Are some languages just not punny
February 28, 2018 10:53 PM   Subscribe

We were joking about the way a cattle farmer spoke to me about her husband (standing next to her). My wife said "did he look sheepish?" I replied "I thought he looked cowed". Are other languages as malleable pun-wise? Are there other languages that lend themselves to punning more (or less) than English? or is all about imagination?
posted by unearthed to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't think there's an objective answer to this, but Swedish, for one, is so malleable to puns that there's an official pun championship. Puns are especially associated with the town of Göteborg on the west coast, so if someone makes a particularly bad pun (the sort that makes you roll your eyes), they're going to be asked if they're from Göteborg.

I can't give any examples because just thinking of translating them makes my eyes roll so hard I can see into tomorrow, but yeah, there are definitely languages other than English that are great pun breeding grounds. I would surprised to learn otherwise -- people are just naturally creative and want to have fun.
posted by Vesihiisi at 11:17 PM on February 28, 2018 [12 favorites]


Japanese has a pretty rigid and limited sound system, which makes it real good for puns. And indeed, Japanese culture likes punning a lot.

I don't know of any natural language that makes it difficult or doesn't do it, but I only know a few languages well enough that I'd know how much people pun in them

Lojban, a constructed language, is theoretically designed to not have any grammatical ambiguity which limits pun options. Like you can tell if something's a noun or a verb by where the vowels are, so you can't get too crazy with your wordplay. Though, given the kind of person who would learn Lojban, I'd expect its speakers to mostly do bilingual thing punning Lojban words with those from some other bullshit language, like Esperanto or Klingon (or a real language, like Hua or something).
posted by aubilenon at 11:37 PM on February 28, 2018 [5 favorites]


As a rough rule, I would guess that more homophones -> more opportunities for puns. So perhaps a language like, say, Chinese would be exceptionally strong in this area.
posted by kickingtheground at 11:41 PM on February 28, 2018 [2 favorites]


Chinese is indeed another language that is really well suited for puns! For example, "upside down" sounds a lot like "to arrive/is here", so for the spring festival people will hang up decorations with the character for spring upside down as a visual pun for "spring is here". People have fun around lunar new year with food related puns - to the point that the some people find it almost excessive .
posted by photoelectric at 11:46 PM on February 28, 2018 [6 favorites]


As a partner of someone who sells translation rights to children's books, I can confirm that many do not pun.
posted by ominous_paws at 11:49 PM on February 28, 2018 [2 favorites]


Polish doesn't really do puns, to the point I find it very hard to understand or enjoy puns in other languages. I have not been able to understand any of the explanations why they're supposed to be funny. Because... you got the word wrong on purpose?
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:39 AM on March 1, 2018 [12 favorites]


I can assure you that Spanish uses a lot of double entendre (especially in pop music) so I think puns would be fairly common since they are similar forms of wordplay.
posted by emd3737 at 1:21 AM on March 1, 2018


Stewart Lee wrote a fascinating article on how the German language affects the German sense of humor. He never uses the word pun, but this passage suggests to me that German is not a pun-friendly language:
The German phenomenon of compound words also serves to confound the English sense of humour. In English there are many words that have double or even triple meanings, and whole sitcom plot structures have been built on the confusion that arises from deploying these words at choice moments. Once again, German denies us this easy option. There is less room for doubt in German because of the language's infinitely extendable compound words. In English we surround a noun with adjectives to try to clarify it. In German, they merely bolt more words on to an existing word. Thus a federal constitutional court, which in English exists as three weak fragments, becomes Bundesverfassungsgericht, a vast impregnable structure that is difficult to penetrate linguistically, like that Nazi castle in Where Eagles Dare. The German language provides fully functional clarity. English humour thrives on confusion.
posted by yankeefog at 2:45 AM on March 1, 2018 [12 favorites]




I would say that Dutch is in between German and English in this regard (as it is in other ways). We have less homophones, because we tend to write the same sound in less different possible ways than English does. So while we lack the German precision, there are still less options for puns than there are in English. (I don't think it has anything to do with being less creative.)

But that doesn't mean we're not into word play at all. We certainly have the kind of joke that relies on taking a word too literally, like the 'sheepish/cowed' joke. It's just the kind that relies on two different words sounding the same that we have less of (like a pub that's called The Pour House because it sounds like The Poor House).

