The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #26 March / April 2017
When Pigs Fly
by Tarja Jolma
March / April 2017 | 

The painting aboce is part of "Netherlandish Proverbs", a 1559 oil-on-oak-panel by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It shows a scene in which humans, animals, and objects offer literal illustrations of Dutch proverbs and idioms.

I've been very interested in figurative language in all its varieties, as they embellish and enrich the language significantly. Proverbs are also seen as rich repositories of the wisdom of peoples. I'd say that the figurative language in all its aspects might be a repository of beliefs, prejudices, cultural concepts and both historical and imaginary events, so it's always a fascinating thing also for languages learners. In fact, some authors have chosen to end the chapters of language study books in a proverb.

Proverbs are relatively short and witty sayings. They are often based on experience, and they may contain a wisdom, rules of behavior, advice, and irony. There's often a rhyme or an alliteration, which one has to learn but which actually makes memorizing a lot easier. For example "Chi lascia la via vecchia per la nuova, sa quel che lascia, e non sa quel che trova," in other words who leaves the old street for the new one, knows what stays behind and doesn't know what is ahead. A correspondent English saying would be "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know." Proverbs and figurative expressions also tend to have various forms, so sometimes people end up arguing about their correct form without realizing that they are just as varied as languages.

Even though proverbs are considered wisdom, many of them aim to make people smile: "When the cat is away, the mice will play." In Italian the mice will dance, in Finnish they will dance or jump around on the table. This goes also for the reverse wisdoms, such as "don't do today what you can put off until tomorrow," a common saying also in other languages.

Wellerisms are witty and solemn phrases attributed to real and imaginary persons. They often comment the hardships of life in a humorous way. The name comes from Sam Weller, one of the characters in The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. This type of sayings are not the easiest to learn, because they may be in dialectal form and attributed to some person that a learner can not possibly know, but often they are attributed to generic persons such as a grandmother. Staying in the animalistic path, here's a Finnish wellerism: "Konstit on monet, sanoi akka, kun kissalla pöytää pyyhki.” The meaning in English: there are many ways to do things, said the hag as she wiped the table with the cat. The speaker is not always mentioned, so the listener/reader is supposed to understand that the saying is, in fact, a wellerism.

People often think that certain sayings are unique to their language, but that's only a partial truth. However, learning to use figurative language in a versatile manner is not a skill people acquire easily in a foreign language. It's not always easy in the native language, either.

Figurative language tends to have similar traits in neighboring languages, regardless of the language families. It seems that figurative use of words is something people are eager to adopt in their language, so both geographical closeness and cultural contacts and media spread expressions.

So what exactly do languages have in common in this area? Lots of figurative expressions are intercultural, like "dog's life," in Italian "vita da cani," in Russian "соба́чья жизнь," in Greek "σκυλίσια ζωή" and finally in Finnish "koiranelämä." They all represent miserable human life. A bit more challenging are expressions that have approximately the same idea but with different factors. While English speakers say "there's something fishy going on here," Italian speakers think a cat is hatching here, "qui gatta ci cova," and Finnish speakers think a dog is buried here, "tässä on koira haudattuna." This kind of similarities, often combined with small differences like different animals, are common. Animals are used a lot when describing human actions.

It's rather easy to see without any studies that neighboring countries and countries that have had a lot of contacts share similar expressions. Words and phrases travel light, especially these days. This and cultural changes might explain why sometimes the cultural or symbolic value of an animal does not concord with its role in a figurative expression. In many cultures, dogs are referred to as a man's best friends, loyal and intelligent creatures, and they may be pampered like children, but still when we talk about treating someone like a dog, at least nowadays it means bad treatment.

We may be perplexed when the saying includes something we have no idea of or don't know well. The Italian figurative expression "fare l'occhio di triglia a qualcuno" means to make sheep's eyes at somebody, i.e. to look at someone in a foolishly amorous way. The Italian "triglia" is red mullet, a type of fish. In Italian the expression sounds fluent, as it's a common kind of fish, but it suffers a lot in translation into languages that don't have it, as the name may be a lot longer and rather peculiar and therefore not suitable for figurative expressions, as they resort to common words. In the case of "triglia" there is another problem, too: the idea of fish's eyes. For a native Finnish speaker, it's rather hard to imagine a fish look at someone in an affectionate way, let alone in a foolishly amorous way. Fish are not seen as sociable animals. How on earth has someone come to think of a fish for this? Well, the funny factor in the expression may make it easier to remember.

Now let's get to things many languages have in common. Figurative language tends to have similar traits in neighboring languages, regardless of the language families. It seems that figurative use of words is something people are eager to adopt in their language, so both geographical closeness and cultural contacts and media spread expressions. Different peoples share some similar concepts and symbols, and many metaphors and other expressions are based on general human experience. Time and people fly, arguments and plans are shot down. Even little children seem to be prone to use some simple metaphors. The scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson suggested already in 1980 in their book Metaphors We Live By that our conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical and based on human experience.

In Western, mostly Christian culture it often passes unnoticed that many of the figurative expressions and proverbs are actually used in the Bible, and therefore they have crossed all linguistic borders. That also explains why also people who didn't know what lions looked like started using proverbs that include lions. The Book of Proverbs in the Bible is an excellent source of international proverbs. In the past and in some cases also in the present religious books have been about the only kind of books people read and listen to be read, and the Bible was for a long time the only book many families had and read.

