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Dialect Proverbs
Women, what deceivers! Tre ccose còstene chère:
carezze de chene, amore de femmene, nvite d’oste.
Megghie fè se ne nt’accoste

[Three things cost you dear:
the patting of a dog, the love of a woman, the invitation of an innkeeper.
You’re better off steering clear]
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

This is one of the great many proverbs of a misogynist kind, which pass down the stereotype of the woman as the repository of all evils. This vision conveys the idea of female beauty as a devilish tool used by the woman ‘for seductive purposes’, that is, arouse love in the male. And love is known to deprive men of their brains and make them slaves forever, possibly thanks to the dreadful bondage of marriage. That is why the most beautiful pleasures and feelings known to man, beauty and love, are the favorite subjects – in a negative sense – of many proverbs. Let’s see how the question of love is treated in this case.

Our saying belongs to the category of axiomatic proverbs, which are typically structured in three parts, introduced by “Three things…” which are then listed. The three things are usually ranked, with the first or last places – the most prominent positions – occupied by the thing that justifies the saying. Let’s see two examples from Salento. In Amore de fimmana / onda de mare / sule de marzu nu tte fidare (“The love of a woman / the waves in the sea / the sun in March can’t be trusted”), it is the fickleness of the woman that is being attacked, and it is placed at the head of the list, followed by the sea’s waves – not as capricious as the woman but still incessantly changeable – and lastly the sun in March, the least unstable of the three (waves change continuously, the March sun occasionally). The order is calando. By contrast, in Lu jove de nanti, lu mulu de retu, e lla fimmana de tutte le parti (“The ox in front / the mule behind / the woman all around”), the woman’s intrusiveness, the real subject of the proverb, is in third place, at the highest point of the road uphill comprising three steps: the first two limited to what is ‘in front’ and ‘behind’, the third which opens up to a 360° view of the horizon: ‘all around’. The order is crescendo.

In our proverb, instead, the real critical issue, the love of a woman, is in the middle. Strange: the climax is never found in the central part of the narration. Is there a reason? Most probably we shouldn’t be looking for it – as we have done so far – at the level of contents, with the three units arranged either crescendo or calando, but at the level of the meter, a fundamental factor in proverbs which is often overlooked. Between the content of the message and its rhetorical, rhythmical and metrical forms, there is a mysterious harmony, an intertwining of allusions and mutual references, a pattern governed by laws that often seem to coincide with the laws of arithmetic and geometry (I’m thinking of the golden mean, the Fibonacci sequence, the series of functions, spirals and fractals…).

Poetry springs from the intertwining of such different harmonies (a far cry from interdisciplinarity!) from constantly interwoven responses, from exchanges and counterbalancing between different levels of expression, form and content. In this sense, proverbs often have the charm of poetry, with their blend of rhetorical figures, rhymes, axioms, bitter sayings, and sharp irony.

An example of this interweaving and exchange of levels is found in our proverb, which by using the “oste-accoste” rhyme, breaks a rule about the order of the parts (which says the climax is never placed in the middle). In other words, a text organization rule is sacrificed for a metrical rule. And that is not all: there are other instances of thematic-metrical tweaking to make up for that sacrifice. Here is one of them.

Each of the three parts is made up of a pair of words joined by ‘de’ (of) (carezze de chene / “patting of a dog”; amore de femmene / “love of a woman”; invite d’oste / “invitations of an innkeeper”); the first element represents the bait that the male is offered, poor fool: and the attractions are very enticing (caresses, love, invitations). The second element represents the hook hidden inside the bait: the biting dog, the deceiving woman, the cheating innkeeper. Three deceptions are revealed, and the worst (that of love and of the woman) is almost hidden between the other two, camouflaged in the middle of other tricksters who look innocuous and friendly: the dog, the innkeeper. The poisoned mouthful in a tasty sandwich. Now we see that the central position of “amore de femmena” (“love of a woman”), due precisely to the original arrangement of metrics and content, takes on a further meaning: it points to the double danger embodied by the woman, who is dissembler but also underhand, well disguised, dressed up as an innocent creature, as sweet as love itself.

Mysterious intertwining – and the mystery – of rhythms, rhymes, of hidden truths and falsehoods in disguise. The world in three lines, if you like.

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