One of the many reasons I love to travel is because when in a faraway land, you are the student and there is much to learn. Throughout hundreds of years every country has had its triumphs & trials, they have left memorable sayings and pieces of wisdom in the form of proverbs. Cultural proverbs and sayings have always interested me because I think they provide an insightful window into a country’s beliefs, experience, and general attitude towards life. Passed down from generation to generation, mostly through verbal communication, proverbs are still used today and have become a part of everyday speech. They are generally used to reinforce arguments, illustrate ideas, and deliver messages of wisdom, inspiration, consolation, celebration, and guidance.
Learning proverbs is in my opinion, also important for language learners. In addition to learning numerous grammar rules, tricky spelling and pronunciation patterns, we should dedicate time to learning proverbs too. Proverbs, like other idioms, are an inseparable part of everyday communication. Imagine you’re having a conversation with native speakers of the language you’re learning. Suddenly, in the midst of conversation, someone says, “All that glitters isn’t gold”. In case you haven’t heard anything like that in your own language, you may be confused.
It is a dual learning tool in that if you have taken the time to study a proverb from the language you are learning, you have dissected the phrase to understand it. Proverbs contain popular beliefs and imagery that is typical of a particular culture, so it is obvious that for proper communication, the knowledge and active use of proverbs is beneficial.
This is a list of my favorite proverbs from around the world, from Mexico to Taiwan, from Russia to Serbia, let’s enter the secret garden of folk wisdom, trace the origins, and discover the meanings of the worlds most popular sayings. Years of global wisdom put into one clever little list.
I’d love to hear your favorite proverbs, please share in the comments below!
All that glitters isn’t gold.
The expression, in various forms, originated in or before the 12th century and may date back to Aesop. The Latin is Non omne quod nitet aurum est.
This proverb dates back to the age of Chaucer. In his House of Fame, the father of English literature says:
“Hyt is not al golde that glareth“.
William Shakespeare made the expression popular in his play The Merchant in Venice, which employs the word “glisters,” a 17th-century synonym for “glitters.” The line comes from a secondary plot of the play, the puzzle of Portia’s boxes (Act II – Scene VII – Prince of Morocco):
All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgement old
Your answer had not been inscroll’d
Fare you well, your suit is cold.
For years this proverb has been reminding us that the appearance of something is not a reliable indication of its true nature.
No pain, no gain.
- Без труда́ не вы́тащишь и ры́бку из пруда́.
- English pronunciation: Bez truda, ne vitashish i ribku iz pruda.
- Literal translation: Without effort, you won’t pull a fish out of a pond.
The phrase refers to the idea that people need to push themselves until improvement is achieved. It promises greater rewards for the price of hard and even painful work. Under this conception, competitive professionals such as athletes and artists, are required to endure pain and pressure to achieve professional excellence. You won’t create the life of your dreams by scrolling through instagram. You won’t get the body you want by thinking about it. You need to sweat, work hard, stay focused, and take yourself seriously. And such, without effort, you won’t be catching any fish.
Key Russian vocab:
- Без – Bez – Without
- труд – trud – work, labor, effort
- вытащить – vitashit – to pull
пруд – prood – pond
He who walks a lot and reads a lot, sees a lot and knows a lot.
- El que lee mucho y anda mucho, ve mucho y sabe mucho.
- Literal translation: Who reads much and walks much, sees much and knows much.
This is one of the many proverbs that dot the pages of “El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha,” (AKA Don Quixote) by Miguel de Cervantes, and it also happens to be one of my favorites. Don Quixote is considered the most influential work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age and the entire Spanish literary canon. As a founding work of modern Western literature and one of the earliest canonical novels, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published, such as the Bokklubben World Library collection that cites Don Quixote as authors’ choice for the “best literary work ever written”. The proverb stands out to me because it encourages travel and scholarship, two things I firmly believe in, and because I love the Spanish language.
Key Spanish vocab:
- lee – he reads – from verb leer – to read
- anda – he walks – from verb andar – to walk
- ve – he sees – from verb ver – to see
- sabe – he knows – from verb saber – to know
Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still.
- English pronunciation: Bùyào pà yào qù màn man de, kǒngpà zhǐyǒu zhànzhe bùdòng.
