Monday, 14 December 2009

What’s the Russian for ‘funny’?

I thought it was time for another guest posting. This time, I would like to introduce a crime writer from Scotland, Bill Kirton. Since I am now toying with the idea that one day I will actually write a book (which might, of course, never materialize, like most of my great ideas) I started reading blogs, written by real writers.

I love the opening paragraph on Bill's website:

This is what male crime writers often look like – upturned collar, the stare across the shoulder, the ‘would-you-trust-this-man-as-far-as-you-could-throw-him’ expression on the face. Well, that’s the way we have to look. The sort of things we do to our characters don’t go with cheesy smiles or concern for other people. Except that they do. Most crime writing’s about people – their fears, frustrations, excesses, their tragedies and needs. And, of course, their motives for doing the unspeakable things they do…...

For some reason, I always think of that photo when I read his blog. And I just love the way Bill writes. There is just something about it.

It is very easy to do a guest posting on my blog. You either have to get me to admire your writing, or just pay me. Now (as the joke goes) that we know what I am….I give you Bill Kirton.

When Scary asked me to write a guest blog I was flattered. ‘What about?’ I said. ‘Anything you like,’ she said. ‘You used to teach French so maybe something about language and culture. And try to be funny.’ (We’ll ignore the kiss of death of those final five words.)

But she’s right. It’s the obvious thing to write about. The first time I came across Scary was when she wrote a comment on my own blog. She said something about not being a native speaker and my immediate assumption was that she was French. That’ll surprise those of you who know her but it’s a good example of how we perceive not the truth but something which makes sense through our own perceptions. My ‘foreign’ language is French and the top line of a French keyboard reads azertyuiop – so my first thought on seeing the letters ‘azery’ was a French connection. (Even though I live in Aberdeen and there’s been lots of oil-related contacts between Azerbaijan and Aberdeen companies for several years now.)

Anyway, so this blog has to be about language, culture – and it’s got to be funny. So let me get the serious bit out of the way first. I know next to nothing about Azerbaijan or indeed any of the former Soviet countries. My own politics (to the horror of my American friends) are vaguely socialist – but not in the way the Soviets interpreted (distorted) the concept. My socialism is that of Jesus (although I’m an atheist, too) – in other words surely it would be better if we all tried to help and respect each other’s uniqueness and beliefs rather than fighting. OK, serious bit over.

So, can someone writing in Scotland say things which sound funny to an Azerbaijani or a Russian? I mean, if you were all in a theatre and I fell about like Mr Bean, Norman Wisdom or Jim Carrey, that might work – but all I have here are words. So does language-based humour translate?

Because words aren’t just labels, they’re things, truths. We all know that Eskimos have a whole range of terms for snow – they need them. 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?

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. Take our lovely host, Scary. She’s open, upfront, witty, funny and honest about all sorts of things but sometimes her words get her into trouble – she writes them with one intention, others read them through different perspectives and form opinions of her that may be miles from the ‘truth’ of who she is. (By the way, she wanted me to say something nice about her – so that’s it.)

OK, so language is a vital part of how we perceive the world and the way we express who we are. It’s about perceptions. But so is humour – it’s about perception.

Arthur Koestler said it 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’ – 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 the French call to attract 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 the French word for testicles is couilles, pronounced coo-eee. I leave you to form your own scenario of a mostly 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 thoroughly, 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 being funny with an Azaerbaijani who doesn’t speak English? How can I tell him/her that:

Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogoves
And the mome raths outgrabe?

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.

The effects depend so much on specific words.

But I’ll end with an actual joke and a surprising revelation from a friend who taught Russian. He was talking (pre-Glasnost) with his Russian language assistant. A shortened version of the joke he told her was 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. (These 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 point of telling you this joke is that the Russian to whom my friend told it had already heard it back home, where the whole context obviously wasn’t a golf club and the punch line was ‘He doesn’t even live in the village’.

So maybe humour can free us. Maybe we share more things than we think. Maybe the curse of nationalism and separateness can be overcome. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, faced with how absurd life is, we could all just enjoy it, and keep laughing at it?


  1. Aswering the question at the last line: yed, it would be wonderful.
    Lovely post, SA. Lovely post, Mr. Kirton. English isn't either my native language. I struggle hard to write without mistakes, and I'm pretty sure I make mistakes (more than) once in a while. I don't really care, as long as I can manage to understand beautiful writings as yours. Or SA's.
    All the best!

