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,
Wisdom or Jim Carrey. All I have are words. Norman
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 it’s French, etc. The
Spanish for ‘ Paris Washington DC’
is ‘ Madrid’, the Russian for ‘ London’
is ‘ ’,
and so on. Moscow
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:
ЛОШАДИНЫЙ; КОННЫЙ; КОНСКИЙ; ГРУБЫЙ N ЛОШАДЬ; КАВАЛЕРИЯ; КОНЬ; КОННИЦА; РАМА; СТАНОК; КОЗЛЫ; ВКЛЮЧЕНИЕ ПУСТОЙ ПОРОДЫ В РУДЕ; ГЕРОИН V ПОСТАВЛЯТЬ ЛОШАДЕЙ; САДИТЬСЯ НА ЛОШАДЬ; ЕХАТЬ ВЕРХОМ
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
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. Paris
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
language assistant at school, in English, of course, and he told her a joke.
The shortened version of it went as follows: Russia
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
n 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? Russia