December 11, 2006

Elephantem saltare doces

In English: You're teaching an elephant to dance.

I thought this would be a good counterpoint to yesterday's proverbs about teaching an eagle to fly or a dolphin to swim. Today's proverb is also about an absurd situation, but for the opposite reason! Teaching an elephant to dance is a waste of time, because the poor elephant - despite his many talents! - is not likely to be a graceful dancer.

This is not to say that elephants are unteachable. The Greeks and the Romans were well aware of the intelligence of elephants, and elephants were trained to accomplish a remarkable variety of feats in the ancient world, including their use in warfare. There is a wonderful anecdote in Pliny's Natural History about an elephant who was slower to learn than the other elephants, but stayed up late into the night doing his homework! Here is the passage in Pliny, along with the wonderful Renaissance English translation by Philemon Holland:
certum est unum tardioris ingeni in accipiendis quae tradebantur, saepius castigatum verberibus, eadem illa meditantem noctu repertum

THIS is knowne for certaine, that upon a time there was one Elephant among the rest, not so good of capacitie, to take out his lessons, and learn that which was taught him: and being beaten and beaten againe for that blockish and dull head of his, was found studying and conning those feats in the night, which he had been learning in the day time.
So the point of the proverb is not that elephants are unteachable, but rather that you should choose appropriate subjects for the elephants to study!

This saying about teaching elephants to dance follows a basic proverbial "pattern" which can be used to generate other proverbs following the same pattern. Consider this proverb for example: ferrum natare doces, "you are teaching iron to swim." Clearly, it is a waste of time trying to teach a piece of iron to swim, just as it is a waste of time teaching an elephant to dance.

Together with yesterday's proverbs, these four proverbs form quite an elegant little set that perhaps will inspire you to write your own proverbs in Latin! All you need is a noun and a verb! If the verb "fits" the noun, you end up with a proverb like "teaching an eagle to fly" or "teaching a dolphin to swim." if the verb does not "fit" the noun, you end up with proverbs like "teaching an elephant or dance" or "teaching iron to swim." As you can see, it's very easy to generate an endless series of proverbs based on this basic pattern, matching nouns and verbs that either logically go together, or which are logical impossibilities.

What is interesting is that in both types of proverbs, the message is still the same: you are wasting your time! There's a great English saying that explores this idea even further: "Don't try to teach a pig to sing! It's a waste of your time, and it annoys the pig!" I've seen this phrase attributed to Mark Twain - although I suspect that is simply because most witty English sayings end up getting attributed to Mark Twain, sooner or later.

Meanwhile, here are today's proverbs read out loud:

1550. Elephantem saltare doces.

1549. Ferrum natare doces.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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