Universality and Language Specificity: Evidence from Arab and English Proverbs

Turki Mahyoub Qaid Mohammed, Imran Ho-Abdullah


All languages have proverbs that reflect their community’s attitudes, thoughts, values, and beliefs. Similarities between proverbs of different languages can be accounted for in cognitive semantics as motivated by shared human experience and universal schemas. At the same time, differences in the proverbs can be linked to the general idea of cultural diversity and hence language specificity in proverbs. This paper investigates twelve Arabic proverbs from a cognitive semantics viewpoint to determine their underlying schemas. The main aim is to arrive at a better understanding of the universal and language-specific nature of the Arabic proverbs. The methodology employed in the analysis is to explicate and determine, utilizing a cognitive semantics framework, whether the twelve Arabic proverbs have literal equivalence in English with shared schemas. In this regard, the Arabic proverbs and their English counterparts that have shared schemas are evidence for universality. While Arabic proverbs that have no literal equivalence in English and hence no shared schemas are good candidates in support of language specificity. Some of the proverbs might have shared schema but still, exhibit some variations that could be a manifestation of diversity of values and cultural background. Based on the analysis presented in this study, the Arabic proverbs examined fall into three categories: (i) proverbs that demonstrate universal construals; (ii) proverbs that demonstrate universal construal with variations; and (iii) proverbs that demonstrate language-specific construals.


Arabic and English proverbs, cognitive semantics, cultural variance, linguistic universals

Full Text:



Ammer, C. (2013). The Dictionary of Clichés: A Word Lover's Guide to 4,000 Overused Phrases and Almost-Pleasing Platitudes. Skyhorse.

Bock, K. J., & Brewer, W. F. (1980). Comprehension and memory of the literal and figurative meaning of proverbs. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 9(1), 59-72.

Brosh, H. (2013). Proverbs in the Arabic language classroom. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 3(5),19-29. http://www.ijhssnet.com/view.php?u= http://www.ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol_3_No_5_March_2013/3.pdf

Calm before the storm. (n.d.). Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. (2015). Available at https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/calm+before+the+storm

Charteris‐Black, J. (1995). Proverbs in communication. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 16(4), 259-268.

Cole, M., Parker, M. (2011). Culture and cognition. In: Keith, K. D. (Ed.) Cross-cultural psychology: Contemporary themes and perspectives. (pp.133–159) Wiley-Blackwell.

Fahmi, E. E. M. (2016). A cross-cultural study of some selected Arabic proverbs and their English translation equivalents: A contrastive approach. International Journal of Comparative Literature & Translation Studies, 4(2), 51-57. https://www.journals.aiac.org.au/ index.php/IJCLTS/article/view/2359/2060

Fergusson, R. (2000). The Punquin Dictionary of Proverbs (2nd ed.). Market House books Ltd.

Ferraro, G. P. (1990). The Cultural Dimension of International Business. Prentice-Hall.

Gibbs, R. W. (1994). The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding. Cambridge University Press.

Gibbs, R. W. (2001). Proverbial themes we live by. Poetics, 29, 167-188.

Gibbs, R. W. (2002). A new look at literal meaning in understanding what is said and implicated. Journal of Pragmatics, 34(4), 457-486. DOI: 10.1016/S0378-2166(01)00046-7

Gibbs, R. W. (2006). Embodiment and Cognitive Science. Cambridge University Press.

Gibbs, R., Strom, L., & Spivey-Knowlton, M. (1997). Conceptual metaphors in mental imagery for proverbs. Journal of Mental Imagery, 21, 83-110.

Heine, B. (1997). Cognitive Foundations of Grammar. Oxford University Press.

Ho-Abdullah, I. (2011). Analisis kognitif semantik peribahasa Melayu bersumberkan anjing (Canis Familiaris)[A cognitive semantics analysis of dog canis familiaris related Malay proverbs.] GEMA Online™ Journal of Language Studies, 11(1), 125-141. http://ejournal.ukm.my/gema/article/view/71/65

Hou, R. (2013). Proverbs reveal culture diversity. Cross-Cultural Communication, 9(2), 31-35. http://www.cscanada.net/index.php/ccc/article/view/j.ccc.1923670020130902.1346

Ibañez-Moreno, A. (2005). An analysis of the cognitive dimension of proverbs in English and Spanish: The conceptual power of language reflecting popular believes. SKASE Journal of Theoretical Linguistics, 2(1), 42-54. http://www.skase.sk/Volumes/ JTL02/04.pdf

imtranslator.com. https://about.imtranslator.net/a-bird-in-the-hand-is-worth-two-in-the-bush/

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G., & Turner, M. (1989). More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. University of Chicago Press.

Maalej, Z. (2009). A cognitive-pragmatic perspective on proverbs and its implications for translation. International Journal of Arabic-English Studies (IJAES), 10, 135-153.

Mansyur, F. A., & Said, R. (2019). A cognitive semantics analysis of Wolio proverbs related to the human body. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, 436, 259-262.

Mazhitayeva, S., Omasheva, Z., Tazhikeyeva, A., Kadyrov, Z., Talaspayeva, Z. & Otynshina, S. (2015). Universal and Idioethnic Characteristics of Proverbs and Sayings with Zoonyms in the English and Kazakh Languages. Review of European Studies, 7(6), 178-185.

Merriam Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam- webster.com/dictionary/a%20bird%20in%20the%20hand%20is%20worth%20two%20in%20the%20bush

Njui, Mbu Martha. (2019). "Linguistic Interpretation of Proverbs in the Kenyang Language", Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 10 (3), 421-426. http://dx.doi.org/10.17507/jltr.1003.03

Nikolaeva, O. V., Chen, S., & Panina, M. (2017). Chinese proverbs in Chinese media in English: Intercultural Communication Perspective. Journal of Intercultural Communication, 45. http://immi.se/intercultural/nr45/nikolaeva.html

Odebunmi, A. (2008). Pragmatic functions of crisis – motivated proverbs in Ola Rotimi’s The Gods are not to Blame. Linguistik online, 33(1), 73-84.

Pintarić, Anita Pavić, and Sanja Škifić, (2016) "Changes of Proverbs in Form and Meaning: The Case of Croatian Odjeća ne čini čovjeka čovjekom (Clothes Do Not Make the Man)", Taylor & Francis Online, Folklore, 127(2), 210-228. https://doi.org/10.1080/0015587X.2016.1181468

Temple, J. G., & Honeck, R. P. (1999). Proverb comprehension: The primacy of literal meaning. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 28(1), 41-70. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1023287420088

Tendahl, M. (2009). A Hybrid Theory of Metaphor: Relevance Theory and Cognitive Linguistics. Palgrave Macmillan.

The Free Dictionary. https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/calm+before+the+storm

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7575/aiac.ijclts.v.9n.1p.24


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

2013-2022 (CC-BY) Australian International Academic Centre PTY.LTD.

International Journal of Comparative Literature and Translation Studies

You may require to add the 'aiac.org.au' domain to your e-mail 'safe list’ If you do not receive e-mail in your 'inbox'. Otherwise, you may check your 'Spam mail' or 'junk mail' folders.