April 14, 2007

Aliis lingua, aliis dentes

In English: Some people have got tongues, other people have got teeth.

I thought this would be a good saying to follow-up on the previous days' posts about forms of alius. Today's proverb uses the dative in a way that is typically Latin, so that no verb is required. Literally, it would mean "to some [there is] a tongue; to others [there are] teeth." You can also find variants on this saying: Aliis lingua, aliis vero molares, "For some, a tongue; for others, indeed, molars," etc.

Given that it is expressed so elliptically, this is one of those proverbs which does not give you a lot of clues about its possible applications. One of the applications discussed by Erasmus in his citation of this proverb in the Adagia is at banquets: at banquets, some people come to talk and talk (lingua), while others come to eat and eat (dentes).

After having spent much of yesterday at a wedding reception, I can affirm that this is definitely the case. You can classify people as being with the party of the bride or the groom, of course - but you could also make a handy classification between the tongues and the teeth, the talkers and the eaters. There are other Latin sayings that express this same basic idea: Alteri loquaces, alteri voraces, "Some are talkers, others are eaters," or Illi enim loquaces, hi voraces, "Those, in fact, are talkers; these are eaters."

Of course, the dining arena is not the only way that this proverb can be applied. The powers of metaphor are multifarious, and it is just a matter of your own creativity in how you decide to make use of any proverb's poetic potential. For example, you could imagine this proverb to be a description of the types of people you encounter in your professional life and in your business dealings: they are some people who use their tongues (talk) in order to accomplish their goals, while other people are more ruthless: watch out for those teeth!

The proverb does not say which is more dangerous, of course. There is no guarantee that someone cannot do just as much harm with threatening words (tongue) as they might do with threatening deeds (teeth). Compare the Biblical saying from the Book of Psalms: dentes eorum lancea et sagittae et lingua eorum gladius acutus, "their teeth are a spear and arrows, and their tongue is a sharp sword."

Of course, not all words are weapons! So, here is today's proverb read out loud - with no sharp edges, I promise:

817. Aliis lingua, aliis dentes.

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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