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Ukrainian proverbs and sayings: timeless folk art

06 October 2022

Ukrainian folklore is a source of wise thoughts, insightful observations, and instructive stories that have stood the test of time. Once successfully proclaimed by someone, they are picked up by many people, used in similar situations, shortened and supplemented, and adapted to the existing reality. 

What are proverbs and sayings?

Folk art includes many small genres:

  • comparison;
  • anecdote;
  • proverb. 

The most famous among them are proverbs and proverbs. The differences between them are insignificant, but still exist.

A proverb is a whole sentence which has a complete meaning. It contains some instructive idea, philosophical observation, wise advice for life. Sometimes a proverb looks like a couplet with rhymes. 

A proverb is a short expression or phrase, often humorous or metaphorical. It is used in speech not on its own but as part of a general idea to make it more vivid and figurative. Ukrainian proverbs are often used in everyday speech but proverbs are used less often. But they are used when we need to convey a deep idea as precisely and simply as possible. 

Classification of proverbs and sayings

The huge number of proverbs that people have created and continue to generate to this day, has often become a subject of scientific ethnographic research. Researchers have made attempts to interpret proverbs, systematize them and create some sort of classification. There are several approaches to this problem, each of which takes a certain factor as a basis for its criterion.

1. Geographical

The phraseology of Slobozhanshchina, Ukrainian Polesye, Hutsulsuls or Poltava is very different. The reason for this phenomenon is very simple – there are a lot of dialects in these regions and a lot of lexical variations. Moreover, proverbs and sayings often reflect the peculiarities of everyday life and nature, significant historical events and mythological ideas. As a result, for example, the western regions of Ukraine often have proverbs about mountains, while in the centre and east the proverbs about the field and steppe are more common. 

2. By origin

Each proverb, which has stuck to the folk speech, appeared for a reason. Among the sources from which the roots of folklore proverbs and sayings can be derived:

  • everyday life and everyday life;
  • the organisation of society;
  • the peculiarities of work or handicraft;
  • natural phenomena;
  • animal behaviour;
  • folk traditions and rituals, etc. 

Also oral creation can be based on literary tradition: phraseological expressions from the Bible, ancient myths, works of classics, children’s fairy tales are often used. Another important source of proverbs and sayings are historical events, quotations of famous people, known facts. Sometimes the proverbs we got used to are a modified or truncated version of a phrase from the past. For example, the popular phrase “my hut is nearby” came to be abbreviated from “my hut is nearby, I met the first enemy”

3. On the subject and content

Folk art concerns literally all spheres of human life. Among the huge number of insightful or funny proverbs can be found statements about life and death, peace and war, love and loyalty, wealth and poverty. Ukrainian folk sayings also touch on more prosaic topics:

  • family relations;
  • work;
  • recreation;
  • communication;
  • learning;
  • growing up;
  • speech, etc.

The most famous Ukrainian proverbs

The meaning of folklore is the preservation of wisdom, wit, mentality, and peculiarities of thinking of the whole nation. That is why understanding their image system is an important part of our cultural code. 

Famous sayings about life

Life and its awareness has always been fundamental for any human being. That is why there are so many proverbs about the path from birth to death, the search for one’s place in the world.

  • To live is not a field to cross / To see life is not to be a guest. There are many similar proverbs with the same message. They emphasize the complexity of the life path, the need to consciously approach one’s own destiny.
  • Years go by, the way the old man kicks in / Year after year, the way the old man goes by. Another meaning which is often expressed in proverbs is the transience of life, the elusiveness of time.
  • A man in his age as in a long field / For the duration of his life, everything happens to him / No one knows what’s waiting for him in life. The unpredictability of life is what makes it challenging, but interesting.

Proverbs about the Ukrainian language

Our native language is melodic, bright, expressive and we want to cherish and develop it. Moreover, the word is a key component of human communication, therefore the folk thought about it is said very often and aptly.

  • If you do not know your own language, let yourself be forgotten/ A bird is recognized by its bird, but a man by his words. The Ukrainians have devoted an increasing number of sayings to their mother tongue which has been under persecution for centuries. To speak Ukrainian and hear it in return is a real value.
  • The word is not a pea, the wilt is not a spit / Don’t throw words to the wind / Be lord of your word / Deeds are more vocal than words. Sayings about responsibility for your words are a vast folklore stratum.
  • A warm word makes the ice thaw / A strong word makes the heart grow fonder. Dozens of proverbs are dedicated to the emotional power of a word, which can support or hurt.

Sayings about love and friendship

Human relationships are the core of life. That is why Ukrainian folklore is full of proverbs about love, friendship and family. Many of them now seem outdated, as they appeared in the old days of patriarchy and harsh traditional values. But some retain their relevance to this day.

  • Do not be silent/ Do not help me and charms, as someone is not up to par. Despite the fact that in traditional society marriage was decided by parents, great importance was attached to feelings.
  • The heart has no control over anything, it has its own will/ Let the heart have its will, it will set it free. The power of emotion can override all reasonable arguments, which has been noted since ancient times.
  • The tree is strong with its roots and the man with his friends/ You can’t buy the other for a pittance/ You have to look for the other, but if you find him, try. Faithful friends who will support you in any situation are a precious resource of life at all times.

Folklore proverbs about work

Our people are known for their diligence, every Ukrainian tries to find work to his or her liking and do it in good conscience. Ukrainian proverbs and sayings reflect this to the fullest extent: the number of sayings about labor is incredible, and almost all of them are positive and motivating.

  • The Mother and the Mother work/ Without work, life is but a smoke in the sky/ Without work, the day becomes a day. Many proverbs stress that joy and meaning of life cannot be found in idleness and laziness.
  • There is no fruit without work/ There is no bread lying around/ To eat fish, you have to go to the water/ You want to eat bread, don’t sit on the stove. Any achievement, any success is possible only if you work hard.

Ukrainian folk proverbs

As already mentioned proverbs contain the wise deep meaning, but they are less often ironic. Proverbs or proverbs in turn are usually humorous. They make fun of character traits or situations or point out behaviour patterns or relationships. Without even noticing it we constantly use proverbs in everyday speech, in professional and everyday communication. The subtle image makes it possible to express an idea so that it can be understood by everyone.

Let us remember just the brightest of the Ukrainian proverbs: to go before your father in the furnace, to wash the hen in the leg like a cow in a barn, not a rascal and not a dame, to watch the town by the goat, like Pylyp z konopeli, you see how you like it, every toad praises its swamp.

Modern folklore

It may seem that folklore is an asset of the deep past. But the process does not stop for a moment. It lives on in schools and universities, reacts to political events and social upheavals, and acquires a visual component. The peculiarity of modern folklore is its incredible speed of generation and large volumes. Memes, jokes, and proverbs quickly appear and disappear, only some of them linger in the information space. Perhaps some of them will in due course constitute a treasury of folk wit and wisdom.