When proverbs were young



When you grow up in a city or town, you see the streets, houses, businesses, and other landmarks so often, that after a while, you hardly notice them. The commonplace bores you.


Languages are like cities. Throughout the day, your ears travel through streets lined with familiar phrases, idioms built of ancient brick, and housing tract after housing tract of clichés. Your ears can get as bored as your eyes.


When you travel to another city or language, whether for a visit or to live there, nothing bores you. That maple tree looks no different from the trees at home, but here in this new setting, standing there in front of the yellow house, sheltering the red bench, it enchants you. As the late afternoon light shimmers on the leaves, you take picture after picture, hoping to capture its beauty.


And once your ears adjust to living in a new language, you find simple words and phrases, shortcuts that help you bypass paragraphs of thought and lead you straight to what you want to say. You find yourself wandering down a street in Japanese, feeling the wind blow softly, soyo soyo (そよそよ ) and you almost skip because now you know how to name the sound of a soft wind. Then when the wind dies and the noises cease, you hear the sound of silence, shiin (しいん) and begin to hear that silent sound everywhere. All of the new words delight you, and you are surprised to learn that some of the famous landmarks in this new city are considered clichés by the people who grew up in the language.



I have spent some time living in and traveling to other languages, and I teach English to students from other countries, so I know the delights of hearing words for the first time and falling in love with them.















Yesterday while I was walking around the web looking at proverbs, I popped over to Wikipedia to look at their pages and found one about Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting Netherlandish Proverbs, also called The Blue Cloak or The Topsy-Turvy World. In 1559, Bruegal painted a village scene depicting over one hundred proverbs. Wikipedia kindly took snapshots of each scene with its corresponding proverb and meaning. One of the men is carrying daylight out in baskets, an apt image for wasting time, while another man stands behind a horse and discovers that, contrary to appearances, horse droppings are not figs. Finally, a man runs away after getting involved in a dangerous venture having learned his lesson: if your beginning includes eating fire, you will have sparks in your end.


I like to imagine that Bruegel painted the proverbs when they were still in high school, fresh-faced, funny, full of witty remarks, and sly insights. Go see for yourself and enjoy.

 Once you have learned the proverbs illustrated in the painting, watch this short animated version by artist, Martin Missfeldt.

19 thoughts on “When proverbs were young

  1. I like Breugel, but I didn’t know this painting! Wonderful! (although some of the “translations” of proverbs on Wikipedia seem a little thick-headed; a more relevant meaning presents itself)
    I used to sit in faculty meetings and draw little cartoons of the figures of speech people used.
    Thanks for this!

    • I love the painting, too. Other sites I went to mentioned that some of the proverbs depicted are no longer used, so we may not fully understand all of them. I would love to see it someday.

      I can tell by your writing that you were a doodler – you often draw such hilarious images with your words.

  2. A very beautiful post,and you speak of something that means so much to me… it is so sad when we speak automatically, using cliches, for then our thinking is automatic too, and we have become detached from life itself. How sweet it is to be awake. And this post is a reminder of those great pleasures. Thank you, year-stricken.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, ShimonZ. It is always so interesting to hear the proverbs of other languages, and I really do believe that when you are a language learner, even the cliches of another language sound fresh the first time you hear them.

  3. Nice post, the part of the languages is great, and so true. Learning a new language also makes you appreciate the one you already speak. And I didn’t know Bruegel painted proverbs ;-o

  4. Wonderfully said–in any language! Good old Piet, he had such a delightfully pointed skew on the world and its transcendent oddities. There must be some Dutch in your ancestry! Or maybe your ancestors were just often ‘in Dutch’, to use a cliche I knew as a kid, though of course as is the case with the majority of cliches, without any idea of the phrase’s origins or possible offenses. 😉 Language is such a marvelous monster! And you, its amazing mistress!

    • Thanks, Kathryn. I have Irish and a mixture of other European blood, so I could have a bit of Dutch in me. I’ve always liked Bruegel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” and Auden’s poem about it, “Musée des Beaux Arts.” He definitely reveals his sense of humor in the painting of proverbs.

  5. Love this. I don’t speak any other languages well enough to really “live” inside them, but I also teach English to non-native speakers so I love this stuff. I’m especially intrigued by “untranslatables” — words that exist in some languages but not others — and what that fact might tell us about the differences in cultures. The “sound of a soft wind” in Japanese might be an example!

    • The fun part about teaching English to non-native speakers is seeing the words and phrases with fresh eyes. Languages show and shape our world; it breaks my heart to hear about languages that die.

  6. It’s funny that for years I have yearned to have mastery of a foreign language (French) and although I have been to countless hours of classes I am so far from fluent that it is shameful. However since I started writing my blog I have become more interested in improving my shaky grasp of the rules of English grammar. I always enjoy your language posts.

  7. You know, sometimes I think you just don’t play fair, (and I really like that about you). First you were weaving a pensive and thoughtful piece about learning new languages, and we could hear the sound of the wind and the beautiful sounds of silence, and you shared how learning new sounds fills you up with a fresh sense of delight. We were all cozy and lulled gently with your artistically painted words.

    Next thing you know, we’re sending sparks from our ends, and contemplating baskets of daylight, and wondering about figs and horse droppings, as your proverbs suddenly multiplied exponentially, “when they were still in high school, fresh-faced, funny, full of witty remarks, and sly insights.”

    Please refrain from making me smile when my heart is all mushy soft.

    Either follow the rules, or warn me ahead of time that I might need two hats (because two heads are better than one). I realize that beggars can’t be choosers, and that I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Your writing is a little bit like a box of chocolates … you never know what you’re gonna get, but then again, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Obviously there is more than one way to skin a cat, and since you can’t make a pickle back into a cucumber, I suppose I should go back to square one, and remember that a man is known by the company he keeps, and that fortune favors the bold. You, my friend, are bold. Fortunately.

    • You are one of the kindest readers in the world. Writers who have better control over their subjects seem able to harness them in. I do more stream-of-consciousness writing, or maybe fidgety four-year-old flit about writing. 🙂

      You provided us with quite a few proverbs. I hope you are working on illustrating them for us.

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