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Dialect Proverbs
To get to heaven…
you have to suffer
Ci cammina taue taue
va alla casa tu tiaue
Ci cammina spine spine
va alla casa du Bommine

[He whose path is smooth smooth
gets to the home of the Devil
He whose path is thorny thorny
gets to the home of the Child]
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

This proverb has a certain metrical sophistication: not only is it formed of two pairs of octonarii in perfect rhyming couplets (aabb), but each line is divided into two rhythmically identical parts – with the stress on the first and third syllable – and in addition the first part is repeated identically in alternate lines (Ci cammina in lines 1 and 3, va alla casa in lines 2 and 4).

The technique of combining two metrically identical parts to form a single line and of rhythmically alternating identical parts is very ancient: it is certainly found in Latin and Greek poetry (where it also had a specific name: each of the two parts of the line was called colon), but that does not mean that our proverb is so old. Or rather, we have to think of two aspects on different time scales: the metrical-rhythmic pattern, which makes up the structure of the proverb, and which may be older, and the content, which is likely to be a lot more recent.

As in both lyric and epic poetry, in proverbs too the classic versification was the form or the model, and the content was the malleable mixture that it was filled with each time. The pattern remained almost unchanged through the years, while the message reflected the current cultural and ethical climate. In other words, for proverbs the default scheme is: ancient outer shell, (relatively) recent content.

From the language point of view, too, the proverb is interesting: apart from the rare Bommine ‘bambino’ or child (prompted by the rhyme with spine), the expression spine spine stands out: it is not an established syntactic form but its meaning is obvious. It is easy to think of a guided improvisation: the repetition of spine spine is certainly prompted by the repetition of taue taue, and uses a specific resource in Salentinian dialects, in which repetition is very frequent, for various purposes: as a reinforcement (it renders the absolute superlative: la ricotta era fresca fresca – ‘the ricotta was extremely fresh’), of iteration (a chianu a chianu lu sta facimu ‘we are doing it little by little’), of proximity (caminava pareti pareti ‘he walked along sticking to the wall’), etc. In our case it gives the idea of proximity, but also of repetition, ‘inventing’ the expression in a specifically Salentinian manner.

As for the content, it is thoroughly permeated with Christian religiosity. This is shown not only by the traditional juxtaposition – especially in stories for children – of Baby Jesus and the Devil, respectively symbolizing salvation and eternal damnation, but above all by the importance placed on the ethics of suffering, renunciation and sacrifice.

Here it is not a matter of physical suffering and its significance, but of a conception of life (and work) based on personal sacrifice: to suffer – or even better, to seek suffering – is infinitely more deserving than to live comfortably; ‘walking on a thorny path’ leads to Heaven, while ‘walking on an easy path’ leads to Hell.

The civilization reflected in the proverbs is permeated by this way of thinking. And this vision is not found only in Apulian proverbs but in most proverbs from almost all parts of Italy: popular culture exalts suffering, sacrifice and pain, seen through Christian eyes as indispensable companions on the path to the hereafter: “Suffer evil and wait for good”, “Suffer in silence, everything has an end” ,“There is no pain that does not finish, if it is borne with patience”, “He who suffers and resists wins”, “Suffering brings gains” and so on and so forth. It is an ethics of pain, indeed of suffering, that many link to the theology of original sin, and that has known periods when renunciation, suffering, and sacrifice enjoyed the utmost consideration: the dark ages, the post-Council of Trent period.

Is it just by pure chance that the process of forgetting proverbs accelerated sharply in the Eighties and Nineties, the period of greatest splendor of the ethics of consumerism, health consciousness and hedonism?

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