Kazakh Proverbs: What Can They Tell Us about the Kazakh Nation, Its Traditions, and Its Transformation?

Contemporary Kazakh Proverb Research: Digital, Cognitive, Literary, and Ecological Approaches is a collected volume of research on proverbs by Kazakh authors edited by Gulnar Omarbekova (Kazakhstan) and Erik Aasland (USA) and published by Peter Lang (New York) in 2023. This work covers such issues as the structure, semantics, and cognitive, linguistic, and cultural features of Kazakh proverbs and their transformation and digitization in the media. The contributions to the collection explore the pragmatics and communicative function of proverbs in Kazakh-language conversation, as well as in texts of various genres. This book is intended for anyone interested in paremiology, especially Kazakh-speaking linguists, philologists, anthropologists, folklorists, and students of linguistic specialties.
Gulnara Omarbekova is Associate Professor at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan. Her research focuses on comparative linguistics and lingua-cultural studies, and she has worked on both from a linguistic perspective.
Erik Aasland is a folklorist specializing in ethnography, orality, and corpus linguistics. He has a Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary and is currently Affiliate Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he teaches anthropology and research methods. He is President of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

In this interview, Professor Gulnar Omarbekova discusses the book and the latest research into these “grains of folk wisdom.”

Please tell us a bit more about this edited volume. You mention that this book has something to offer “whether you are a linguist, folklorist, or anthropologist.” How multi-disciplinary is it?

Yes, our contributors come from different disciplines. I am a linguist while other authors of the chapters are philologists. The co-author of the book, Erik Aasland, is a folklorist who specializes in ethnography, orality, and corpus linguistics. He has a Ph.D. from Fuller Theological Seminary and is currently Affiliate Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he teaches anthropology and research methods. Our collaboration bridges disciplines and different traditions of scholarship, and this book is the culmination of our joint research project. Our fieldwork and other activities have focused on capacity-building. One of the chapters explores this field research, which entailed applying qualitative research methods to Kazakh proverbs. There is no comparable volume that brings together methodologies from both Kazakhstan and the West to show the wealth of Kazakh proverbs and their ongoing societal significance.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Kazakh-language proverbs became an object of study in the fields of colloquial speech, fiction, and journalistic and other discourses. During this period, Kazakh linguists began to consider proverbs in an anthropocentric direction, paying attention to the communicative and pragmatic possibilities of paremiological units. However, in the era of globalization, proverbs should be studied as an integral part of the paremiological discourse on the Internet, media and artistic discourse, communication, conflict management, and environmental discourse. The formation of the corpus of the national Kazakh language in paremiological studies is relevant today.

This edited volume is a feast of contemporary Kazakh proverb research. You are invited to the low table, the Kazakh dastarkhan, where special dishes cover the table. Everything is within easy reach, and each of the delicacies is homemade, with a distinctive Kazakh flavor. Whether you are a linguist, folklorist, anthropologist, or just someone wanting to know more, this feast has something to offer. Come join us for a cup of tea, some respite, and the opportunity to enter into the world of Kazakh proverb research!

There are five courses: current use of Kazakh proverbs at home, in school, and on the internet; the content of proverbs used historically and in fiction; the dynamic relationship between proverbs and culture in Kazakhstan; the role of proverbs in education (both the ecologies of proverbial interaction between languages and the opportunities provided by technology); and finally, new vistas for the future of Kazakh proverb use. With the expanded role of the internet, Kazakhs have ventured beyond using traditional Kazakh proverbs. They are now recrafting proverbial content and forms to find fitting words for contemporary issues. The book’s finale is a ground-breaking piece of research which documents the twists and tweaks that keep Kazakh proverb use vibrant.

How did the proverb become so significant in Kazakh life? Is it because of the influence of oral literature?

Each nation has its own characteristics, such as language, religion, literature, and oral literature. Kazakh proverbs are not only a literary expression of the Kazakh people’s spiritual wealth and centuries-old culture, but also a vivid chronicle of their level of consciousness, intelligence, and wisdom. A proverb—maqal in Kazakh (from Arabic)—is a short, simple, and traditional saying or phrase that gives advice and embodies a common truth based on practical experience or common sense (G. Mamırbekova 2017). A proverb may have an allegorical message behind it. For instance, “Azĝa qanaĝat qylmasaɳ, kȍpten qȕr qalasyɳ”—which could be translated into English as “Grasp all, lose all”—addresses the human issue of greed, encouraging the interlocutor to find satisfaction in the little things instead.