There are also some cornerstones of literature that are famous for their rich proverbial wisdom. In Finnish, there is the classic Seitsemän veljestä by Aleksis Kivi in 1870 (Seven Brothers). In Italian, there is I Malavoglia (I Malavoglia: The House by the Medlar Tree) by Giovanni Verga in 1881. Spaniards can boast with a worldwide success, namely El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in 1605 (The history of the valorous and witty Knight-Errant Don-Quixote of the Mancha). The main character Sancho is notorious for his use and also abuse of proverbs, in terms of quantity. He's so keen on backing up his speech with wise proverbs that it blurs his message and annoys the listeners even when he uses them in the right context. There's a point when Don Quijote first does the same and then reproaches Sancho saying that he, too, knows how to throw streams of proverbs: " Hablo de esta manera, Sancho, por daros a entender que también como vos sé yo arrojar refranes como llovidos." (Second part, Chapter VII) Moderation is needed even with essencially good things.

The head of the Italian fisherman family of Malavoglia, Padron 'Ntoni, is known as a wise man who also likes to use proverbial wisdom, but at some point he loses touch with reality, wanders around and rambles on just listing proverbs, making no sense. "Padron ‘Ntoni adesso era diventato del tutto un uccellaccio di camposanto, e non faceva altro che andare intorno, rotto in due, con quella faccia di pipa, a dir proverbi senza capo e senza coda: «Ad un albero caduto accetta! accetta!» – «Chi cade nell’acqua è forza che si bagni» – «A cavallo magro, mosche». – E a chi gli domandava perché andasse sempre in giro, diceva che «la fame fa uscire il lupo dal bosco», e «cane affamato non teme bastone»; ma di lui non volevano saperne, ora che era ridotto in quello stato." (Chapter XV) For clarity, here’s the translation in English by Mary A. Craig dating back to 1880 goes like this: “Padron 'Ntoni was of no use to anybody any more. He did nothing but wander about, bent almost double, and uttering at intervals proverbs without sense or meaning, like, "A hatchet for the fallen tree"; "Who falls in the water gets wet"; "The thinnest horse has the most flies"; and when they asked him why he was always wandering about, he said, "Hunger drives the wolf out of the wood," or, "The hungry dog fears not the stick," but no one asked how he was, or seemed to care about him, now he was reduced to such a condition.”

However, these characters know their proverbs, they just don't know how many are enough. Another way to misuse proverbs and and other types of expressions is to use the wrong word or part in it. Sometimes people do that for the sheer fun of it, but very often they just don't remember it correctly when they need it. These days, if malapropisms are spotted in the media, especially in the headlines of newspapers, readers are quick to pick them up. They often start to circulate in the social media or end up in website collecting examples of misuse of language. One of them is the Finnish Facebook group titled "Lapsi jäi pesuveden jalkoihin - uudistuvaa kielenkäyttöä." The first part of the name is a mangled expression combining "lapsi meni pesuveden mukana" (they threw the baby out with the bathwater) and "jäädä jalkoihin" (to get stomped over, in other words, overpowered).

One more origin of proverbs needs to be mentioned: the fables passed on from generations to generations since the times of Antiquity. The best-known fabulist and story teller is the Greek Aesop (approximately 620 – 564 BCE). Plenty of well-known stories are credited to him and known as Aesop's Fables. The fables depict short stories with a moral. Many of the stories represent humanized animals, and the lesson to be learned is for humans. Reading the stories reveals the background of many proverbs and figurative expressions, such as the Finnish "Happamia, sanoi kettu pihlajanmarjoista," (translation: sour, said the fox about the rowan berries). In English the saying is shortly "sour grapes." They both come from the fable The Fox and the Grapes, but since there were no grapevines in Finland, the story was adapted and talks about rowan tree which has sour fruits even when mature, unlike the sweet grapes.

Finally, I wish to give a couple of useful links. The first one leads to a multilingual database of proverbs where it's possible to search for a proverb also according to a keyword. There are proverbs in many languages: Spanish, French, Galician, Modern and Ancient Greek, German, Portuguese, Bask, Italian, English, Catalan, Russian, Polish, Romanian, Latin, Hungarian, Arabic, Albanian, Bosniac and Persian - in total 20 languages. Once a proverb is found, it's possible to see if it has multiple forms and if it has equivalents in other languages listed in the service. The second link is a collection of Aesop's fables, and you'll see also the story behind "sour grapes."

Tarja holds a Master's degree in Italian Philology with studies in Finnish, Spanish, and cultural history. Her daily work as a tv-subtitler writing subtitles for the deaf and the hard-of-hearing consists mainly of her native Finnish language, but all kinds of language skills are useful. She simply can't stop studying languages, especially the ever challenging and fascinating Mandarin Chinese.

When Pigs Fly
Writer: Tarja Jolma
Petey: All images used are Public Domain
• "El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha", Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra <>
• Verga, Giovanni, I Malavoglia. Introduzione di Carla Riccardi. Milano, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.p.A., 1939

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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