About proverbs and languages

in GEMS4 years ago (edited)

Language is the instrument of thought, according to Eran Asoulin, hence the variety and colorfulness of each language. We think differently, and sometimes similarly. It is also said that language is the expression of how we understand the world. Each culture has its own vision, that is, the conception of things, the way we talk, the words we use, etc.



Idioms and proverbs are the best way to see these linguistic characterizations. Today, I will talk about proverbs in English and their translation into Spanish, to see the differences and similarities in both languages. I will leave idioms for my next post.

In English, when we refer to heavy rain we say “it’s raining cats and dogs”, In Spanish, this expression is very different “it’s raining from jugs”. Jugs are pots made mostly of clay that are used to store liquids. So it’s like the water was poured from big jars in heaven. In Venezuela, we use another expression, we say “está cayendo un palo de agua" (sticks of water are falling down). Since it is in the Caribbean, when there is heavy rain the branches of trees fall in the ground, that is, sticks fall when it rains. Though this is only a theory of its origin.



Another case that I find interesting is the famous proverb “the early bird catches the worm”. The image of the bird comes from the idea that the early bird gets more worms since the other birds are still sleeping. In Spanish is different, “Al que madruga, Dios lo ayuda” (God helps people that wake up early). It means that those who are early or get to a place first, get the best things.

“Don't judge a book by its cover” is another common proverb which means that appearance should not be an indicator of something or someone's worth. In Spanish is quite direct “ Appearances can be delusive”.

Another proverb is “the shoemaker’s son is always barefoot”, which means that the family of a skilled person fails to have the same qualities, or that things run low where they should be abundant. In Spanish, it is not a shoemaker but a blacksmith, “en casa de herrero, cuchillo de palo” (In the home of a blacksmith, there are only knifes made of wood).

Maybe you have thought about saying someone “tell that to the marines” in a situation in which someone has tried to convince you of or with something that is false. Its origin goes back two centuries ago when the Royal Marines, british soldiers, had to spend time with experienced sailors in ships, who would deceive marines for thinking they were ignorant or naive. In Spanish, you would say “a otro perro con ese hueso” (give that bone to another dog). The symbol here is the dog which is loyal and naive and would take anything its master would give, but at some point they would realize the offer was deceitful.

So far I have explained the proverbs that are different in both languages but there are many others that are similar. Let's take a look:

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, which advises us to appreciate what we are given. It is explained by the fact that the teeth of horses change over time, and checking their teeth to measure their age is taken as a sign of distrust. In Spanish it is similar “ a caballo regalado no se le mira el colmillo” (don’t look at the teeth of a gift horse).

The proverb “it’s better a bird in the hand than two in the bush”, means that it is better to ensure something we already have than to risk it by trying to get something better but not sure. It is believed that its origin comes from the falconry, the practice of hunting animals by using predatory birds, thus the possibility of losing what you have for trying to reach something better. In Spanish, it is similar “más vale pájaro en mano que cien volando” (it’s better a bird in the hand than a hundred birds flying).

Another common proverb is “It's better to be safe than sorry”, just like in Spanish “mejor prevenir que lamentar” (it’s better to foresee than to regret).



Just as there are proverbs that are different or similar in both languages, there are also others that do not have an equivalent in the other language, either because they have not been translated or because the concept has no importance in such language. Below you can see some examples:

  • “Chivo que se devuelve se desnuda” (a young goat that goes back gets its neck broken). It means someone who makes a decision and then regrets it, can go wrong.
  • “Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo” (the devil is wiser for being old than for being the devil). It means that experience brings more knowledge or it is more important than the cleverness or intelligence of the person in question.
  • “Ni lava ni presta la batea” (she/he neither washes [the cloth] nor lends the basin). It refers to a person that neither does what it is supposed to nor let somebody else do it.
  • "Aquel que no oye consejo no llega a viejo" (he who listens no advice will not reach an old age). It means that a person who is not humble enough to listen to advice is exposed to failure.

Now, as this topic is broad, it is possible that you do know the translations of these proverbs. So I invite you to share your opinion or to comment about any proverb you find interesting.

I hope you enjoyed this reading.

See you next time.


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