Proverbs are the very heart and soul of every language – those simple sayings contain a truth about rules of conduct and about what is perceived as common sense in particular society. Handed down from generation to generation, they will also tell you a lot about ethnic experiences.
A large portion of popular European sayings comes from the Bible, many of them were originally Latin aphorisms and some of them are technically famous quotes that made their way into everyday language. Therefore, many proverbs are shared by all European cultures and translate literally from language to language.
An example of such a proverb could be ‘Carpe diem’, coming from Horace’s Odes, meaning the same in Latin, in English (‘Seize the day’), in German (‘Pflücke den Tag’), Spanish (‘toma el día’), Russian (‘лови день’) and Polish (‘Chwytaj dzień’).
Sometimes they are altered a little to better suit local reality, like “Rome wasn’t built in a day” that in Poland changes to “Kraków wasn’t built in a day” (“Nie od razu Kraków zbudowano”).
But the most interesting are those proverbs that show same wisdom phrased differently in various language. They prove that however different our history, tradition, social structure and language itself is, we share the same experiences that lead us to the same conclusions.
Let me introduce you to some Polish proverbs that correspond so well with their English equivalents it’s hard to believe they stem from totally different realities.
“Ciekawość to pierwszy stopień do piekła” (literal translation: "Curiosity is the first step to hell") is an equivalent of “Curiosity killed the cat”, meaning the same: beware of unnecessary investigation.
“Nie mów hop, póki nie przeskoczysz”, meaning literally “Don’t say hop until you jumped” (please note that ‘hop’ in Polish is not a noun meaning a jump, but an exclamation used when jumping or to encourage someone to jump) is the same as English “Don’t count your chickens before the hatch”. Another Polish saying with the same meaning is “Nie chwal dnia przed zachodem słońca” (“Don’t praise the day before the sunset”).
In English we say “When in Rome, do as the Romans”. In Polish we say “Kiedy wkroczysz między wrony, musisz krakać tak jak one” (“If you are amongst the crows, you must scream 'kraa' as they do”).
Interesting proverb says “Wolnoć, Tomku, w swoim domku”. It’s a quote from a popular poem by Aleksander Fredro Paweł i Gaweł about fighting neighbors. Here is how it was translated by Marcel Weyland:
*Bore this poor Johnny, then bears it no more,
and very politely knocks on Tommy’s door:
– “Kind sir, do take pity, pray hunt with more tact,
for upstairs my windows have shattered and cracked”.
But Tom thus replies him:
a man is free to do his own thing*”.
You must notice how similar this verse is to popular English saying: “An Englishman’s home is his castle”.
“Lepszy wróbel w garści, niż gołąb na dachu” (A pidgeon in the hand is better than sparrow on the roof) is the exact equivalent of English saying “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. In Polish version of “A drowning man will clutch at a straw”, straw changes to – a bit drastically – a razor (“Tonący brzytwy się chwyta” – “A drowning man will catch a razor”).
What about those proverbs, that – however extremely similar – contradict each other? English speakers think that “Cloth maketh the man”, but in Poland “Nie szata zdobi człowieka” (It’s not the cloth that embellishes a man).
Justice delayed is justice denied? Not in Poland. Here “Co się odwlecze, to się nie uciecze” (What is delayed is not lost). Also, in Poland stolen fruit is not the sweetest - according to folk wisdom, “Kradzione nie tuczy” (What is stolen won’t fatten you). And good beginning doesn’t necessarily mean a good ending, because sometimes “Dobre złego początki” (Bad starts well).
I left my favorite pair for the very end...
There's Polish version of "Don't teach grandma how to suck eggs". And here's how it goes: "Nie ucz dziada, jak charchać", meaning: "Don't teach hobo how to spew!"
I hope you enjoyed learning a little about beautiful Polish language. You can find a corresponding sample lesson video on my profile; I explain there how to pronounce some of these sayings. Thank you for reading and see you in the classroom!