This is an encouraging message saying that it doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there, just keep on keeping on. Many of us have a deep fear of failure and some get discouraged easily, the worst thing you can do is stop trying and “stand still” while life passes you by.
We live in a world where we want to see results and success yesterday even if we just began our pursuit. If we don’t reap benefits immediately it feels like a failed endeavor. For too many, that leads to a series of quick attempts, none of which are tried for a sufficient period of time for anything significant, or even measurable, to have happened. In the end, those people go nowhere. Because they give up easily are destined to a similar outcome as standing still. Everything is a learning experience but the key is to persevere and stay on track, slowly but surely.
Take a moment to consider where in your life you are at a stand-still. This shouldn’t include things you have decided to quit because they no longer serve your needs. That’s different from being stuck or at a stand-still with a project or issue in which you want to make progress.
What goes around comes around.
- Chi la fa l’ aspetti.
- Literal translation: He who does it, gets it.
“The consequence of one’s actions will have to be dealt with eventually.” This directly relates to both the law of attraction and karma. In Hinduism and Buddhism the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, are viewed as a deciding factor of their fate in future existences. You reap what you sow, both good and bad actions will come back around.
It’s an encouragement and a warning, if you are a kind, uplifting and generous person you will find those things on the receiving end in your daily life. Same goes for those driven by greed who use manipulation to get what they want. From the outside looking in it may sometimes seem like it worked for them, but they never end up truly happy, it always come back in one way or another.
A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.
- Μια κοινωνία αναπτύσσεται μεγάλη όταν γέροι φυτεύουν δέντρα των οποίων η σκιά που ξέρουν ότι δεν πρέπει ποτέ να καθίσει στο .
- English pronounciation: Mia koinonía anaptýssetai megáli ótan géroi fytévoun déntra ton opoíon i skiá pou xéroun óti den prépei poté na kathísei sto .
- Literal translation: The greatness of a society is achieved when old men plant trees whose shade they may not make use of.
It indicates that it takes an unselfish character to become a great society. When a man plants a tree he expects personal gain in one way or another, in the form of fruit or shade or wood. But when an old man plants a tree, he knows well that he will not live to see the plant grow to bear fruits, he knows he will not enjoy it’s shade or warm himself with the firewood. He does it to benefit the future generation. A society becomes great when the people become responsible and unselfish.
Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.
- La patience est amère, mais son fruit est doux.
- Literal translation: Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.
The Aristotle quote is: “The roots of education … are bitter, but the fruit is sweet” – which is attributed to Aristotle in Lives of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius (3rd century AD).
“Patience is bitter, but the fruit is sweet” is widely attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau – probably since the 1800s – but it’s demonstrably in John Chardin’s book “Voyages en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient”, published in 1711 (a year before Rousseau was born)
This quote starts by describing patience and assigning it a flavor, a very strong and unpleasant flavor. A flavor to which we can all relate.
In this context, by enduring the bitter, we are to be rewarded with a fruit which is sweet. By waiting, we can allow things to develop into something delicious. Fruit isn’t the only thing worth waiting for, there are many things in life that take time and should not be rushed. Without patience, we move too quickly, start before we are ready, or speak before we think.
The sun will set without thy assistance.
People work themselves into the grave, sometimes literally, because they seem to think the world is going to stop turning if they take a break. The earth will keep spinning, the sun will rise and set, and the tides will turn no matter what. A day off isn’t going to cause the world to come to a screeching halt. Take time for yourself and remember to enjoy your life while you have it.
A cabin with plenty of food is better than a hungry castle.
- Is fearr bothán biamhar ná caisleán gortach.
The image that comes to mind after reading this proverb is that of a happy, humble little family gathering around a table with a small candlelight enjoying a meal. The latter is of a huge, cold, and dark “castle” with occupants who don’t converse or eat together. My take on this is it is better to have love than extravagance. Hollywood movies have reiterated this theme more times than we can count showing us that true happiness might not be found with the big shot job or the superstar lover.
He who does not know one thing knows another.
- Hy wat nie weet een ding weet nog.
No one knows everything but everyone knows something. This reminds me of an article I wrote where I mentioned that you can learn something from every person you come in contact with. We have all led different lives and our experiences shape us into the people we become, no one is expected to know everything and who would want to. I may not know about computer science but I can order dinner in five languages!