Ten proverbs and sayings to help you around the world

It’s taken me a long time as a language learner to come to terms with proverbs. I always resisted them for various reasons. They’re a pain to learn, they can sound silly and unnatural, and it’s often hard to imagine a scenario in which you’d actually use them. However, they’re actually a really important part of every language, and as an English speaker I find I’m often unaware of just how many I use every day.

Knowing these sayings, and being able to produce them spontaneously at the right moment, is an important component of fluency. They’re the colour and spirit of a language, and help you to get deeper into the mentality of it. Here is a list of ten great proverbs in different languages, that perhaps one day will come in handy for you!

1. Greek – Όποιος γίνεται πρόβατο τον τρώει ο λύκος
Ópios yínetai próvato ton tróei o líkos

Literal meaning: Whoever becomes a sheep is eaten by the wolf.
Follow the wrong people, and you will fail with them.


2. German – In der Kürze liegt die Würze

Literal meaning: In shortness is spice.
The shorter a joke, the funnier it is.


3. Yiddish – ווען די באבע וואלט געהאט רעדער, וואלט זי געווען א טראלייבוס
Ven di bobe volt gehat reder, volt zi geven a troleybus

Literal meaning: If grandma had wheels, she’d be a trolleybus.
Stop focusing on ‘what ifs’, and concentrate on what you’ve got.


4. Russian – Любовь зла, полюбишь и козла
Lyubóv zla, polyúbish i kozlá

Literal meaning: Love is evil, you will even fall in love with a goat.
Love can blind you, and make you see someone for better than they really are.


5. Spanish – Los trapos sucios se lavan en casa

Literal meaning: Dirty clothes are washed at home.
Personal family problems should be sorted out in private, not in the view of everyone else.


6. Dutch – Hoge bomen vangen veel wind

Literal meaning: High trees catch a lot of wind
Those that are successful always attract criticism.


7. Catalan – De mica en mica s’omple la pica i de gota en gota s’omple la bota

Literal meaning: Little by little you fill the sink and drop by drop you fill the barrel.
Be patient in your achievements, lots of little bits are better than just one lot.


8. Italian – Al contadino non far sapere quanto è buono il cacio con le pere

Literal meaning: Don’t let the peasant know how good the cheese with pears is.
Know your place, don’t long for things you can’t afford.


9. Afrikaans – Al dra ‘n bobbejaan ‘n goue ring, bly hy nog ‘n lelike ding

Literal meaning: Even if a baboon wears a gold ring, he’s still an ugly thing.
Don’t be taken in by superficial changes in appearance – a leopard doesn’t change his spots.


10. French – Qui vole un oeuf, vole un boeuf

Literal meaning: Whoever steals an egg steals an ox.
Once a thief, always a thief, no matter how big or small the crime.

DCF 1.0


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  • http://thepolyglut.wordpress.com thepolyglut

    I think learning proverbs and idioms is a fascinating part of learning any language. I particularly love speculating the origins of some of the obscure ones! They give so much insight into the culture of a language and really shape the way people think. Great post with some really interesting content :)

  • Magdalena

    Great fun post! Polish has a different version of the Yiddish proverb – “If grandma had mustache she would be a grandfather”. Today, one usually just says “If grandma had mustache”.

  • montmorency

    I notice sometimes proverbs or expressions work in both German and English, and at other times, they don’t. e.g. (from my beloved Sharp electronic dictionary):

    “Etwas ist faul im Staate Dänemark”
    “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”.

    “zu viele Eisen im Feuer haben”
    “to have too many irons in the fire”.

    “Welch ein Gluck!”
    “What luck!”

    “Den Nagel auf den Kopf treffen”
    “Hit the nail on the head”. (pretty close).

    “Wie festgenagelt”
    “nailed to the spot”

    “Viele Köche verderben den Brei”
    “Too many cooks spoil the broth”

    Not quite the same, but similar:

    “Er konnte sich vor Glück kaum fassen”
    “He was beside himself with joy”.

    “Gleich getan ist viel gespart”
    “A stitch in time saves nine”

    “splitternackt” (“splinter naked”?)
    “stark nacked” (an ex-army former colleague of mine used to say “bollock naked”! :-) ).

    “Leere Fässer klingen hohl”
    Lit: “empty barrels sound hollow”
    “Empty vessels make most noise”.

    Quite different:

    “Now the shoe is on the other foot”
    “Jetzt will er (plötzlich) nichts mehr davon wissen”

    I think that the more down to earth and practical a saying is, the more likely it will be found in similar form in both English and German, given their common heritage.

  • Artem G.

    Hehe, there is more widespread version of Yiddish proverb about bobe – “Az di bobe volt gehat beitsim, volt zi geven mayn zeide” – which means “if my grandmom had a balls, she would be my grand-dad” :-) And this raunchy version was “loaned” by Russians through popular Odessa humor – thus now Russians consider this proverb to be Russian (especially after Putin used it in one of his throne speeches – maybe you’re aware that Putin uses a lot of criminal slang, “jargon” in his lexicon. Which doesn’t stamp him as a well-mannered person, but most of his voters love this “real Man style” … lol. Nonetheless, I love Yiddish “dirty” expressions and curses. this language was born to “kvetch” :-) I’ve just started Yiddish class in Boston’s Arbeter Ring, knew some – a byssele – before, from my grand-dad who died many years ago and from listening a lot of Klezmer music.

    • https://medium.com/@MaynYiddish Artem Gurevitz

      Oh yeah, and most part (maybe 80-90%) of Russian criminal jargon (blatnaya fenya) was loaned from Yiddish. Maybe you know about that, but in fact very few native Russian speakers can guess that such popular words like “ksiva”, “khaza”, “blat”, “malyava” – are Yiddish (even loshn-koydesh, with Yiddish pronounce and slightly changed in order not to be understandable by Gentiles)