USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Amharic’
Folk speech
Proverbs

“The goat doesn’t get to keep the grass when he dies.”

My informant is from Washington, D.C. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia. This her explanation of a saying she has heard her father use:

“So since my dad is from like, the rural area of Ethiopia, he knows a lot of Ethiopian sayings. Some of them are based on like, stories. Um, I don’t know most of those. But my dad will just kind of throw them in random situations and they don’t really make sense to me. So one time was when this guy was like, doing something that my dad thought was selfish. We were at Costco and this guy didn’t put his shopping cart away after he used it. He just left it in the middle of the parking lot. So my dad looked off into the distance and said, ‘Well, you know what they say.’ Then he recited a saying in Amharic and then he translated it for us. And basically the meaning was, um, ‘The goat doesn’t get to keep the grass when he dies.’ It didn’t make any sense to me, but apparently it means, “Don’t be selfish about things just because you’re not using them anymore.” Sort of. At least, that was my understanding of it. It’s not a phrase I’m going to be using, but my dad thought it was important to share.”

My informant is someone who has somewhat of a language barrier between her and her parents. Her mother and father are fluent in Amharic, the language most commonly spoken in Ethiopia, but my informant does not speak or understand this language. Therefore, some things get lost in translation. This particular saying is one example of those miscommunications. My informant’s father is trying to relate to her, but she has a hard time understanding exactly what reference she is making. She’s had an urban American upbringing, whereas her father grew up on a farm on Ethiopia. She is not used to interacting with goats or observing goats’ interactions with grass. Sometimes, the places she and her father grew up seem worlds away. Despite the many cultural differences, my informant is ultimately able to understand the gist of what her father is trying to tell her. The literal meaning of her father’s saying may be confusing to her without the context that her father learned it in, but the important part—the message he is trying to convey—remains. In this way, this folk saying helps my informant’s father communicate with her, even if it is in a somewhat indirect way.

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