[(myl) I believe that in standard Italian "po" would be "può" — the third person singular present indicative of potere "be able (to)". Similarly the standard version of "vo" would be "vuole", third singular present indicative of volere "want (to)". Those with better knowledge of Italian varieties and history are invited to correct this impression.]
@Tom S. Fox: here "po" and "vo" are shortened versions of "puoi" and "vuoi", which mean "can" and "want to"
[(myl) But "puoi" and "vuoi" are second person singular, right? Is that really how the saying should be construed? After all, "fa" and "sa" are the regular third singular indicative of fare and sapere respectively…]
"po" and "vo" both taxed me a little (the rest was straightforward), but I'm guessing from the p and the v that those lines mean something like "He who can, doesn't want to, he who wants to, can't"?
[(myl) Exactly — though the sex of the hypothetical individual is not specified in the Italian version. Someone who knows the history of Italian varieties will be able to tell us in what places/times/classes "può" and "vuole" were/are "po" and "vo".]
chi può non vuole
chi vuole non può
chi sa non fa
chi fa non sa
e così il mondo
If it hadn't been for the marble slate and the date at the bottom, it wouldn't have occurred to me it was something written centuries ago, I would have thought it was a popular saying from Central Italy, more specifically Tuscany. Then again, I am from Northern Italy and I am no linguist.
I'm no expert, but po is a common "dialectical" form of può, and in many dialects the third-person singular of volere sounds something like "vo". The rest of it is in fact standard Italian, with the alternate form mal for male.
Just having googled what appeared to be the originator of this epithet, Ascoli Piceno, I was surprised to discover it's actually a town in Marche, and the locals would have spoken, and would still speak a dialect of Napolitan. I'm not too familiar with Napolitan (it appears plenty in The Soranos incidentally), but many Italians are and would be able to say whether 'po' and 'vo' are common enough for 'può' and 'vuole'. 'Sa' and 'fa' are the standard 3rd person present indicative forms of 'sapere' to know and 'fare' to do. The dropped vowel from 'male' bad is also indicative of Napolitan.
I'm guessing that this is 'standard' modern Napolitan, and not from the sixteenth century at all.
Add me to the list of non–Italian speakers who had to think for a few seconds before understanding po and vo. As Stuart said, the rest was straightforward.
@ TonyK: I'm basically with Ellen K. on this one—I have a syllabic l in world (which I pronounce [ˈwɹ̩ɫ̩d]). If I attempt to pronounce the word as a true monosyllable, the result is not fully natural (or is extremely unnatural, depending on the attempt).
@Jeff, True, it is far away from Naples, but a few dialect/language maps of Italy that I've looked at this morning agree that there's a larger dialect continuum broadly called Napolitan that covers a huge spread of southern and central Italy, including Marche. Marchegiano, and Southern Marchegiano, which is apparently the specific dialect of Ascoli Piceno, are within this dialect continuum, while the language that became standard Italian, more or less, Toscano, is further away.
Look here, Wikipedia's page on Neapolitan languages/dialects. Ascoli Piceno is the southernmost province of the Marche region but is the only Marchegiano province in the Napolitan continuum. In the image in the sidebar it is marked 1a. The Marchigiano languages/dialects however, do not include Ascoli Piceno. The administrative boundaries, quite simply, do not coincide exactly with the linguistic boundaries.
I'm happy to be shown wrong on the specifics, but broadly speaking, the people in Ascoli Piceno probably associate with, if not actually use, Napolitan as their dialetto regionale. And, from my cursory knowledge of Napolitan, the wording in this appears more Napolitan than Toscano. The purpose of it is probably one of regional pride rather than to be understood by Napolitan-speaking people, especially given that the difference between Napolitan and the standard Toscano has been reduced to a difference of accent, and all speakers of Napolitan would also be speakers of standard Italian.
Ben, Ellen K, Tony K and Erik Zyman raise the question of the number of syllables in 'world'.
In much of Scotland, 'world' is most commonly two syllables.
As a Scots child growing up in the 1950s in a professional Edinburgh family in which careful Standard Scottish English pronunciation was valued, the pronunciation of words like 'world' and 'girl' was the hardest pronunciation matter I had to master in my native language. Around me I heard everything from [wɜːld] to [ˈwʌrʌɫd]. [wɜːld] was "too English", while anything with a rolled 'r' was "too Scots". At the age of about 5 I actually asked my Dad to teach me what he wanted. He was pleased with [wʌɹɫd] (one syllable), or [ˈwʌɹəɫd] (two syllables), or the syllabic 'l' version intermediate between them. It was a matter of some social importance for both him and me.
