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Italian Proverbs: In Vino Veritas

Truth in Words


The Italian language, as fertile as the vineyards that dot the peninsula's countryside from north to south, is rich in short pithy sayings. Didactic or advisory in nature, Italian proverbs are generalizations couched in specific, often metaphorical, expressions: Niente di nuovo sotto il sole. There's nothing new under the sun; Troppi cuochi guastano la cucina. Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Cheese Collection
Italian proverbs can be very amusing: Bacco, tabacco e Venere riducono l'uomo in cenere (Wine, women, and tobacco can ruin a man) but they are often of linguistic interest and may show lexical change. In academic circles scholars concern themselves with la paremiografia (a collection of proverbs, not an Italian cheese) and as well as la paremiologia, or the study of proverbs. Proverbs are part of an ancient tradition common to every part of the world, and there are even Biblical proverbs.

Linguistic experts point out that "proverbiando, s'impara"—that is, by speaking and parsing out proverbs one learns about the language and about the tradition and mores of a culture. The statement, itself a take-off on the famous Italian proverb: Sbagliando s'impara (One learns from his mistakes), implies that both native speakers and new students of Italian can increase their grammar aptitude and vocabulary by studying quotes and sayings.

You Say Pentolino, I Say...
The Italian language, reflecting the pastoral heritage of the country, has many proverbs that refer to horses, sheep, donkeys, and farm work. Whether termed an adagio (adage), a motto (motto), a massima (maxim), an aforisma (aphorism), or an epigramma (epigram), Italian proverbs cover most facets of life. There are proverbi sul matrimonio, proverbi regionali, and proverbs about women, love, the weather, food, the calendar, and friendship.

Not surprisingly, given the large variety of regional differences in the Italian language, there are also proverbs in dialect. Proverbi siciliani, proverbi veneti, and proverbi del dialetto Milanese, for instance, reflect this diversity and show how a common idea may be given different local references. For example, here are two proverbs in Milanese dialect that show the similarities and differences in construction and pronunciation:

Milanese dialect: Can ca buia al pia no.
Standard Italian: Cane che abbaia non morde.
English translation: Barking dogs don't bite.

Milanese dialect: Pignatin pien de fum, poca papa ghè!
Standard Italian: Nel pentolino pieno di fumo, c'è poca pappa! (or, Tutto fumo e niente arrosto!)
English translation: All smoke and no fire!

Proverbi Italiani
Whether you are interested in sports or cooking, romance or religion, there is an Italian proverb that's appropriate for any situation. On the Italian Language Bulletin Board you can discuss Italian proverbs and sayings and read examples of proverbi napoletani (Neapolitan proverbs), proverbi felini (proverbs about cats), and proverbi siciliani, some of which have Arabic origins. Whatever the topic, remember that all Italian proverbs embody a general truth: I proverbi sono come le farfalle, alcuni sono presi, altri volano via. Or, "Proverbs are like butterflies, some are caught, some fly away."

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