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Dialect Proverbs
Don’t fly into a rage if you want to keep healthy Ci còllere te pigghje
t’ammalazze e t’assuttigghje

[If you fly into a rage
you fall ill and grow thin]
(Taranto)
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

By observing some Apulian proverbs we have already found that their fundamental function was that of regulating people’s behavior with unwritten norms to be handed down orally in a form that was easily memorized. But what were the sources of these proverbs? The one we are considering today, which contains advice on keeping healthy, gives us an interesting answer.

Regarding good health, it is more than likely that the main source was a didactic poem which was very popular in ancient times; it would have been the envy of our social networks. Called Regimen Sanitatis or Medicina Salernitana and De conservando bona valetudine, it was a concentration of diet prescriptions and advice to prevent and cure illnesses, attributed to the famous Scuola Salernitana.

According to legend, the medical Scuola Salernitana was founded by four wise men: a Greek, a Latin, an Arab and a Jew; as if to say it was the peak and the synthesis of scientific thought not only in the West but also in Eastern Europe, thanks to the strategic position of the Republic of Amalfi, near Salerno, standing at the crossroads of all the international routes that linked the East and the West.

The Scuola di Salerno became famous not only amongst doctors, but also amongst the general public. And its precepts became widely known, between the first and second millennium, by means of this didactic poem of about 300 lines, in Latin, which was translated into various languages, including Italian. Folk culture dipped into it in later centuries, gradually transforming the prescriptions into aphorisms, sayings and proverbs, which got widely circulated, particularly around the lower classes.

The first piece of advice – and the main one – went like this: Si vis te reddere sanum curas tolle graves: irasci crede profanum which can be translated more or less like this: “If you want to keep healthy, avoid worrying and ire, a profane passion”. Although the form is different, the Taranto proverb would seem, in substance, to have been modeled on this advice. And it enables us to understand, in general terms, how a ‘highbrow’ text got turned into a folk saying.

In the proverb Ci còllere te pigghje / t’ammalazze e t’assuttigghje the abstract indication of the Salerno precept is translated into a plastic image through three stages:

1) ‘keep healthy’, a very positive precept, gets replaced with its opposite ‘fall ill’ (making use of the well-known principle in communication theory according to which it is normally more efficacious to use a negative image than a positive one: on reading the Divina Commedia we all prefer the Inferno to Paradiso);

2) the abstract concept of ‘falling ill’ is rendered plastic with the image of the body getting thinner;

3) ire – an abstract passion of literary flavor – is translated into the more concrete and expressive ‘flying into a rage’ (these days we would use an even more expressive and less abstract expression).

And so, from “if you want to keep healthy, avoid worrying and ire, a profane passion” you get to “if you fly into a rage you fall ill and grow thin”. You come down from heaven to earth going from Latin to dialect and using language, images and fears which were very close to the tribulations of daily life, with the huge advantage that the new images become indelible in the popular imagination. Thanks also to the help, we must remember, of the brevity, the rhythm and the rhyme, that enable you to memorize it easily.

The first precept of the medical Scuola Salernitana – like many other highbrow texts – once they are translated into dialect, does not get handed down thanks to the original text, but via the folk variation. A father will repeat it to his child and he to his grandchild for generation after generation and it will become like a law carved in stone. So everybody will remember a moment of rage, a sick man who weakens to the point of death: these images will replace those of ire and worries and of the ‘profane’: abstract concepts from another world.

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