Italian Proverbs for English Speakers
Did you know that the early bird gets the worm? Of course you did. You heard it in your childhood when you did not want to get out of bed in the morning and many, many other times throughout your life.
“The early bird gets the worm” is a proverb, meaning a well-known saying used to give people some kind of advice. They are common all around the world and sometimes languages share them.
Are there any Italian proverbs that have exact equivalents in English? Do some of them render the same ideas but differ when it comes to the choice of words? You are going to find answers to these questions in this article.
Italian Proverbs Similar to English Ones
If you think about some of the proverbs you know, you may be surprised by how odd they actually sound.
Let us take “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” as an example. These days you do not gift horses too often (well, at least I don’t), so it seems like a slightly odd way to phrase a reminder not to question the value of a gift. And yet, the proverb is not only widely used in English but also has an almost exact Italian equivalent “A caval donato non si guarda in bocca”. This is only one of many examples of such a proverb.
The cautionary saying that warns us against someone who is greedy, namely, “Give them a finger, and they will take your whole hand” is also very well known in Italian as “A chi dai il ditto si prende anche il braccio”. However, Italian is a bit more dramatic with this particular proverb, suggesting that rather than taking just your hand, the person will take your whole arm. Some other Italian proverbs with very close English equivalents are:
|A mali estremi, estremi remedi
|Desperate times call for desperate measures
|Aggiungere legna al fuoco
|To add fuel (IT: wood) to the fire
|Anche il pazzo dice talvolta parole da savio
|Even a fool (IT: madman) may give a wise man counsel
|I topi abbandonano la nave che affonda
|Rats (IT: mice) desert a sinking ship
|I soldi non fanno la felicità
|Money doesn’t bring happiness
|La mela non cade lontano dall’albero
|The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree
Same Idea, Different Words
Sometimes Italian proverbs convey a similar meaning to the English ones but the actual choice of words differs.
A good example of this is the proverb “A ogni uccello il suo nido è bello”, which translates literally as “To each bird, its nest is beautiful”. Does it sound like an odd concept? Not really. After all, it just expresses the importance of one’s home. The same idea can be found in the English saying “There’s no place like home”.
Another English expression that seems to be universal across languages is “Make a mountain out of a molehill”. It is a reminder not to exaggerate and has an equivalent in Italian “Far d’una mosca un elefante”, which in a literal translation means “Make a fly (to be) an elephant”.
Some sayings show the cultural differences between the two languages. For instance, a phrase discouraging listeners from making assumptions about people on the basis of their clothes, “L’abito non fa il monaco” means “The habit doesn’t make the monk”. The obvious religious connotations of this saying result from a strong cultural significance of the Catholic Church in Italy. English has a secular version of this proverb – “Clothes don’t make the man”. It could also be easily read as “Don’t judge the book by its cover”.
Last but not least, Italians just like English speakers, have a proverb which underlines the need for caution. The Italian saying “Non si è mai troppo prudenti” means literally “One can never be too prudent”. The English equivalent of this warning is “Better safe than sorry”. As humans seem to share similar wisdoms regardless of the language they speak or where they live, there is a countless number of such proverbs.
Very Italian Proverbs
Of course, Italian has different roots and history than the English language. Italy is a country with a rich and diverse culture and its proverbs reflect that. It is important to know at least some of these proverbs to avoid getting entirely confused.
Imagine, for example, that an Italian told you to either eat the soup or jump out of the window. You probably would have no idea what he or she is talking about. The closest English equivalent of the expression “O mangiar questa minestra o saltar questa finestra” is “Take it or leave it”.
Not surprisingly, many Italian proverbs refer to food or drink. Another Italian saying calls for always being prepared by telling us that a wise man does not get on the ship…without a biscuit (“Il savio non s’imbarca senza biscotto”). There is even a proverb in Italian about the usefulness of wine. “Dove entra il vino, scappa la vergogna” means that where wine enters, shame escapes.
Many Italian sayings are particular to a specific region of the country. They are often not expressed in standard Italian but in a regional version of the language called a “dialect”.
A Sicilian saying “Lu tempu è priziusu” would be “Il tempo è prezioso” in standard Italian. The proverb simply reminds us that time is precious (and who would not agree with that?).
A Venetian proverb “Prima de vender la pele bisogna copar l’orso” has a few equivalents in standard Italian, the most popular being “Non vendere la pelle dell’orso prima di averlo ucciso”. Was it first used in dialect and then incorporated into Italian usage or the other way round? There is no way of knowing. Both variations warn us not to sell a bear before killing it, which expresses a similar idea as “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch”.
I hope you have enjoyed learning about different Italian proverbs. Such sayings constitute a big part of every language’s linguistic wealth. It is thus important to learn at least the most popular ones. Using proverbs is also an impressive sign of fluency in a foreign language.
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Magdalena Osiejewicz-Cooper has lived in Bologna and Palermo. Apart from Italian she speaks fluent Polish and French. She is currently self-studying Spanish.