First Advisor

John H. Atherton

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in Anthropology






Bemba Proverbs, Shona Proverbs, Bemba (African people), Shona (African people)



Physical Description

1 online resource 2 v. (4, vi, 508 leaves) ; maps


The proverbs of people - defined by Webster as short sayings "in common use expressing a well-known truth or common fact ascertained by experience or observation" - have been an object of study to many kinds of people for many decades. Robert R. Marett has said that proverbs are a key to both the language and culture of a people. But, knowledge of the language and culture of a people, in itself, cannot be satisfying to the discerning anthropologist. An effort must be made to identify and understand the categories of thought, codes and symbols that undergird their language and culture. The anthropologist cannot be satisfied to simply view their world; he must also discover the ways they view their world. He must discover their world view. Marett rightfully acknowledged that proverbs are a useful key for learning language and culture. It is the contention of this paper, however, that they are, likewise, excellent tools for world view studies.

A unique opportunity arose to prove this thesis when a combination of factors presented the researcher with considerable data. First, he had learned the languages of the Shona and Bemba peoples of Southern Africa. Second, he had collected and studied the use of the proverbs of these people for twelve years. Third, others had collected and published the proverbs in different forms. The paper, then, is a presentation of the results of hours of study of 1,556 Shona proverbs, and 1,286 Bemba proverbs, plus contextual data collected from ethnographies, dictionaries, and personal observations.

The theoretical framework of the paper is, of necessity, carefully presented. Necessary, because neither world view nor proverbs are well understood in the social sciences. Michael Kearney, one of the prime resources for information on world view, says that it is not a “well-established field of study in the sense that it appears in course catalogs, or that there are recognized schools of world view theory or many scholars specializing in it”. Carolyn Parker, one of the main sources of study for proverbs, says the same thing for this subject. According to her, although there has been a long history of the study of proverbs, much of that study has been characterized by shallowness, superficiality and casualness. Benefiting considerably from the contributions of these two, and others as well, the theoretical framework of this paper rises out of an anthropology characterized by the related disciplines of the cultural patterning of the 1950s with its emphasis on psychology and philosophy, the ethno-science and symbolic anthropology of the 1960s with their emphases upon linguistics and philosophy respectively.

Methodologies centered around the extraction from the proverbs of all references to people and their relationships. Lists of this data were compiled and analyzed with the objective of comparing the two groups in question. Special attention was given to three categories: Self, Other' and Relationship. The data extracted was analyzed statistically by use of a chi-square test. Primary analysis, however, depended upon the content of the proverbs themselves. Problems of translation, classification, comparison and statistics were given careful consideration in the analysis.

Several observations on both world views and proverbs were the result of methodologies carried out within the theoretical framework described. More than fifty dimensions of the world views of the Bemba and the Shona were brought to the reader’s attention. These dimensions point to similarities as well as distinctives between the two groups. They reinforced observations made according to other methodologies and they also revealed new possibilities for future research. Observations on the proverbs concerned the practicality of using them for the purpose of world view studies. This practicality was obvious, though it has its limitations which must be acknowledged. Application of this methodology in the social sciences may contribute to a greater understanding of people from diverse cultures.


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