‘Walls have ears’ in other languages

I want to highlight one particularly interesting response I received from a volunteer who completed my research survey. This volunteer raised an interesting point about how English slogans have amazingly similar parallels in other languages.

‘Don’t forget that walls have ears!’ Fougasse, 1940

Responding to a question about one of Fougasse’s posters which reads ‘Don’t forget that walls have ears!’, they wrote:

In Turkish there is a saying: “yerin kulagi vardir” which translates to “the ground has ears”. It means that if you talk (negatively) about someone, even though the subject is not there, it can be heard what you’re saying. So, be careful when you talk about sensitive subjects in public.

Clearly this phrase is repeated in multiple languages, with some variations. It is apparently identical in French (les murailles ont des oreilles), Italian (i muri hanno orecchi) and German (Wände haben Ohren), but in Turkish it is slightly different. This Word Reference forum thread gives the impression that the expression exists in almost every language. One other interesting variation that is mentioned there is the Japanese proverb, 壁に耳あり、障子に目あり, which apparently means ‘walls have ears, sliding doors have eyes’, drawing on the Japanese tradition for paper doors.

I have so far found it difficult to pin down the origin of the idiom and explain how it has developed in so many different languages – this requires more detailed research. The Chinese version of the phrase is said to derive from the Guanzi, an ancient Chinese political and philosophical text. Another origin story from The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary has it that:

This saying may come from a story about Dionysius of Syracuse (430–367 b.c.), who had an ear-shaped cave cut and connected between the rooms of his palace so that he could hear what was being said from another room. Similar listening posts were installed in other palaces over the centuries, including the Louvre in Paris. In English the phrase was first recorded in its present form in 1620.

One interesting article discusses the possibility that the European versions of the phrase might come originally from the Latin “etiam parietes arcanorum soli conscii timebantur” written by Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus in the fourth century or the Hebrew “oznayim la’kotel”:

Oznayim la’kotel means “the wall has ears” and is an old Hebrew expression going back to the early centuries of the Common Era. One first finds it in the midrashic compilation of Vayikra Rabba, where there is a commentary on the verse in Ecclesiastes, “Curse not the king even in your thoughts and curse not the wealthy in your bedchamber, for a bird of the air shall carry the voice and that which has wings shall tell the matter” — in other words, be careful what you say about powerful people who can harm you, because it may get back to them. Quoting a certain Rabbi Levi, the midrash comments, “The wall has ears, the road has ears,” meaning that Ecclesiastes’ advice applies not only to bedrooms, but to the out-of-doors as well.

If anyone has any insight into the origin of any of these phrases, please let me know!

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