What’s the Russian for ‘funny’? by Bill Kirton

A while ago, an online friend who lives in Azerbaijan asked me to write something for her blog. I was flattered, but when I asked her what sort of thing she wanted me to write about, she just said: ‘You used to teach French so maybe something about language and culture. And try to be funny.’ (Yes. Kiss of death.)

This was Wikipedia's offering when I searched for 'Russian Humour'

Even though I’ve lived for decades in Aberdeen and, thanks to the oil industry, have met several Azerbaijanis, I still know next to nothing about their country or culture, or indeed those of any of the former Soviet countries. So how could I, in Scotland, say anything  which might sound funny to an Azerbaijani or a Russian? I can’t even fall about like Mr Bean, Norman Wisdom or Jim Carrey. All I have are words.

Does language-based humour translate? Words aren’t just labels, they’re things, truths. We all know that Eskimos have a whole range of terms for snow, but why do Russians (apparently, and correct me if I’m wrong) have separate expressions for light blue and dark blue, making them not shades of the same thing but two distinct primary colours?

The playwright Ionesco was Romanian and he wrote hilarious (French) plays. His first was based on his attempts to learn English and, in the second, one character says that when you hear the sentence, ‘I live in the capital’, you only have to know which capital is being referred to and you’ll know immediately which language is being spoken. If it’s Rome, the language is Italian, if it’s Paris it’s French, etc. The Spanish for ‘Washington DC’ is ‘Madrid’, the Russian for ‘London’ is ‘Moscow’, and so on.

We all know that words have immense power. Take a horse. Now, leaving aside variations such as nag, gelding, stallion, mare, filly, chestnut, Clydesdale,  piebald, etc., is a horse the same as a pferd, a cheval, a caballo, an equus or a hippos? (I wanted to include a single Russian word for the animal, too, so I checked an online dictionary and was amazed and baffled to find:
Are all these creatures the same thing? And are they horses?)

It used to be ‘I think, therefore I am’. Not any more. Our words and accents can give away our social class, religion, intelligence, nationality – all sorts of secrets. Language is a vital part of how we perceive the world and the way we express who we are. It’s about perceptions. But, fortunately for me and my friend’s request for something ‘funny’, so is humour. Arthur Koestler said humour depended on what he called ‘bisociation’. Usually, we hear and experience things in a single context and there's no surprise or disorientation involved. But with bisocation, you get a second, totally different context and it’s the suddenness of the contrast between them that triggers the laugh. A cry often heard in the old melodramas was ‘You scoundrel, you deserve to be horsewhipped’. It had a clear, single context. But look at the Groucho Marx version. ‘You scoundrel, I'd horsewhip you if I had a horse’ – it draws on two completely different contexts.

So much for language then. What about culture? If the ‘foreign’ culture has a different set of references, can bisociation work? Well, yes – and to an even greater degree. To begin with, let me give a personal example. First, you need to know (my apologies if you do already) that when a French person wants to attract someone’s attention in a crowd, for example, they tend to yell ‘Coucou’. In English, the equivalent is ‘Cooee’ (pronounced coo-eee). An acquaintance (who should have known better) saw a friend of hers in the distance amongst the crowds outside Notre Dame in Paris and called out ‘Cooee’. The punchline (of this true story) is that couilles, pronounced coo-eee, is the French word for testicles. I leave you to imagine the reactions of a predominantly French crowd reacting to a woman shouting ‘testicles’ in front of a medieval cathedral.

We pretend to resist national stereotypes, but the tired (but persistent) British cliché is that Germans have no sense of humour, Italians cry a lot and pinch women’s bums, and the French have disgusting lavatories. Equally, all Polish people are plumbers and Russians love being catastrophically miserable. (It’s something to do with the Steppes and Tchaikovsky apparently). Pasta in English is chips, French bread isn’t really bread because you can’t slice it, most continentals have got a word for queue but don’t know what it means, and so on. So what are the chances of me sounding funny by, for example, telling non-native speakers that ‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe’?

