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Dialect Proverbs
Rather an “old hand” than a “know-it-all” Va’ a-u patute e nnone a-u sapute
[Turn to someone who has been through it, and not to the know-it -alls]
(Bari)
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

With last month’s proverb we introduced the issue of the illnesses man is heir to. Falling sick has always been a terrible curse: medicine used to be a very approximate business, and all too often illness was just a step away from death. To deal with it, popular wisdom elaborated a series of rules, a mixture of superstitions and religion, science and tradition, which, came together to create a sort of recipe book, or rather, a robust moral viaticum to deal with problems, dangers and risk of sickness. These rules were organized into proverbs, sayings and adages, most of which in rhythmic or metric form, which has assured their oral transmission from generation to generation, (almost) right down to us.

In the area of Puglia this educational task was entrusted to three types of expression in the oral tradition:

- moral sentences, which included general rules of behaviour and ‘philosophies of life’;

- operative advice and rules, concerning health, lifestyle and diet choices;

- propitiatory formulas to ward off bad luck, prayers and intimations: ancient formulas which were known before the affirmation of scientific method but also before the victory of Christianity over pagan beliefs.

In the first category we can enumerate ethical and existential proverbs like Mègghie ricche de carne ca de terries, “It’s better to be rich in the flesh (= health) than in money”, or the equivalent La pelle iè nnumere iùne, “The skin is number one (= life before all else)”, or again La salute se change acquanne se pérde, “You only appreciate your health once you lose it”. Nowadays, we would define these as not exactly proverbs, but rather pearls of folk wisdom. They have penetrated so far into our basis culture that they seem obvious, empty rhetorical formulas (if we stop a moment to reflect we discover that the formulation is obvious but the content, that is, the message, is anything but obvious and agreed on).

The proverb we are discussing today belongs to the second category, but contains evident traces of a ‘philosophy of life’. It gives an operative indication: when we fall ill it is better to avoid sending for the doctor, who pretends to understand everything, but knows much less than anyone who has suffered from the illness and survived. It’s better to turn to an experienced person than a know-it-all. It is a concrete indication, but it is based on diffidence (or prejudice?) towards the ‘knowledge’ of a man of science, which has deep cultural roots and precise historical motivations. The first motivation is technical: the inadequacy of medicine, which only began to base itself on really scientific principles in the late 19th century, and so – before that period – was approximate, limited, home-made; so much so that it resented the effective and often winning competition of ancient and well-tested wisdom: medicinal herbs, ‘naïve’ dietetics, the techniques which today would be called awareness training. The second motivation is social: the doctor speaks the “latinorum” of the ruling classes and the ‘serf’ distrusts this esoteric style, knowing very well that – in the relations between the social classes – it can conceal the trap of deceit and abuse of power. He does not trust the haughtiness of the witch-doctor, because by using mysterious words and potions he seems to retain the ‘magic’ ability to modify the natural course of events and this lends his intervention a disquieting aura of witchcraft and mystery. On weighing up the pros and cons, the suggestions that experience makes would seem to be more reliable than those offered by knowledge.

Mediaeval stuff and nonsense? Not really. Now, in 2013, how many of us, ‘evolved and civilized’ as we are, when looking for the most suitable therapy to cure a serious illness, trust the advice of a friend or distant relative who has “been through it”, as well as (and often instead of) following the doctor’s prescriptions? Or again, how many of us post a request for advice on Facebook, on a blog, or on a forum, and look forward to receiving the advice of a fellow-sufferer? Last question: are we really convinced that “u sapute” (the big-heads) are always more reliable than “u patute” (the afflicted)?

I am/we are the grandchildren of those illiterate ‘serfs’ who knew no laws and rules but only the application of common sense and experience, filtered by the proverbs and mottoes of the ancients. We have turned our backs on the proverbs and mottoes but deep down we have not changed much. Notwithstanding our haughtiness.

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