I think all languages can be used for wordplay, but not all languages are equally suitable for all the different kinds of wordplay.
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:06 AM on March 1, 2018 [5 favorites]


Stewart Lee wrote a fascinating article on how the German language affects the German sense of humor. He never uses the word pun, but this passage suggests to me that German is not a pun-friendly language:

On the other hand, if you look at the translation notes for Walter Kaufmann's translation of Also Sprach Zarathustra, he specifically points to Nietzsche's wordplay as one of the difficulties in translation. (I couldn't find it on a quick look, but I think there's even a footnote where he says something to the effect of "this was a pun in German, I swear, but I couldn't get it to work".)
posted by hoyland at 5:02 AM on March 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


Chinese people like puns so much there's a form of constrained writing where every word is a pun, and the same pun: one-syllable article. The most famous example is Shi Shi Shi Shi Shi which tells the story of a man addicted to lion meat and uses only words pronounced "Shi" (with varying tones).
posted by d. z. wang at 5:12 AM on March 1, 2018 [8 favorites]


American Sign Language does them! There are similar hand shapes for different words, and they will use them in a punny way.
posted by greermahoney at 6:05 AM on March 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


It's very difficult to pun in Italian, a language where pronunciation is rigid and fairly unambiguous. On the other hand, French, with its superabundance of silent letters, is a pun-makers dream.
posted by ubiquity at 6:39 AM on March 1, 2018


Puns are not unheard of in German but they aren't the 'favored' form of groan-inducing humor. The kids have these hilarious and appropriately vicious little sayings that rely on rhyming, example, "Alle Kinder pinkeln in die Rinne - ausser Inge, sie liegt drinne." (translate to: "All the kids pee in the ditch except for Inge, who is lying in it." yeah, quite something to hear out of the mouth of your delicate little eight year old.) Here's a bunch.
Same with 'humorous' poems - lots of words making silly noises more than doubled meanings.
posted by From Bklyn at 7:43 AM on March 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


I have half-joked that the Japanese writing system was invented by bored courtiers to encourage wordplay. And Japanese is very phonemically limited, more so than Chinese (even if you leave out the tones), and has numerous homophones, so there are ample opportunities for puns in Japanese.

If phonetic diversity really is inversely correlated with punning, Hawaiian probably would be the king of punning languages.
posted by adamrice at 7:59 AM on March 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


Egyptian Arabic uses puns, but I’m not sure if countries that use a more formal version of the language are as playful.
posted by scrute at 8:28 AM on March 1, 2018


Along similar lines, I've found that Chinese does not do sarcasm well. Sarcasm depends a lot on delivering your line with the right inflection and I think the tones make it hard to convey and/or pick up on that. (In contrast, you can completely change a statement in English to a question just by pitching it slightly different.) IANALinguist but now I'm wondering if there's something bigger that makes subbing out words funnier in Chinese than saying them slightly off pitch. In the most general sense, at what level is there room to play with the features that convey information?

Things that I came across that might be relevant that I haven't read yet because I've already spent way too much of my morning thinking about this:
A somewhat technical Language Log rebuttal to that Stewart Lee article
The idea of high/low context cultures
A lot of the "ethnic humor" Wikipedia articles touch on this sort of thing
posted by yeahlikethat at 8:38 AM on March 1, 2018 [5 favorites]


It's very difficult to pun in Italian, a language where pronunciation is rigid and fairly unambiguous.

I've found that wordplay in Italian tends to be the double meaning/taking a word too literally type. As in, if your last name is a form of the word "lost", people will joke that "You were lost and now you're found!" (which is marginally funnier in Italian, at least the first time you hear it).

The Italians I know are also extremely sarcastic, but that could be a family trait.
posted by camyram at 9:04 AM on March 1, 2018


Navajo speakers love to pun, I've read (I don't speak it myself).

> Polish doesn't really do puns, to the point I find it very hard to understand or enjoy puns in other languages. I have not been able to understand any of the explanations why they're supposed to be funny.

I'm a native English speaker and I don't get the appeal of puns, either. I rarely notice them, and when I do they don't make me laugh.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:35 PM on March 1, 2018


Thanks everybody for all these amazing comments. A lot to take in. yankeedog - I worked in a mainly German speaking office for a while (I didn't partake tho') and I'd certainly agree than puns/wordplay generally fell flat or met with blank looks (and sarcasm was no fun either). Altho' Rammstein seem to do plenty of wordplay, but little seems gentle or polite according to friends.

And thank heaps yearlikethat - some stimulating links there. The high/low context idea is very useful too.
posted by unearthed at 8:45 PM on March 3, 2018


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