Speaking in Proverbs: Language and Everyday Life in Belize

~ "Crab walk 'til e meet kiss-kiss" ~
These land crabs in a bucket left their hole, but met the "kiss-kiss" - the tongs
used to catch them. Colville Young explains: "The adventurer someday meets
 his nemesis" (Creole Proverbs of Belize, 1980). Photo by douglas reeser. 
Views from the ANThill
by douglas reeser on April 24, 2013

“De higher monkey climb, de more e expose.”

After a few months back in Belize, my understanding of Kriol was definitely improving. An English-based creole language, Kriol presents an interesting experience for native English speakers. There are plenty of English words in any given Kriol sentence or two, but they are surrounded by words unfamiliar and foreign, such that many visitors to Belize do not understand the language. My past experience in Belize had familiarized me with Kriol, and within the first few months, I thought I was getting most of what I heard.

However, I soon noticed I would be following along, and then completely miss a sentence or two. Or sometimes, someone would say something to me in Kriol, and I wouldn’t get it at all. My close friends would speak a mix of English and Kriol around me, which from informal observations, seems to be becoming the norm. One day, during a relaxed conversation in which I was asking my friend a lot of questions about life in Belize, I heard something and didn’t understand it. I asked her what she had just said.

“What?” she asked. “You mean, ‘You fas like crofi’?” she said again, laughing.

“Yeah, I have no idea what that even means!” I replied with a smile.

“Well. It means you’re inquisitive – that you want to know everything,” she answered, seeing the irony in calling an anthropologist inquisitive. “We always use these old sayings. What do you call them? Proverbs, I think?”

And it hit me. Those lapses and gaps in my understanding of Kriol suddenly made sense. It wasn’t about specific words and their meanings, it was that proverbs were a part of everyday conversations, and proverbs usually don’t have easy (or direct) translations. Once I had this realization, I soon became accustomed to hearing Belizean Kriol proverbs in many of my conversations, but interpreting them remained my biggest challenge in understanding the language.

Proverbs and their use aren’t widely discussed by most anthropologists. For many of us, language is something to be learned so that we can better communicate and understand the people with whom we work. While it’s understood that languages can have regional and localized differences, proverbs and their use in everyday communication are relatively neglected. In fact, understanding proverbs is more than just understanding a language. Proverbs carry nuanced meaning, and can provide a window into the traditional knowledge and customs of a people. In this respect, I would argue, proverbs and their use deserve more attention.

Historically, the study of proverbs has belonged to the domain of those who study folklore. In their 1964 article, Proverbs and the Ethnography of Speaking Folklore, E. Ojo Arewa and Alan Dundes (American Anthropologist 66(6):70-85) open by explaining one function of proverbs in everyday life: “Like other forms of folklore, proverbs may serve as impersonal vehicles for personal communication. A parent may well use a proverb to direct a child’s action or thought, but by using a proverb, the parental imperative is externalized and removed somewhat from the individual parent.” In this way, proverbs are used to make sense of other people’s actions through the lens of accepted cultural wisdom. They help place actions, events, and experiences in a historical context that is locally relevant. Proverbs help order the universe.

What is perhaps most interesting about proverbs, however, is that they are not often intelligible to outsiders. In other words, proverbs help explain complex, difficult, or ambiguous situations by relating them to phrases that are often just as difficult to understand – unless you have intimate knowledge of the language, history, and culture from which the proverb originates. In contexts where language use is thick with proverbs, learning the language is then only one step towards understanding it.

And so it was in Belize. I began writing down proverbs as I heard them, attempting to understand and remember them. Some of the more simple ones were easy to remember, and as I got to know them, I gained an easier acceptance among some Belizeans. Just being aware that proverbs were in heavy rotation helped in my understanding of them. I would sometimes have to stop and think for a minute upon hearing one that I was unfamiliar with. This type of pause wasn’t always great for conversational flow, but it did show that I was interested and trying.

One day, I found myself talking with some friends about corruption in Belize. It was election season, and there were at least a few rumors of questionable activity going around. One rumor held that people from Guatemala were getting their citizenship in exchange for their vote. Another accused a local official of handing out land parcels in exchange for votes, and others for simply offering money for a vote.

When a specific politician’s name came up, one of the guys spoke up, “De higher monkey climb, de more e expose.”

I had to take pause on that one, and another friend must have noticed a confused look on my face. “You know what that means, Doug?” he asked.

“Something about the higher someone gets, the more of him is revealed,” I half stated, half asked.

“Haha! Yup, especially with politicians. The higher they get, the bigger their lies become.” he explained as the rest were nodding in agreement.

“If da no soh, da nayli so,” I wanted to reply with one of the most common proverbs I had come to know. If it’s not so, it’s nearly so. Such is life in Belize.

*This article was also published in the American Anthropological Association's Anthropology News
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  1. Diane2:19 PM

    Love this! We seem to have lost touch with our proverbs in the US - yet another place in which we have lost our way.

    1. Anonymous10:31 PM

      Do kids even get taught proverbs in the US anymore? I remember reading Aesop's Fables when i was really young, but that was the extent of proverbs in my upbringing - and that was 40 years ago.

  2. Anonymous8:58 AM

    We may not formally get taught proverbs (although I did in French class in junior high), but I think they still get passed down orally.

    Don't count your chickens before they're hatched.
    Birds of a feather flock together.

    What other ones are there?

  3. Michael1:55 PM

    Well, the Bible is full of Proverbs that many Christians are still taught every week. "Do unto others" is one example of many.

  4. Yes , proverbs are awesome. They help shorten a sentence when your talking, because the meaning is normally understood between those having conversations. I can see where it would get confusing for someone not too familiar with a certain language.


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