[Lingtyp] Metaphorical subject-object order in proverbs with parallel sentences

Siva Kalyan sivakalyan.princeton at gmail.com
Fri Jun 18 12:41:02 UTC 2021

At least some Sanskrit proverbs have the "metaphorical subjects" preceding the "metaphorical objects". The example that comes to mind is the following:

varam eko guṇī putro na ca mūrkhaśatair api
ekaścandrastamo hanti na ca tārāgaṇair api

“A single intelligent son is preferable to a hundred fools;
[just as] the sun is not blotted out by the multitude of stars.”

Also the following:

na daivam iti saṃcintya tyajed udyogam ātmanaḥ
anudyogena kas tailaṃ tilebhyaḥ prāptum arhati?

“Do not abandon your work, thinking it is foreordained by fate;
[for] who is capable of obtaining oil from sesame plants without effort?”

(Both of these examples are from the 12th-century text Hitopadeśa.)

In addition, all the examples of metaphorical proverbs in Tamil that I can think of also have the subject-before-object order. (I don’t remember the original, but one of them goes along the lines of, “Don’t think that only your relatives can help you; the poison that you are born with may threaten your life, but the herb that saves you may come from a distant mountain”.)

At the very least, there are probably strong areal tendencies here. I wouldn't be surprised if Sinospheric languages pattern one way, and Indospheric languages pattern the other way.

By the way, I wouldn’t recommend using “subject” and “object” to talk about metaphor, given how overloaded these terms are already. I think the standard way of talking about metaphors is in terms of “source domain” (= your “object”) and “target domain” (= your “subject”).


> On 18 Jun 2021, at 2:08 pm, JOO, Ian [Student] <ian.joo at connect.polyu.hk> wrote:
> Dear all,
> in Korean proverbs consisting of two parallel sentences, the metaphorical object precedes the metaphorical subject:
> 호랑이는 죽어서 가죽을 남기고, 사람은 죽어서 이름을 남긴다. A tiger leaves its hide when it dies, and a person leaves their name when they die.
> 열 길 물 속은 알아도 한 길 사람 속은 모른다. You can see through ten feet deep water, but you cannot see through a one foot deep heart.
> In these proverbs, the metaphorical objects (tiger, water) precede the metaphorical subjects (person, heart).
> I have been assuming that this is the “natural” way of making a parallel comparison, until I came across Mongolian proverbs today that have the opposite structure:  
> Хүн ёс дагана, нохой яс дагана. A person follows traditions, and a dog follows bones.
> Уур биеийг зовоодог, уул морийг зовоодог. The anger torments the body, and the mountain torments the horse.
> I assume here that the person and the body are being compared to the dog and the horse (and not the other way around).
> Is this metaphorical subject - metaphorical object order common in proverbs of other languages as well?
> From Hong Kong,
> Ian
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