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The Turkish Delights, A Treasury of Proverbs and Folk Saying

A white day sheds light, and a black day sheds darkness.


“Arabic is a language, Persian is a sweetmeat; Turkish is an art.”

Persian proverb



"It has been an axiom that one could travel the caravan routes from Istanbul to Peking [Beijing] speaking only Turkish,"' one of the world's oldest living languages. It "took shape, almost certainly in the steppe country to the west and north of the Great Wall of China, at some date which we cannot now determine, but certainly long before the start of the Christian era."

     Turks are among the world's oldest people. Chinese chronicles mention them in 1300 B.C. They were then nomads in what is now Russian Siberia. It is not clear, however, whether the word "Turk" first designated one tribe or a group of tribes. In the Turkish inscriptions found in Outer Mongolia and Siberia dating to the eighth century A.D., "Oghuz" and "Turks" appear as the names of two distinct communities, sometimes at war, sometimes in alliance, in which "Turks" were the dominant partner. In later centuries and by the time of Mahmoud Kashgari, the eleventh century Turkish scholar, the Oghuz are referred to as a Turkish tribe. "Turks," which originally applied to the most powerful segment of the two groups, was subsequently applied to the whole people.

In the first and second centuries, Turkish tribes living on the fringes of Mongolia established a strong confederation among themselves and migrated to the region of the Altai Mountains and Lake Baikal in Central Asia. Some established urban centers, and in the sixth century an organized Turkish state in the area sent ambassadors to Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, and received tribute and ambassadors from the Byzantines. This little kingdom controlled the silk route from China to the west by establishing several caravan stops, but the kingdom soon broke into smaller tribal units or incipient city-states.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Turks migrated westward to the lands between Syr Darya and Amu Darya and east of the Caspian Sea. In their new home, the Turks, most of whom were now Oghuz Turks with their own "tribal religion," came under the influence of Islam and embraced this new religion.

The Oghuz Turks, like the other Turkish tribes, were warriors. The traditional virtues of tribal life, horsemanship, heroism, and loyalty held the society together. Even after embracing Islam, they continued to live monogamously, and women played a prominent role in the culture.

When Turks began to enter the world of Islam, they were first employed as enslaved fighters and guards for the caliphs of Baghdad or their subordinates. Then, in the eleventh century, Seljuk Turks, named after a warrior leader from one of the Oghuz tribes, took control of the eastern districts in the caliphal lands and finally formed the Seljuk Empire, which extended from eastern Iran to western Anatolia in the twelfth century. The leadership of the Islamic world then passed into the hands of the Turks.

The Ottoman Empire, named after its founder Osman (Othman) and founded after the Seljuks' fall. At its height during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) stretched from the borders of Morocco to the borders of Iran, and from southern Poland to southern Yemen.

After two centuries of slow decline, and a century of efforts to reverse the decline by a process of Westernization, the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed at the dose of World War 1. From its ruins sprang the Turkish Republic under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk),which  will celebrate  its  sixty-fifth  anniversary  on October 29, 1988.

The Turkish language is practically the same as the variety of Turkic tongues extending through the southern U.S.S.R., central Asia, and western China and belongs to the Uigar-Altaic language group, which includes Finnish, Hungarian, and Estonian. You'll find people - 65 million people to be exact- speaking it in Turkey and more than 50 million people of Turkish origin living outside of Turkey.The majority of people speak Turkish in the Russian Republics of Azerbaijan, Turkmenia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, and Uzbekistan f Western Turkestan). All Moslems in the Eastern Turkestan region of the People's Republic of China speak Turkish. Sizable minorities of Turkish origin reside in northern Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, northern Iraq, northern and western Iran, and north and north-western Afghanistan. Of course, the official language is Turkish in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Turkish place names are sprinkled in a vast belt from central Mongolia and western China across inner Asia through Iran, the Caucasus and Black Sea regions, and Turkey into the Balkans as far as Yugoslavia. This linguistic dispersion indicates the route of migration and expansion of Turks in past centuries.

Works of the earliest Turkish literature, funerary inscriptions dating from the eighth century A.D., were discovered near Lake Baikal in central Asia. In these descriptions are some Turkish proverbs in written forms.

The Armenian subjects of the former Ottoman Empire first introduced Turkish proverbs to the West. The Armenian monastery of St. Lazarus near Venice, Italy, published a small book in 1844, Turkish Proverbs Translated into English, which contained 180 proverbs translated into English and Armenian. Then, in 1897,Osmanli Proverbs and Quaint Sayings, by Rev. E.J. Davis, M.A., chaplain of the St. Mark's Church, Alexandria, Egypt, was published in London, England. It was actually the translation of Turkish author and journalist Ahmed Midhad Efendi's book, Muntahabat-i Durub-I Amsal, published in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1871. Reverend Davis's book, like its original Turkish version, was arranged without thematic classification in a straight alphabetical sequence, from proverbs beginning with the letter a and continuing in this rigid style until z. Because of a large number of translation errors, the text is almost useless. Still, 4,300 proverbs, quaint sayings and rhymes, puns, similes, etc. clearly showed to the Western world the richness of Turkish proverbs, folk sayings and idioms.

Later, in 1938, Racial Proverbs, A Selection of the World’s Proverbs Arranged Linguistically (edited by Selwyn Gurney Champion, M.D., London) arranged 250 proverbs randomly, without any commentaries. A World of Proverbs (Patricia Houghton, London, 1981) included twenty Turkish proverbs in a chapter entitled "Proverbs from Many Lands" with a brief comment that they "may be nearly as old as the Greek proverbs." Other than these publications I know of no other book of proverbs in English with a chapter of Turkish proverbs.