Kazakh proverbs continue to have societal significance because of their versatility across various media. They are significant in writing, in teaching, and in communication, whether over a cup of tea shared at home or internet exchanges across vast distances. The book reflects this diverse utilization.

Who were the authors of these Kazakh words of wisdom? Kazakh sages like jyrau and akyn, Sufi religious leaders, or just ordinary people?

Proverbs were used in the ancient Kazakh steppe for ethical instruction and to present philosophical ideas. These words of wisdom were a decision-making tool among the tribes; everyone listened to these words and understood their meaning. The authors of these words were “biis”—tribal elders or poets—and the words were passed down from generation to generation.

Proverbs continue to be used by the leaders of the nation. The book also explores a newer development: the anti-proverb. Especially in the case of these new variants, there are more opportunities for people from various walks of life to reshape the tradition and apply it to new situations.

What are some modern examples of “recrafting proverbial content and forms to find fitting words for contemporary issues”?

Many Kazakh proverbs are still old-fashioned, even if they are now often used in a new context and with a new meaning. Under the influence of globalization, proverbs transform into new proverbs, new anti-proverbs, and other new proverbial units. This study explores some unique uses of contemporary proverbs in the Kazakh language within the framework of “the ecological discourse.” Proverbs are living, mobile organisms that absorb like a sponge all the realities of the modern world and the changes in society and reflect on them in their many variations and transformations. Kazakh proverbs, which are used widely and in diverse ways, are a crucial part of the ecological landscape of the contemporary Kazakh language. From the linguistic point of view, the proverbs used today create a language violation, creating language ecology cases: the composition of traditional proverbs changes, the components are replaced with other words, they are shortened, etc.

Our study assesses the results of a survey conducted among university students in different majors across different cities of Kazakhstan. The goal of this survey was to find out whether native speakers were “familiar with particular types of proverbs, and whether the youth mostly use a particular type of proverbs, old or new transformed ones, and their preferences and reasons for proverb usage.” The survey was carried out among a group of 418 students at five universities. We found that students use proverbs daily and continue to place a high value on traditional Kazakh proverbs. A significant percentage of students surveyed (66%) insisted that only traditional proverbs should be used. However, our interviews with them indicated that they could not consistently distinguish between traditional proverbs and those created by known authors. The emergence of a modern adaptation of familiar Kazakh proverb structures shows the value of tradition and globalization and the potential of the two to work together in the meaning-making process. The correlation and use of proverbs and anti-proverbs in modern discourse is an interesting topic for further research.

What is an anti-proverb?

In recent years, the study of the modification and transformation of proverbs has become one of the most important issues in world linguistics. Since it is the result of a living process arising from the usual and accidental use of a proverb, change is inherent in the proverb. In the press and the world of the Internet, there are often cases in the Kazakh language when proverbs are changed. For example, a proverb may be based on a traditional proverb while retaining its structural characteristics, such as “ȕl ösirme, qyz ösir, qalyŋmaly onyŋ kölkösir” (Do not bring up a boy, bring up a girl; you will get the money for the bride). This new creation adopts the structure of the famous proverb “mal ösirseŋ—qoi ösir, önimi önyŋ köl-kөsir” (If you raise livestock, raise sheep; it is profitable). The form of the new proverb is grammatically and lexically modified through the replacement of two words, and its meaning revives traditions in modern Kazakhstani society, showing the importance of the tradition of the daughter’s farewell, welcoming the bride, and “money given for the bride.” Thus, the anti-proverb is a new creation that arises from the surrounding social context, is based on a well-known existing proverb, gives new meaning to the linguistic structure of the sentence, and makes it completely intelligible to and practical for the reader (Reznikov, 2009).

There are frequent transformations of proverbs that reflect new realities in the sociopolitical sphere:

