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Dialect Proverbs
That lack of faith in science… Lu mideche studie
e llu maléte more

[The doctor studies
and the patient dies]
(Gargano)
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

For some proverbs we have focused on the rhyme, meter and versification, noticing that most proverbs are constructed on recurring patterns, rhymes and assonance, because thanks to these ‘tricks’ the content is easier to memorize and can be passed on from generation to generation. This was necessary in times when writing was unknown or the rare privilege of the few and a people’s cultural heritage was handed down orally: this happened for the Iliad and the Divine Comedy as well as for the most famous opera arias, popular songs and of course proverbs.

But not all proverbs follow this rule. There are some in which the message is not dressed up with linguistic devices but is presented in its natural state, as it were, as if it felt it had an inner communicative force that needs no adornments to express itself.

Our proverb is one of these. It would be a couplet if there were not the conjunction and in the middle, which lengthens the second line by a syllable (but the and cannot be eliminated as it indicates that the two actions occur at the same time); there is no rhyme; the meter is uneven (in the first line the stress falls on the second and fifth syllables, in the second line on the fourth and sixth). Therefore our attention, too, must go exclusively to the content.

As often happens, the message that the proverb wants to convey comes from a contrast between two realities, which unmasks the incoherence of the system – social, cultural, perhaps political. The two realities that clash here are: the tragic reality of illness that follows its course until death (llu maléte more), and the behavior of the doctor, who is guilty of indulging in his pointless studies (lu mideche studie). First message: nobody can break the laws of nature. Fatalism, resignation.

But that’s not all. The inadequacy here is not of man in general: it is specifically that of the doctor. It is not a matter of the doctor giving a bad diagnosis or treatment: it is a matter of a doctor who studies. There are therefore two targets: the medical profession (to whom the proverb attributes all sorts of evils: presumption, pride, avarice, incompetence etc.) and studying, that is, science. Of the two, the latter is the ‘main target’. Science.

In the culture of proverbs, science had not yet appeared. Indeed, it is seen as the anti-reality, the infringement of a taboo. The world of proverbs is essentially a world profoundly imbued with Christian, or more precisely Catholic, values and beliefs, and all the principles of science are seen as dangerous enemies of religion. Studying is dangerous: it leads people to reflect, doubt and indulge in relativism. If it took root it would challenge the principle of authority, the absolute, blind faith in those who are trusted to interpret God’s will, or even in the very belief in the principles of religion. It would be the world of the anti-Christ.

This explains the corrosiveness and virulence of the negative representations of the world of studying and science that we find in the most common sayings and proverbs (from the Latin Studere, studere, post mortem quid valere? to the well-known Val più un asino vivo che un dottore morto - A live donkey is worth more than a dead doctor, Chi troppo studia matto diventa - Too much study sends you mad). It is the anti-scientific aspect of popular culture, a culture that rests on the two pillars of religion and superstition and cannot conceive of a critical, empirical approach to reality.

Watch out. This component of popular culture is not confined to proverbs, nursery rhymes, popular sayings and mottos. And in fact it did not die out with them. It is still alive even in contemporary society, where it actually holds – and often regains – position after position. There is a great deal of evidence of this: just think of the recent fashion of opposing vaccinations (with dramatic results: people have started dying of measles again, just when it was about to be declared extinct), the success of ‘alternative’ medicines, almost always bogus, the untaxed spells of quacks and healers, and even the falling school enrolments in scientific courses (with the paradoxical result that there is a lack of math, science and physics teachers). At school it is harder and harder to teach precision and correctness in language use, because the strain of studying and the fascination of doubt are shunned like the plague, thanks also to the Internet, which dishes up the most absurd rubbish as ‘alternative’ truths.

Science is the devil, in short. Yesterday, but also today. And tomorrow?

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