  2. My first impression after reading this post~: Scary,you got very special guest.He has amazing writting and personality.Sorry for temporarily leaving you: going to visit his blog :-)

  3. I thought I'd better give a quick response while the comments are positive. First, thanks Scary for the invitation. It was fun writing for different readers from those I'm used to on my own blog. Thanks, too, Gabriela and Anon, for your kind remarks. What a pity, though, that the reader who found it 'borriiing' didn't also leave a remark - we can all learn from constructive criticism. Ah well, I'll just have to try harder.

  4. I keep wondering why I ever set up this "borriing" box. :) But then, I think it is only fair. we can not possibly all relate to every single posting here, or agree with certain things I say here. It would, in fact, disturb me should things have been that smoothly positive all the time! :) How borriing would that be?

  5. I will venture to guess about the origins of “borrrring” reaction. People who come to this blog are used to the multicultural experiences illustrated in simple stories about cockroaches and cupcakes. Today they came to find a lecture on language as an instrument of culture, class and “whatchamacallit” (this is an American vernacular for I don’t know what to call it, btw).
    My only reaction to this post (I hope it’s expected and please, don’t take it as an offence since English is not my first language, neither is French :) is that in all my travels and culture “shocks” one of the biggest was how grouchy, sad & depressed people in UK seemed. Russians are a fun bunch in comparison. It must be my poor English that led me to that conclusion :)

  6. Interesting, Scaryazeri invites me to read her blog and who's there? The famous writer B. Kirton.
    Actually, it might have been me who clicked the boring box by accident. I was not bored at all, my touchpad is very sensitive (oppressive mother perhaps).
    I can recommend Bill's books too. They are very entertaining.

  7. @Phatima, we Dutch love the English for their sense of humour. So this can only mean one thing: the Dutch are even more sad and depressed than the English. :-))
    I love Tchaikovsky's music, maybe that's it.

  8. My other half (who is Azeri) considers the english to be quite boring, apart from me, of course. One of my english friends got quite offended and cut off contact with me. So compounding the point, I think!

  9. Wonderful, as an English speaker who lived in Russia/Azerbaijan/Eygpt and several other non english speaking contry's I can only say that the most important humor here is in trying to explain to a non english speaker why we think things we say are funny and what they think is funny is not, god we must sound silly.
    The worst when there and funniest afterwards was the difference between the Russian words for Juice and Bitch, that one got me in a lot of trouble when "Yes Bitch was apperantly the wrong answer"
    I suppose listening to Tchaikovsky at -50 might make being called a bitch seem insignificant.

  10. A wonderful post, Bill. Thank you. And believe me,when translated by a professional, "Alice in Wonderland" can sound absolutely clever and funny (as it does in the original text) even in Azeri.There are texts that do not lose their value even after translations.

  11. Thanks to all. Your comments are all interesting and they could open up plenty of debate. They also confirm that one should avoid:
    a) hinting at national stereotypes, even as a joke, and
    b) trying to define, explain or otherwise pin down humour.
    It's what I was striving to say (albeit clumsily) in my concluding sentences.
    Scary, lucky you to have such active readers.

  12. Loved reading every bit of it! I'm going to visit Bill Kurton's blog:) I actually don't get Russian jokes.I prefer British humour instead, which is much more witty and sarcastic. Anyone who watches Little Britain or The Office can agree with me :)

  13. I love Little Britain! But I think there are some very funny russian jokes, actually. Some of them might in fact, be international as they get translated and moved about, just as Bill was describing in his example...but some are truly russian, and only Russian speakers could understand. they are normally rude, but I always laugh. :)

  14. Thank you for posting.
    it is really helpful to all.
    such a nice topics.


  15. I like to tell people that Jesus was a communist. Then I tell them that I’m a Christian. Both Russians and Americans are horrified by this statement, for different reasons, but equally horrified. People attribute a meaning to the word “communist” that reflects their respective ideologies and not the true definition of the word.
    I like to think of a language as a DNA of a culture. Not in a limiting kind of way, where unless you were born with it, you won't get it. More in a sense of keeping an open mind to the possibilities, even if sometimes you will get it wrong, you will learn from it and have fun in the process.

  16. Enjoyed every sentence.

  17. A beautiful read. I am going to embarass myself and let everybody know that I haven't read any of Bill Kirton's books. But better late than never. I will, definitely will. Loved Bill's language. Thank you, Bill, for a charming post, if I may say so about your writing. And thank you, Scary, for educating me:)

  18. I found this fascinating. There's another interesting webpage about Koestler and bisociation at the online address listed here.