  • Medicine: “El bolamyn deseŋ, maskaŋdy tuze”(If you want to be a country, wear a mask) and “Sau bolamyn deseŋ, shekaraŋdy zhap” (If you want to be healthy, close the border)
  • Education: “Kitap—ğalym, tilsiz mȕğalim”(The book is a scientist, a teacher without a language) and “Bilim bazarda satylmas” (Knowledge is not sold in the market)
  • Policy and government: “Ukimetke khalyktan salyk kymbat” (For the state, taxes are more precious than people) and “Үsh ret deputat bolsaŋ da, khalyktyŋ qaryzynan qutyla almaysyŋ” (Even if you became a deputy three times, you still cannot get rid of people’s debts)
  • Time: “Qaltasyna qaray—toqaly, zamanyna say—maqaly” (Depending on the pocket—the younger wife, according to the time—the proverb) and“Qazirgi bala men brynğy zamannyŋ balasynyŋ arasy zher men köktei” (The difference between today’s child and the child of the past is like the distance between heaven and earth)
  • Crime and law enforcement: “Dostastyq qazhet, tauelsizdik qymbat” (Concord is needed, independence is dear)
  • The economic sphere: “Önimіŋdi ötkizu de— bir öner” (Selling product is an art) and “Bank basynan shiridi” (The bank is destroyed from the top)
  • Sport: “Sport—beybіtshіlіk elshіsі” (Sport is an ambassador of peace)
  • Alcohol: “Araq іshіp, temeki shekken, densaulyqtyŋ tүbine zhetedі” (Who drinks vodka and smokes reaches the nadir of health)
  • Leisure: “Zhaŋa zheŋedi, eski өledi” (The new wins, the old dies) and “Eki kÿnnen keyin zhaŋa qumuranyŋ suy da suyp ketedi” (After two days, even the water in the new jar has cooled down).

These lexemes are the cultural realities of modern times; they are new linguistic signs that reflect the phenomena of today’s society.

Though Kazakh proverbs have undergone change, they have not historically been called anti-proverbs in line with world usage of that term. Our book, which features examples of anti-proverbs from Kazakh journalism and the Internet, marks the first use of this term in Kazakh scholarship. Our collection includes about 100 anti-proverbs and pseudo-anti-proverbs that have served as a starting point for modern variations.

Are there any differences in the creation and application of proverbs across Kazakh regions?

According to the founder of Kazakh linguistics, Sarsen Amanzholov, there are three main dialects in the Kazakh language: western, northeastern, and southern. These dialects, like the dialects of the Karakalpak and Kyrgyz languages, are defined according to the territorial principle, and not according to the tribal structure.

There are no clear boundaries between the various dialects of the Kazakh language—or at least none have been identified. This is due to the high mobility of native speakers. The geographical features of the endless Kazakh steppe likely contributed to the uniformity of not only the written language, but also the oral folk language. As a result, proverbs and sayings are understandable in all corners of Kazakhstan.

Have any other cultures—Russian, Chinese, Persian, or Arabic—had a significant impact on Kazakh proverbs?

Using comparative analysis, Kazakh and English proverbs and sayings were found to have similar qualities. The general provisions of proverbs and sayings in the English and Kazakh languages were analyzed, with a focus on three topics: a) a person and his attributes; b) work and profession; b) science and education. As a result of this study, we came to the conclusion that this topic requires separate consideration.

Proverbs are often shared across cultures. In some cases, the origin of these can be tracked down. For example, “The fish rots from the head down” can be shown to be a Russian proverb. At the same time, one needs to be aware of false cognates. For example, the Kazakh proverb “Bas ekeū bolmay, mal ekeū bolmas” might appear to be a cognate of the English proverb “Two heads are better than one.” However, when the Kazakh proverb is considered in the context of the folktale with which it is connected, then differences become clear (Aasland 2009).

Who collected the proverbs? Are there any collections of proverbs that you would recommend?

During the review of materials concerning proverbs in the Kazakh language, it was found that their collection, sorting, systematization, and publication occurred in two stages. The first of these took place in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many Kazakh collectors have contributed to the enrichment and accumulation of these proverbs, making them a wonderful heritage of the Kazakh people. Since the second half of the nineteenth century, Kazakh proverbs have been collected and published. Among the first collectors of Kazakh proverbs were Sh. Ualikhanov, Y. Altynsarin, A. Divayev, and M.Zh. Kopeev, as well as the Russian scientists A.A. Vasiliev, F. Plotnikov, P.A. Melioransky, V.V. Katarinsky, and V. Radlov, who presented to the public treasures of folklore. Proverbs in the Kazakh language were published for the first time in 1914 in Kazan, with the subsequent publication of A Thousand and One Proverbs in 1923 in Moscow, Kazakh Proverbs (compiled by A. Divayev) in 1927 in Tashkent, and Kazakh Proverbs and Sayings (O. Turmanzhanov) in 1935 in Almaty (Makhat 2019).

 The Institute of Literature and Art after M.O. Auezov published a 100-volume series: “Words of the Ancestors” as part of the State Program “Cultural Heritage”. The volumes of this series— 65 – 69 are devoted to Kazakh-language proverbs. These volumes included proverbs of the Kazakhs living in the People’s Republic of China, as well as proverbs that were preserved in handwritten form during the Soviet era.

How difficult it is for a foreigner who studies Kazakh to understand proverbs? How literal or vague are they? Are they structurally difficult or easy to comprehend? Can they be helpful in learning the language?