Or how can I convey to a Russian with no English the truth of Ogden Nash’s observation that:
A shrimp who sought his lady shrimp
Could catch no glimpse,
Not even a glimp.
At times, translucence
Is rather a nuisance.?

And yet, I can give an answer to those questions from my own experience, or rather that of a friend who taught Russian. He was talking (pre-Glasnost) with his Russian language assistant at school, in English, of course, and he told her a joke. The shortened version of it went as follows:
After a business meeting, two men relax with a round of golf. One is a club member, the other his guest. Afterwards, the guest wants a shower but has no towel, so the friend lends him his golf towel. (Such towels are very small). The guest hurries into the shower and, still in the cubicle, he hears female voices outside. He’s obviously come into the ladies’ rooms by mistake. He’s in a dilemma. He has to hurry to catch his plane and the women aren’t in a hurry to leave so he’ll have to walk past them. But he only has the small towel. Should he use it to cover his private parts – thereby having the embarrassment of having to actually look the women in the eye as he leaves – or should he cover his face and just run past them? He decides to cover his face and rushes out. The three women are naturally shocked. The first says ‘How disgusting. Well, at least it wasn’t my husband.’ The second says ‘No, you’re right. It wasn’t your husband.’ And the third says ‘He wasn’t even a member of the club.’

But the real point of the joke in this context is that the Russian to whom my friend told it had already heard it back home, where no golf club was involved and the punch line was ‘He doesn’t even live in the village’. Plus ça change, eh?


Jan Needle said…
Fabulous morning tonic, thanks Bill. I'm off to France in a day or two, where I once tried my English version of c'est dommage to gloss over a slight disappointment. 'C'est fromage' sez I. I got a reaction, but it wasn't a laugh. They were uncomprending.

And talking of racial stereotype jokes, we all know (!) that Finns live only for excessive drinking in complete silence, and fighting with knives. (This was a given in the days of sail, in any case.) So a man rings a friend and sez 'Shall for go for a drink tonight?' After they've sat there for an hour supping, the inviter says 'It's nice to see you, by the way.' At which a knife is drawn and pressed up against his throat.

'I thought you said we were drinking, not having a f.....g chat,' says the chum.

Friends, this story is true. Only the facts have been changed to protect the innocent.
Susan Price said…
How do you know when a Finn likes you?
He stares at your shoes instead of his own.

This holds true of a lot of people i know, though, and I don't know any Finns.
Umberto Tosi said…
A good laugh is worth a thousand words. You get in at least half a dozen and serve up food for thought as well. I grew up in a tri-lingual household - with my mother from Rome and my father from Argentina and I born in Boston. My mother, an opera singer, was also fluent in French. I remember orphan punchlines in Italian and Spanish for which I've forgotten the jokes in any language. I grew up wondering why the word for "cat" sounds similar in so many languages - e.g. gato, gatta, chat, katz, 'ikati'(in Zulu), but the words for dog sound different across linguistic borders - e.g. pero, chien, hund, canis,'inja' - (zulu)? My idea of Russian humor as a kid came from Boris Badenov.
Griselda Heppel said…
Well you've got me hooting with laughter! I love the golf club joke, never heard it before. There's something very bonding about the same jokes appearing in totally different cultures - the universal nature of human foibles I guess. Much harder - probably impossible - to translate is humour that is down to turns of phrases, absurd juxtapositions of words, light irony, self-deprecation etc. So it's not that Germans, for instance, have no sense of humour; they do, there are some very funny writers over there. But the wit and gentle humour are completely lost in translation, leaving an impression of heavy-handed wordplay which isn't funny at all. I've roared with laughter at some hapless Bridget Jones type paperback, only to receive pitying looks when I try to translate the joke into English. It must be the same with all languages, surely?
And speaking of city names, if you're ever in Italy, wanting to buy a plane/train ticket to Munich, don't worry that you're being sent to Monaco. That's the Italian for Munich.
I never did discover what the Italian for Monaco is.
Brilliant article, Bill! I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, All. Your additions confirm that it's a rich (and certainly valid) question to ask.

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