Hunh. I'm self-taught Italian over the past eight months, albeit with a little help from una Toscana… I had no trouble with po and vo, and something niggles at my mind that I've read this before–short form, that is. It's lost somewhere in my random-access memory, which means I'll remember sometime next week, concurrently forgetting why it was important that I remember.
The wooden panel looks modern, but it could be a modern reproduction of (or something inspired by) a 16th century plaque made of something else. An actual 16th century artifact would be more likely to have a date written in Roman numerals: MDXXVI.
"World": I believe that Old English was wereld, in two syllables.
A little detective work (and I'm neither little nor a detective) at the keyboard produced another photo of what appears to be the same (wooden?) plaque from a wider perspective. Photographer Antonio Casorelli claims (probably via the GPS system of his phone/camera) that the photo was shot somewhere called Ciamp del Pezzo near Bolzano in north-eastern Italy …
Linguistically, that's not of much help - unless it ties in with a northerly shift of pessimistic folk wisdom in some uncharted Lautverschiebung?
the people in Ascoli Piceno probably associate with, if not actually use, Napolitan as their dialetto regionale
As I said, I am from Northern Italy and no linguist, but I live in Italy and I somewhat doubt anyone in Central Italy would openly associate with anything identified as "Southern Italian", including a dialect. Looking at the map Jangari mentioned, it appears it might have been misinterpreted – Napolitan is only spoken in the areas in the darker shade of purple, whereas Ascoli Piceno (AP) is in the area marked Ia, in a much lighter pinkish shade.
The same map can be found in it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialetto_ascolano, with more specific details. By comparing the dialect examples in that page and in a site that collects proverbs and saying in the dialect spoken in the AP area, seblie.com/dialetti.html, I think it can be concluded that chi po non vo…. is definitely not written in the AP dialect (or maybe no dialect at all, as the text hardly diverges from standard Italian).
I have the advantage (for this particular situation) that, rather than studying Italian, I've picked up a smattering of it from (mostly Mozart) opera libretti, and therefore I'm quite accustomed to forms like po and vo; apparently the u in such words (also c(u)ore, sc(u)ola, etc.) didn't become standard until sometime after the late 18th century.
"I was surprised to discover it's actually a town in Marche, and the locals would have spoken, and would still speak a dialect of Napolitan."
Whoah. My grandparents were from near Urbino, a city in the Marches - and spoke dialect. It is not like Neapolitan. And if you said to a Marchegian's face he was speaking "Neapolitan" you would be lucky to get off with just a verbal thrashing. My grandparent's dialect sounds a lot closer to the dialects of Emilia Romagna to my ear - lots of final vowels are dropped.
However, I see on Wikipedia that the Marches actually have a lot of dialectical variety. The southern dialects of the province, where Ascoli is located, are apparently close to Abruzzese, so maybe Jangari is right that the dialects are fairly close. But I'm still guessing an Ascolano would take offense at having that pointed out.
The use of word stems, such as vo, po (which in the first person miss "-glio") is best known outside of Italy in the case of Leonardo Pisano who was known by his patronymic Fibonacci, literally "Figlio di Bonacci", but the "-glio" is missing. So, all over the world we are using this corruption.
The oldest reference I can find to this in Google Books is this tourist guide from 1853, with the spellings può and vuò and other differences. With a little help from Google Translate, I think it says it's a carved inscription "full of naive and bitter melancholy" in an alley near the bridge in Ascoli Piceno (maybe near the Santa Croce church?).
There are a few other mentions at GB, calling it a proverb, an inscription on a 16th-century palace, an inscription on a majolica vase, etc. This page adds a line at the beginning: La carità!
The first two lines, or something similar, appear on page 112 in woodcut 178 here. (Sorry, it seems I can't link directly to the page.) The book the woodcut is ascribed to, Il sette dolori dello amore…, is from 1520 if you believe GB metadata. Anyway, it seems to be from that century.
According to One Hundred Towers: An Italian Odyssey of Cultural Survival by Lola Romanucci-Ross, pages 176–177, the poem as given in the image above (except without an accent on cosi) is carved on the lintel of 19 Rua Lunga in Ascoli, with the date MDXXVII carved at the end.
I can see page 177 here, but I can't see page 176. I had to use Amazon's "Search Inside" for it. I'm getting convinced that it really is a 16th-century quotation from Ascoli Piceno, though maybe not totally original.
Some will criticize me for jumping the gun with inferior sources. They may use lintel quotations such as Audi multa, pauca loquere and Semper festina lente and Si patiens, sapiens. I will reply, Ma lassate pur dir chi pur dir vole.
- oh dear, I do hope I did not sell the idea to anybody that the first person singular of "I am able to" in Italian is really "poglio". The infinitive is potere, and the first person singular is "posso".