Proverbs and sayings are of great importance when teaching a language at school, especially in the initial stages. Knowledge of proverbs and sayings will allow students to correctly interpret audible speech messages and respond adequately to them, expressing their own thoughts and feelings so as to be understood by their interlocutor.

Proverbs and sayings can be used in foreign language lessons to perform a wide variety of functions: to activate vocabulary and grammar; in various types of reading; and to develop the skills of monologue and dialogical speech and writing. Proverbs and sayings began to be used in teaching foreign languages a very long time ago (in medieval Europe, Latin was taught in this way), and today their use in foreign language lessons helps students master not only aspects of the language, but the most important type of language activity: speaking.

Foreign scholars researching Kazakh proverbs are deeply indebted to their Kazakh colleagues. Kazakh proverbs tap into the wealth of the Kazakh language; this means that foreign scholars need to develop proficiency in the rich vocabulary that Kazakhs have about horses and be able to track down terms less frequently used in everyday speech. Dr. Aasland’s favorite Kazakh proverb is “Er moıynında qıl arqan shirilmes.” [The horsehair rope around the man’s neck will not rot.] He openly admits that the first time he heard it, he did not understand it at all. The American professor specializing in Kazakh proverbs is an eternal student. Thankfully, Kazakhs are eager to be of assistance. Here is the meaning of this proverb: First, a man should be able to protect his small homeland, his birthplace and his family. It is good that he knows how to work tirelessly for the good of the nation. It is better to awaken a proud spirit in a person. Every citizen must be a shield for his people and a shield for others. The duty of the man born to the country is to put his head into the race for the future of the nation and become the bonds of peace.

How do we see the spirit of the Kazakh nation in its proverbs?

Proverbs are a summary, a synthesis of observations of the life of society and natural phenomena, a kind of law, a code that defines interpersonal relations, a covenant of ancestors and a sort of textbook necessary for the education of generations. Proverbs serve the people—the speakers of the language—by revealing and displaying their inner world, explaining the interconnectedness of events and phenomena of public life with the life of the people.

For example: the land of the father—the place where he was born—is dear to every person. Growth and development, the happiness and wealth of every nation come from the native land, its nature, spaces, and wealth: “Jeri baydıñ eli bay” (If the land is rich, the people are rich).

The proverbs were not created by accident. The Kazakh land is vast, and the theme of homeland and patriotism is traditional in folklore genres: “Twğan jerge twıñdı tik” (Plant your flag in the land of your birth); “El işi—altın besik” (The country is a golden cradle).

A significant share of proverbs and aphorisms call for loyalty to the people and living in accordance with its interests. “Köppen körgen — ulı toy” (Experienced with the people is a great holiday); “Jalğız jürip jol tapqanşa, köppen jürip adas (Than to find the way, wandering alone, it is better to get lost along with everyone); “Köpşilik jürgen jerde bereke bar” (Blessed is the place where many people walk).

Proverbial sayings call people to agree, unite, and make friends:Irıs aldı – ıntımaq(The key to happiness is friendship); “Ağayın tatw bolsa, at köp, abısın tatw bolsa, as köp” (When relatives are friendly—many horses, daughters-in-law are friendly—many meals), etc.

Oral creativity is folk pedagogy. A special place is given to labor education. Courage comes from work: “Erdi kebenek kigende tany” (Man is known in trouble). People respect and appreciate modesty in people: “Bai bolsan—bergenindi aitpa, er bolsan—erligіndi aitpa” (If you are generous, do not talk about your good deeds, if you are a hero; do not talk about your exploits).

In folklore, one can always find proverbs calling on people not to deceive each other; not to appropriate other people’s goods; to be kind and sympathetic to friends, but merciless to enemies: “Zhaudy ayagan zharali” (He who takes pity on the enemy will suffer himself); “Ezhelgi dushpan yel bolmas” (An old enemy will not become a friend); “Zhauga zhanyndy bersen de, syryndy berme” (Die, but do not betray the secret to the enemy).

The Kazakh people, who have known a centuries-long struggle for the freedom and independence of the country, convinced of the power of unity, assert: “Bir jeñnen qol şığar, bir jağadan bas şığar”(All hands in one sleeve, all necks in one collar)—this is the only way to turn into an invincible force. Victory can be achieved only if thousands recognize one head and rally into a monolith: “Batyr myn kol bastaidy” (Batyr leads a thousand people); “Bir kisi myn kisige olzha salady” (One person can get trophies for a thousand people).

Photo by Dmitry Sumskoy on Unsplash

Abai Center
Abai Center