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Dialect Proverbs
More dangerous than the kick of a mule
Tre cose t’ài guardare
Lu culu de li muli
Lu dente de li cani
E cci tene sempre rusariu a lli mani

[Three things you must be wary of
A mule’s rear
Dogs’ teeth
And people who keep handling their rosary ]
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

A recurring structure, almost typical, of proverbs, is that of the triad, made up of a succession of three elements (words, phrases, but often – almost always – lines of verse) that rhythmically counterpoint the succession of the topics and the progress of the reasoning. In our case we are dealing with a list of dangerous “things”, presented in terms of a structure that draws attention first to the number three itself: “Three things…”. This structure is so common that Nicola De Donno, the greatest collector of Salento proverbs, has dedicated a book to it in which he has brought together 516 proverbs of a triadic structure. Its title is 516 proverbi salent(r)ini but the subtitle speaks for itself: Il numero tre nell’immaginario popolare di Terra d’Otranto (The number three in the imagination of the people of Terra d’Otranto) (Congedo, Galatina 1994).

Why the number three, particularly? The answer must lie in the mysterious symbolic properties attributed to it by all cultures, ancient and less ancient: in our civilization just think of the Holy Trinity in the Catholic doctrine, but there are many other examples. As well as this, shall we say, mystic plane, the appeal of the number three is to be found in our proverb also on two other parallel but convergent levels: the rhythmical-metrical plane and that of the so-called ‘thematic progression’.

In terms of the Italian meter, we can see that the succession: lu culu de li muli is is a seven-syllable line, lu dente de li cani is another of an identical structure to the one before, but the third verse breaks up the harmony completely with the sum of two six-syllable lines: e cci tene sempre and rusariu a lli mani. The attention of the listener (because we listen to proverbs, we don’t read them) is all on the third verse, that shatters the meter imposed by the first two, and creates a curious and intriguing effect of disharmony. Rhythmically speaking, a crescendo.

Regarding the thematic progression, that is, the succession of content, the scaling is perfectly analogous. The first verse of the triad speaks of a rather lowly part of the body of an animal (a mule’s rear, with an internal assonance in Italian), while the second follows suit speaking of a rather scary part of the body of another animal (dogs’ teeth); the third changes direction completely, speaking not of an animal but of human beings, not of a part of the body but of an object of symbolic value (the rosary), and of the evil that can derive not from a physical danger from the natural world but from a moral vice, a character defect to be found in man. In this case, too, there are two lines of preparation and a third of fracture. It goes without saying that the teaching contained in the proverb is concentrated in the last line, the one in which the rhythmic, metric and content crescendo culminates.

This is how to build a proverb. By creating expectations and then eluding them, breaking a rule that has just been laid down, surprising the listener with an unexpected finale. It’s the same principle as the detective novel: with the difference that here it all happens in a flash of three lines.

The reader will naturally have noticed that, by giving weight to the progression of which we have spoken, man’s hypocrisy appears to be more dangerous than the kick of a mule or a dog’s bite. As if to say on the stage of history the role of the villain is reserved for man.

I fear that this is the real, deep, message of this triadic proverb of ancient wisdom.

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