Bipartiteness and the Formulae in Russian and Serbian Proverbs

Zoran Starcevic, Mie University

A major attempt has been made to substantiate the claim that all Russian proverbs are bipartite (Levin, M.I., 1964: Repetition as a Structural Device in the Russian Proverb. Doctoral dissertation. Harvard) in the sense that they comprise two propositions. In investigations of the language of proverbs, little has been done, however, in concrete terms to find out just what kind of formulae proverbs are made of.

Levin offers a classification of grammatical formulae -- understood and characterized principally as the appearance of certain word-pairs (such as kto -- tot, ne -- a, and ne -- ne, thus naming the formulae: correlative, contrastive, and conjunctive, respectively).

That criteria limited to lexical-syntactic markers are incapable of unveiling the most fundamental nature of the formulae can be seen in the fact that Levin's formulae fail to account for a large number of proverbs that do not have any such word-pairs, but nevertheless display, in the two propositions, the same "A" Relation "B" logical model, as for example in Serbian Od znana zelja ne boli glava; od neznana -- i glava i stomak ["No headache comes from the known greens; from unknown -- both headache and stomachache"].

Applying the principles of Jakobson's binarism, and literary semiotics, and starting from a hypothesis that the formulaic nature of the proverb is more fundamental than indicated by the word-pairs in Levin's classification, and that all three aspects of proverbial semiosis are necessary in order to account for it, this paper has two aims. Firstly, it seeks to unveil the nature of what appears to be the principal formula in the proverb. It seeks to define this formula in the relationship between binarism as an elementary model of human perception, on the one hand, and the structural bipartiteness of the majority of proverbs expressed in comparison, contrast and/or antithesis, on the other. Secondly, it aims to test the universality of bipartiteness as the basis of proverbial formulae. The paper re-examines the claim (Levin 1964) that all proverbs are bipartite, through analysis of such proverbs as Russian Pro&shackek;logo ne vorotish' ["One can not reverse the bygone"] and Russkij bog velik ["Russian God is great"].

The analysis considers whether it can be demonstrated that proverbs of this type too are varieties of the bipartite formula, and, if not, whether such proverbs perhaps belong to some other formula.

Both syntactic and semantic criteria are applied. These are also related to the pragmatic aspects of proverbial communication.

As to the question whether in addition to the structural ones it is necessary to apply other criteria, such as logical and pragmatic, in order to define the formula(e), the answer proposed is positive, while with regard to the question whether proverbs are modeled after a single archetypical model/formula it is negative.

Both conclusions are supported by findings in a contrastive analysis of 500 each Russian and Serbian randomly chosen proverbs taken from the two renowned collections by I. Dal' and V. Karadzhits╣ respectively.