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Dialect Proverbs
From poetry to “prose”
This is love
U primm’anne a ccore a ccore
U secunde a ccule a ccule
U terz’anne a ccalge n gule

[The first year heart to heart
The second ass to ass
The third year a kick in the ass]
(Bari area and northern Puglia)
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

The reader should not be shocked by the crude language. The culture of the common people does not go in for the thousand hypocrisies of the middle class and even less those of the aristocrats: it calls a spade a spade and is largely immune from modern society’s taboo that censors ‘swear-words’ (terms referring to bodily needs, the sexual sphere and many of those referring to the religious sphere). After all, to be honest, if you look for an expression in contrast with ccore a ccore (heart to heart), a ccalge n gule (a kick in the ass) is far more expressive than the politer ‘a kick in the seat of the pants’ or ‘up the behind’. It’s to the benefit of poetry, in the end.

Our proverb gives the story of an unhappy union in three rapid lines, which identify three crucial stages in the relationship: the initial passion (ccore a ccore), the first cold hostility (a ccule a ccule) and finally aversion (a ccalce n gule). We are in the reign of stereotypes, which act as the breeding ground for proverbs. The message is clear: it is an invitation not to have illusions about married life, to consider the pleasure of life with a partner ephemeral, to expect that loves burns out quickly leaving cold ashes which passion very soon transforms into rancorous hatred. In the background, as nearly always happens, there is misogyny and a pessimism only slightly lessened by a joyless ‘carpe diem’.

A message so imbued with negativity is conveyed, however, in a way that is anything but depressing. The choice of words, though not as crude as it may seem to us, is cheerfully casual, the rhythm is very lively (a tercet made up of three lines in octonary meter, the line typical of the popular lyric, rhythmical, simple and easy to memorize), the images evoked are extremely convincing and realistic (two asses, a kick in the ass), between grotesque and irreverent. In short, life is short but has to be lived without illusions: if the plot is dramatic, then the narration must be sparkling, and if possible carefree.

The reader will have noticed that the cheerfulness-effect in our case is achieved with the use of a stylistic device typical of proverbs and mottos: the ternary rhythm structure. Three is in fact the stylistic key of the tercet.

There are three lines, three pairs of two-syllable words that conclude every line, perfectly identical metrically and rhythmically (ccore a ccore, a ccule a ccule, a calge n gule). And as for the events described, three years are examined (u primm’anne, u secunde, u terz’anne), there are three feelings under observation (passion, detachment, aversion). And – if we look closely – there are three points of view, all different: that of the lover who knows only the language of passion, that of the disaffected lover, who knows only the language of hatred, and that of the great sage, who knows the ways of the world and from a distance dispenses pearls of wisdom.

We are immersed in what has been called the fascination of the number three. This stylistic device, as has been pointed out elsewhere, is very common in the Puglia area. To give an example, looking just at the occurrence of words indicating numbers from three to seven, in Nicola De Donno’s collection of proverbs we find that the number three appears 131 times, four 41 times, five only seven times, six 13 times and seven 33 times. In sporting terms we would say there’s no match: number three wins hands down.

After all, arranging the words and ideas on three levels is so common that scholars talk about a ‘triadic structure’ for our proverbs and to explain the ‘fascination of three’ they even involve the collective subconscious. That may well be, but to explain it, perhaps all we need to do is look back through literary history and remember the triadic stanza of the classical Greek chorus, which has remained practically unchanged since Stesichorus. From ancient Greek poetry to the popular tradition in southern Italy (where the culture for many centuries was Greek): it may not be possible to document this process, but it certainly is plausible.

Yet again, we find a proverb from our area that conveys precious information on many levels: historical, anthropological, metrical-stylistic, linguistic, literary, and even psychoanalytical. And at the same time it retains a touch of mystery.

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