I must also point out that the Turkish proverbs in all the books published in Turkey were arranged in straight alphabetical sequences like Ahmed Midhad Efendi's book of proverbs published in 1871. Therefore, the text you are now reading is the only book in English and in Turkish in which proverbs are arranged under thematic headings with a Turkish original for each proverb. {“There exists another book  “A Dictionary of Turkish Proverbs” by Metin Yurtbaşı,1993,Turkish Daily News Press; Pages 4-5-6 will give you information about Yurtbaşı's Book"}by Web Master 

Turkish proverbs are among the earliest in the world to appear in a book. Mahmoud Kashgari, an "11th century Turkic scholar who is thought by some to have been the author of the world's first dictionary," published the first and most important Turkish dictionary, Diwan-i Lugat-it Turk, in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1074. Mahmoud Kashgari, who wrote this monumental work to teach Arabs Turkish, included in it 290 proverbs which are very much alive in today's Turkish language.

Some of the proverbs mentioned in this book are: "Mountains do not come nearer to mountains, but men to men" [Men meet, mountains never]; "The sword does not cut its own sheath" [Dogs do not eat dogs], "Five fingers are not the same" [There is no equality in the world]; "He who marries early enlarges his family; he who gets up early goes a long way"; "Children pour water on the street, their parents slip and fall in it" [Parents are responsible for their children's behavior]; "When the grandfather eats unripe grapes, his grandchild's teeth are set on edge" [Children pay for the sins of their parents], "The stupid guest entertains the host" [A reference to one who tries to do his superior's job without being asked, and makes a fool of himself]; "One crow does not make winter" [One misfortune should not make one lose hope]; "Better to be the head of a calf than the foot of an ox" [Better to be the first in a village than second in a big city].

One must take into consideration, however, that the Turkish spoken in Turkey today is not exactly the same as it was during Mahmoud Kashgari's time. Quite a few words became obsolete, others underwent phonetical changes. Take "Otug odhguc birle ucurmez." [You cannot put out fire with flames.] None of these words in this proverb exists in today's Turkish: Ateş alevle söndürülmez " The proverb "Ula bolsa yol azmaz; bilig bolsa soz azmaz," in Kashgari's book [When there are road marks, one does not miss his destination; when there is knowledge, speech does not cause one to stray] is “İşaret olursa yol şaşmaz, ilim olursa söz şaşmaz”.

Some proverbs in Kashgari's book also slightly changed morphologically. Turks nowadays do not say, "Kiss the stone that you cannot bite" but "kiss the hand that you cannot bite." "Two camels fight and the fly in between dies" is now "The horse kicks out and the mule kicks out; between the two the donkey dies" [When the great quarrel, the small pay the penalty].

Twelve stories set in the heroic age of the Oghuz Turks also pro­vided many Turkish proverbs. These stones, collected in Dede Korkut Kitabı ("The Book of Dede Korkut") contain proverbs generated from the seventh to the thirteenth century. Some of these proverbs are: "Unless one calls God, no work prospers; unless God grants, no man grows rich"; "Though you throw a bridle over the ass's head, he does not become a horse; though you dress a captured girl in a robe, she does not become a lady"; "A daughter does not take advice except for her mother's example; a son does not take advice except for his father's example."

The scholar Ahmed bin Mahmoud's book published in the thirteenth century, Hibet-ul Hakaayık,  contains many Turkish proverbs which are popular today, such as "Do not disclose your secret to your friend, for he will also tell it to his friend"; "He who knows and he who does not know are not the same," which implies the importance of education. Some proverbs mentioned in Mahmoud’s book exist in slightly chafed forms. Turks now caution dial "The wound of the knife (not "arrow") heals; the wound of the tongue festers."

Of the early collections of proverbs published in Turkey, 698 proverbs appended to the end of a book, entitled Teshil, are very important. To this day no one knows who compiled these proverbs and when. Teshil published in Istanbul in 1480, is a book on medicine. Its author, Mawlana(Mevlalana)  Semseddin, does not tell us why these handwritten proverbs were-added to his book as an appendix. Teshil is now in Fatih Library in Istanbul, and the proverbs were published with the photocopies of the originals. Some scholars believe these proverbs are older than those in The Book of Dede Korkut. The proverbs attached to Teshil do not mention Ottoman Turks, but The Book of Dede Korkut speaks highly of Ottoman Turks.

These sayings in Teshil are now part and parcel of the treasury of Turkish proverbs: "If a dog has its owner, the hare has its God" [God protects the weak], "Summer is a lie, winter is a reality" [Man's life is spent more in sorrow than in happiness], "A hungry dog breaks the butcher's wall"; "The fly in a hurry falls into the milk"; "Take a horse by his bridle, and a man by his word"; "No man is without fault"; "He who would gather honey must bear the sting of bees"; "Every sheep is hung [in the butcher's shop] by its own feet" [Every man is the architect of his own future]; "The mouth is nearer than the nose; the stomach is nearer than the brother" [One's self-interest comes first]; "Stretch your feet according to your blanket" [One should live within his means]; "A timid merchant neither loses nor makes profit" [There are times one must take risks]; "The candle does not give light to itself* [Sometimes one does not think sufficiently about his own interests and tends to help others without helping himself]; "The son inherits his fathers property, not his name" [One has to make a name for himself]; "Money teaches wisdom; dress, how to walk."



Do not dock the donkey's tail in a crowd, some will say it's too long, others it's too short.

A lion sleeps in the heart of every brave man.

The hare was angry with the mountain, but the mountain was unaware of it.

A good man will appear when talked about.

A dog that intends to bite does not bear its teeth.

A worthy man is still worthy even penniless, a donkey is a donkey even if he is finely saddled.

An open mouth remains no hungry.

Two cocks won't crow on the same dunghill.

He who does evil to others, does it to himself.


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