. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Proverbs Probe The Powers of Silence

Kto govorit, tot seyet. Kto slushayet, sobirayet (He who speaks, sows. He who listens, reaps). I had a chance to put this proverb to the test recently when I mentioned to a friend that it was one of my favorite Russian expressions. She poured each of us another cup of tea and proceeded to spout forth a surprising litany of related expressions about speaking and listening, which I dutifully harvested.


Many of these proverbs, predictably enough, have to do with the power of language. Yazyk mal, da tsarstvami vorochayet (The tongue is small, but it rocks kingdoms) or ot odnogo slova -- da na vek ssora (From one word, an age of arguing).


The key to this power is simple and has also been captured in a Russian proverb: Lyudi govoryat, tak lyudi i slushayut (People talk, and they listen too). For this reason, Russians warn about the dangers of both speaking and listening. Laskovoye slovo i kost' lomit (A gentle word can break bones), they sometimes say, or na gruboye slovo ne serdis', na laskovoye ne sdavaisya (Don't get upset about a nasty word and don't give in to a gentle one).


No wonder, then, that Russian emphasizes the value of silence.


Slovo -- serebro, molchaniye -- zoloto (A word is silver; silence is golden). And, in addition to many expressions that criticize people for talking too much, such as yazyk boltayet, a golova ne znayet (the tongue blabs, but the head knows nothing), Russian reminds us that ne stydno molchat', koli nechego skazat' (It is not shameful to be silent if you have nothing to say).


Too bad, of course, that so many of us need to be reminded of this. That is why so much of what we hear is simply empty chatter. On govorit, kak reka l'yotsya (He talks like a river flows) or On yazykom kruzheva pletyot (He's tatting lace with his tongue).


And here is another personal favorite, a pithy expression that not only tells us something about talking, but also gives us a good example of how aspect works in Russian verbs: Mnogo govoreno, da malo skazano (A lot of talking, but little said).


Words so often lead to trouble because of the usually very loose relationship between our minds and our mouths. Yazyk moi vrag: prezhde uma ryshchet, bedy ishchet (My tongue is my enemy: Ahead of my mind it searches out misfortune).


In short, the consensus of the Russian language is that words are dangerous things and that silence is the best policy. But of course, few of us can do without talking at all. In that case, it is well to be reminded that ot privetlivykh slov yazyk ne otsokhnet (Your tongue won't dry up from saying friendly words).