(Yama takaki ga yue ni tattokarazu; “The mountain is not valued for being high.”)
Don’t judge situations based on superficial qualities, but by their essential nature. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t value a mountain just for being tall; all mountains are tall by definition, and should be valued as appropriate for their specific qualities, such as being good sources of lumber.
We begin with the noun 山 (yama), “mountain.” Here, with modern grammar, one might expect a particle of some kind, but as this is premodern Japanese there is none. Instead, we move on to the adjective 高し (takashi) in prenominal form. This connects it grammatically to the following particle, が (ga), acting here in an associative function akin to modern の. The associated word is 故 (yue), “reason,” and it’s followed by the particle に (ni), which in combination makes it into the conjunctive phrase yue ni, “therefore.”
Finally, we get the adjective 貴い, “valuable,” “noble,” “sacred.” In modern Japanese this can be pronounced たっとい (tattoi) or とうとい (toutoi). In older Japanese, though, the “base form” ending (insofar as there was such a thing) would be し (shi) rather than い (i), and on top of that the orthography would be たふとし (still pronounced toutoshi rather than “tafutoshi”!). The adjective is in imperfective form (未然形) which takes off the shi and changes it to kara, and finally we get the negative suffix ず (zu) in sentence-final form.
All in all, the phrase might translate literally as “Mountain high therefore valued… not!”
The final verb may also be written 尊からず without any change in meaning or pronunciation. An alternate opening replaces 山高き with 人肥えたる, making it “A person is not valued for being fat” – reminding us of a time when girth meant prosperity, rather than poor nutrition and poor health, as it tends to mean today.
This saying comes from the 実語教 (jitsugokyou) a Heian-era pedagogical text for commoners that saw widespread use through the early Meiji era (when, presumably, it was upstaged by Western-style texts as part of a general effort to modernize Japan). In its source, it includes a second half saying 樹有るを以て貴しと為 (ki aru wo motte tattoshi to su), “value it because it has trees.” (Did you think I was just pulling that bit about lumber out of thin air?) (That said, apparently its original form wasn’t even classical Japanese; it was Chinese with notations allowing it to be read in Japanese!)
(“Ano renchuu ka. Chotto… ikura Arumaani wo kitetemo, kuchi ni dasu kotoba ga donna ni teinei demo, tada hito wo damashi, okane wo ubaou to suru dake da. Yahari yama takaki ga yue ni tattokarazu.”)
[“Oh, those guys. Well… even if they wear Armanis, and no matter how polite they are, they’re just out to pull one over on people and take their money. You really can’t judge a book by its cover.”]