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Dialect Proverbs
A fantastic state-of-the-art teaching tool: the nursery-rhyme I capelli d’oro
La fronte medica
Le due candele
Lu ruccu ruccu
Lu mangiatuttu
Lu centrune
Lu capasune

[Hair of gold
Medical brow
Two candles
Pigeon
Snow pea
Shaft
Full goatskin]
(Salento)
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

This is actually not a proverb, and what’s more those who don’t already know it can make neither head nor tail of it. However, we are going to look at it because we wouldn’t like people to think that traditional oral culture consists solely of proverbs. There are popular songs and poems, popular coats of arms, riddles, fables… And nursery-rhymes, like the one we are going to analyze today.

Nursery-rhymes, too, in their own small way (so to speak…) serve to hand down a vision of the world, the features of society, a picture of values and beliefs, for the purpose of inculcating certain attitudes into the younger generations. According to the Treccani definition, the nursery-rhyme is a “cadenced song or composition (sometimes in the form of a dialog), generally in short lines with rhyme or assonance and a fast rhythm, made up of phrases joined by merely verbal signals, which is recited or sung by children in their games, and also by adults in order to entertain, calm and lull children to sleep”. It therefore plays a specific social role, for a clearly identified niche market: little kids. All nursery-rhythms are cheerful, rhythmic, lively, and steer children towards a positive, joyful vision of society and of life. It will never happen again, in any of the kinds of writing in popular culture for older ages. As if the only carefree and confident age is early childhood, and tools like nursery-rhymes have the role of protecting and encouraging it, since it is the weakest, most delicate and most important age. It is the start of tomorrow’s society.

Let’s take a closer look at our nursery-rhyme. To understand it, it has to be seen in an exact context, with directions for the gestures that have to accompany every stanza. The context is: mother is holding baby in her lap; the gestures are these:

Hair of gold the mother touches the child’s hair with her index finger

Medical brow she touches the baby’s forehead (seen as the seat of knowledge?)

Two candles she touches first one then the other eye

Pigeon she touches the baby’s nose

Snow pea she touches his mouth (like a pod full of peas)

Shaft she touches his breastbone

Full goatskin she suddenly tickles his tummy

We are in a society that speaks dialect, and at this initial stage of language learning we expect the mother to teach her child, making him smile, the names of the various parts of his body, calling them by their names in dialect. But in fact it’s not like that: the operation is more sophisticated. With this game of identifying the parts of the body, the child learns, apart from the relation between things and their names, also a fundamental device in human language: metaphor. The eyes are two candles, the breastbone is a great shaft in the chest, the belly is a goatskin flask. He is already discovering the same device that, when we pass from images to words, allows adults to become familiar with concepts like ‘arm of the sea’ or ‘belly of the plane’, starting from the knowledge of a person’s arm or belly. The nursery-rhyme becomes a tool for training in the complex mechanisms of language, while simultaneously training in the simplest ones (naming and gestures)

And that’s not all. I don’t know if there are older versions, entirely in dialect, but this one that I found to be very old has two stages: the first three lines are in Italian, the others in dialect. It’s a bilingual nursery-rhyme. By changing the language in the middle of the rhyme the mother very naturally teaches the peaceful coexistence of two tongues in the same language competence, a coexistence that enables her to shift easily from one to the other within the same text. It is a complicated concept, only recently acquired by linguistics, and not yet fully assimilated in language education.

How to teach metaphor, how to become aware of plurilingualism and to cultivate the taste for changing languages: we have only been thinking about it for a few years, and in conferences we present it as the most modern of problems.

But on a closer look, poking around in proverbs and nursery-rhymes, it really seems that our ancestors still have a whole lot to teach us.

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