Filosofia monosillabica

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[Tip of the hat to Andrea Mazzucchi.]


  1. Pia said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

    Ah! I love this! Despite being Italian I had never heard of this saying… Thank you for sharing!!

  2. Scott Yearsley said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

    You can still shave another syllable off by writing "sì" for "così". I'm sure in the 16th century you could get away with "il mond" as well!

  3. Tom S. Fox said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 3:53 pm

    Help me out. What do “po” and “vo” mean?

    [(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.]

  4. Sili said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 3:54 pm

    My browser ensmallens rather than embiggens, I fear.

  5. ELDV said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

    @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…]

  6. Stuart said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    "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".]

  7. Stuart said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

    Sorry about the "he" – it sounds less pompous than "one", and although I'm normally a staunch user of the epicene "they", for some reason it didn't feel right here.

  8. Ben said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

    So as a non-Italian speaker with a bit of help from Google Translate (I know, I know), I reckon this means:

    "Those who can don't want to,
    Those who want to can't,
    Those who know don't do,
    Those who do don't know,
    And so the world goes wrong."

    Is that about right? And in English it's actually "monosillabica"!

  9. Paolo said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 5:10 pm

    In standard Italian:

    chi può non vuole
    chi vuole non può
    chi sa non fa
    chi fa non sa
    e così il mondo
    male va

    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.

  10. Paolo said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 5:12 pm

    @Ben, sorry, I forgot to add that indeed that's the correct meaning.

  11. John said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 5:57 pm

    myl got it right the first time.

    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.

  12. John said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 5:59 pm


    That's wood or something organic, not marble. Based on the Philips-head screws, I'm going with wood. Who knows if the attribution is correct.

  13. Jangari said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 6:03 pm

    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.

  14. Ellen K. said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 6:15 pm

    @Ben: I'd count world as two syllables. Though maybe that depends on accent. Though I can't imagine a truly monosyllabic rhotic pronunciation of it.

  15. TonyK said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

    @Ellen: 'world' as two syllables? I think you might find yourself in a minority of one.

  16. Ellen K. said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 6:34 pm

    @TonyK: Or maybe one of those words that's not truly one nor two syllables, but kinda in between.

  17. Erik Zyman said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

    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).

  18. Jeff DeMarco said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 7:34 pm

    @Jangari – Napolitan in Marche? That's pretty far away. Wouldn't they speak Marchigiano? According to Wikipedia it is related to the Umbrian languages (such as Perugino).

  19. Jangari said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 8:08 pm

    @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.

  20. Eric P Smith said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 8:15 pm

    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.

  21. Pharmamom said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

    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.

  22. marie-lucie said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

    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.

  23. marie-lucie said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 10:08 pm

    Sorry, I mean MDXXIX.

  24. Huw said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 2:03 am

    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?

  25. Huw said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 2:04 am

    Antonio's photo is part of the 'proud to be Italian' Flickr group …

  26. Huw said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 2:07 am

    … and I still don't understand why the chiseller of the words used the Latin/French 'ET' rather than the Italian 'E' for 'and' …

  27. Zolltan said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 2:22 am

    @Pharmamom could you be thinking of Canto de Ossanha?

    O homem que diz "dou" nao da
    Porque quem da mesmo nao diz…

    That's certainly what this made me think of, though for what reason, I can't say, since I think it doesn't share any of the verbs (except ir)

  28. djbcjk said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 3:32 am

    Or two sylables by metathesis

    My father married the ae warst woman
    The wardle did ever see.

    'The Laily Worm and the Mackerel of the Sea'

  29. Rodger C said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 8:09 am

    If a body kiss a body, need the warld ken?

  30. Paolo said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 10:18 am

    Jangari said:

    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, 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,, 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).

  31. Robert Coren said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 10:40 am

    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.

  32. vanya said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 10:53 am

    "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.

  33. a George said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 11:19 am

    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.

  34. Xmun said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

    The phoneme [r] can serve as a vowel (or something close to a vowel), as it does for example in the place name Brno.

    Or, indeed, in the English interjection "Brrr!"

  35. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

    The Italian Wikipedia page on the Ascoli dialect, cited by Paolo, says that this dialect turns into -uo- phonemes that are -o- in Tuscan, so that this may be a hypercorrected attempt to write Tuscan.

  36. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

    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!

  37. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 5:57 pm

    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.

  38. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

    @Huw: I was wondering about "et" too. (I'm not calling you a Brute.)

  39. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

    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.

  40. a George said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

    – 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".

  41. Belial said,

    March 2, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

    Si jeunesse savait, si viellesse pouvait is of similar vintage, according to Bartletts which puts that at 1594. Must have been lots of melancholy irony floating around in the XVI cent.

  42. Manel said,

    April 7, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

    Catalan version is very alike:
    Qui pot no vol
    qui vol no pot
    Qui en sap no fa
    qui fa no en sap
    i així el món
    malament va

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