gold”. The fact that a camel is used in the Arabic world in an expression, while gold is used in Dutch- and English-speaking cultures may be linked to the fact that a large part of the population in the Middle East and North Africa has relatively little money: a camel is therefore of inestimable value.
In this article, you have become acquainted with a number of Arabic proverbs and learned that they sometimes closely resemble Dutch and English equivalents, despite the Arabic culture being so different. This was just the first thread of the huge proverbial tapestry that represents the mindset and culture of the Arabic world, but now you have something fun to tell at the next family gathering. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
If you have enjoyed this blog, and would like to discover more about Arabic culture and how these expressions fit into it? Then read our article “The Importance of Context in Arabic”.