Neapolitan Proverbs

A Buon ‘Ntennitore… Proverbs of Naples 

Parla d”o diavulo e spuntano ‘e corne.
Speak of the devil and his horns appear.

‘O peggio surdo e chillo ca nun vo senti.
The worst form of deafness is an unwillingness to listen.

Nun abballa maje ncopp’a ll’ova.
Never dance on top of the egg.
(Stand or act on solid footing.)

N’amico fedele vale cchiu e nu tesoro.
A true friend is worth more than a treasure.

I’d like to introduce S.J. Leonard who, while living in Naples, painstakingly collected Neapolitan proverbs and translated them into English. I had the privilege of interviewing him and would like to thank him for bringing this wonderful gem to my attention!

How long did you live in Naples?

I lived in Naples for four years. I started studying Italian, but was fortunate to meet a medical doctor from Naples who wanted to exchange language lessons. I asked him if he would teach me Napulitano and he agreed. Currently, I live near Seattle, WA.

What made you want to write a book about Neapolitan proverbs?

There are very few materials in print where one can get coherent and accurate English translations of Napulitano language materials via Italian. I discovered online there are many people around the world, and many with ancestors from the Campania region, who were interested in learning Napulitano but could not find any materials. It is hard to get very far with song lyrics, and I realized that proverbs would be the perfect tool. So, this book A Buon ‘Ntennitore was partly written to provide a solution for these readers.

Who helped you on the translations?

I have some experience translating proverbs from other languages, and I can’t say for sure that the Napulitano language has more proverbs than any other language. But, in the course of translating this work with my partner Antonio, who was born and raised in Naples, I did discover that there sure seem to be a lot more “multiple meanings” in Napulitano proverbs. That is to say, there are many proverbs with the literal meaning, and then a couple other hidden meanings or contexts where the proverb is often used. We chose to not even try to supply the hidden or alternate meanings in our book. It would have been fruitless (and probably no longer suitable for the family coffee table as well).

Is there an interesting background history as to why the Neapolitans have so many rich proverbs?

The people of Naples have a long history of being under the administration of outsiders. Given this historical fact, Napulitano proverbs may have served not only as a communication tool to ensure continuity of the local culture, history, and mores, but also as a kind of local argot to stabilize local identity.

How did learning Neapolitan differ from learning standard Italian? What are your impressions of the Neapolitan language generally?

To learn Napulitano, it definitely helps to be familiar with official Italian. Napulitano spelling rules do not seem to be standardized and there are a number of diacritic marks used in Napulitano that are not used in Italian. For the most part, Napulitano is a spoken language. To properly pronounce the proverbs in our book, the student will need outside materials. I have free .mp3 files where a lifelong resident of Naples reads each of the proverbs in our book.

What is your favorite proverb?

Proverbs are often said to combine wisdom with wit. One of my favorite Napulitano proverbs demonstrates this well: ’O patrone songh’io, ma chi cummana e mujereme. (I am the head of the family, while my wife is the commander.)

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