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Dialect Proverbs
Beyond the garden there are “the others”.
The hateful prejudice dies hard
Fije, mujeri e sciardini
Guàrdate de li vicini

[Daughters, wives and gardens
Beware of your neighbours]
(Salento)
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

We get back inside the family with this proverb, within the peasant society organized on the basis of a few fundamental cardinal values, around which every moment of daily life rotates. The proverb dwells on a worrying factor that might attack these values and thus endanger the balance of society, and indicates, epigrammatically, what the solution could be. As usual it is a ‘caveas’, a warning to be wary. By following this advice the values will not be assailed and society will conserve its balance. That is, nothing will change. As the world of proverbs, adages and folk sayings desires.

In our case there are two cardinal values: the untouchable nature of the ‘stuff’ and of the women that belong to the family. If we look closely we see that it’s all one value: the defense of property. The garden is the property of the householder – a term, probably chosen for reasons of rhyme in Italian, which is intended to include the owners of all estates – but by the same right also of the women in his family; the wife and the daughters belong to him. And the lands are to be defended in the same way as the possession of women in the house. From whom?

Every community, large or small, at the moment it sets itself up to be such, defines its spaces and draws its confines which separate it from the neighbouring ones: from this moment on, the neighbours, who are only just over the other side, and who probably before the drawing of the boundaries were relatives or friends, become other, the people we must keep our distance from, different. Potentially enemies, definitely hostile. Having hostile neighbours is useful when marking out the territory of social and cultural identity: they can be redefined with negative stereotypes, so as to be more easily derided or, in some cases, insulted. By keeping their distance, the community defends itself from possible crossbreeding, exchanges and exogamy that could weaken its identity by smudging its outline.

The negative stereotype which rises up between neighbours afflicts communities like nations, (the Italians are all members of the Mafia, the French are dirty, the Germans are dull), regions (Ligurians are tight-fisted, the Piedmontese slow, the Lombards racist), cities (the Torinese are false but polite, in Vicenza they eat cats, in Verona they are all crazy, Romans are arrogant…). And it even strikes smaller groups: villages, districts, neighbourhoods and families.

So, there we have the enemy-type against whom we have to defend ourselves: our neighbours. In so far as they are ‘other’, extraneous to the social nucleus that you have to defend (your family), on principle you must suspect them of wickedness, falsity and rapaciousness. And you have to keep them away.

So our proverb throws light on two fundamental components of peasant culture: the obsession with ‘stuff’ and the denigration of others. With two important corollaries:

1) the ‘stuff’ includes the women, both in the role of wife and in the role of daughter. Not only that: indicatively, women hold the top two places in the triad of the first line, while the lands are only in third place, and also ‘civilized’ by a choice of lexis – gardens – that in the rough rural context weakens the semantic force. It means that it really is the asset of your women that is at greatest risk.

2) the diffidence towards neighbours means strongly conflicting social relationships, based much more on the adage “homo homini lupus” than on Christian ethics. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the proverb has its roots in a pre-Christian age. To judge from our daily experience, conflict between neighbours is almost the norm even today.

And as far as women as passive objects belonging to men is concerned… are we so sure that we can look down on the world represented by this proverb? How many times do we find ourselves thinking that we still live in a pre-modern, if not primitive, society? Once in a while, then, despite appearances, a proverb is not completely anchored in the past. Unfortunately.

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