Humor in Different LanguagesTo suggest a correction please Login

humor in different languages

In June 2017, I had the honour to present at the Polyglot Gathering in Bratislava. There were a reported 99 different presentations with generally four different talks taking place at the same time. When the organisers sent out the call for presentations, I found myself inspired by the challenge of discussing humour in different languages and was excited when my the organising committee accepted my proposal. In the programme booklet, the title was How to Be Funny in a Foreign Language and the presentation is on Prezi as Humour in Different Languages. To a great extent it is a collection of puns in 14 languages more than a comparison of humour from 14 different languages.

Humor is something that is one of the trickiest parts in learning another language and in learning about another culture. Now that I have lived in seven different countries, and have sojourned for a few months in about eight others, I found the topic an interesting one to explore. One of the highlights of my talk was the level of audience participation, as I encouraged people in advance to bring in their jokes to share in any of the following languages:  Catalan, Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Mandarin, Norwegian,  Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish. It was fun to hear each other’s jokes and puns in so many different languages. In addition, since the origins of the Polyglot Gathering stem from Esperanto movement, I decided to add Esperanto to my presentation list as well.

Although I had been hoping to gather some jokes in advance from fellow language learning fans via Facebook, as it turns out, all the material for the presentation was from sifting through some sources online and delving into my own memory of what I had heard over the years, to build up content for the presentation. In Esperanto, I managed to create my one of my own puns for the presentation as well.

Because of limited time, my presentation did not have the depth to cover subjects such as differences in humor, within a specific language such as Australian, British and US English and Spanish  language from places as diverse as Argentina, Mexico and Spain.

While my presentation focused primarily on puns and wordplay in each of the languages I covered, I decided to dive into the nature of some Chinese humor as well, as I discussed the phenomenon of the Fù’èrdài  富二代, literally the “rich second generation” and how jokes about them allow people in China an easier way of pointing out the widening income gap. In addition, I also mentioned the tendency for Chinese to tell ‘cold’ jokes, leng xiaòhuà 冷笑华.

If I would have had extra time, I would have likely covered the complexity of Russian humor as well, which has a particularly dark style to it at times.

My presentation started with a video Lachen in Der U-Bahn, which Piotr Pluta of Human Factors shared with us at a SIETAR Europa congress in Valencia in 2015.

The video helps demonstrate the contagious nature of laughter. After the video, I discussed a common feature employed in humor: pointing out us vs. them, the in-group vs. the out-group. Academics in Latvia and Spain recently have explored this topic, in particular to show how Catalans distinguish themselves from the those in the rest of Spain and how comedians on Russian state TV build distrust in the institutions of western governments.


Early in the presentation, I also touched on how humour helps during times of stress to help people cope better and that a sense of humour correlates to better health and happiness, citing “Dr. Happy” at Australia’s Happiness Institute.  I also gave an example of self-deprecating humour and cited research that this can be effective in  business settings if not overdone

When I reached the point of German humour, I decided to introduce an important concept in why some people find certain jokes offensive. One researcher on the topic, Thomas Veatch finds that we generally think a joke is funny if it is relevant while at the same time is not too offensive. Veatch says that we perceive linguistic or visual constructs as funny if they lead to certain associations with our own lives or personalities while not triggering any other stronger emotions.  So, in order to be successful at humor you need to be able to touch trigger the right emotions without hurting somebody’s feelings.

This YouTube video made the rounds on Facebook and was shared over and over again, but often Germans would comment, “das ist nicht witzig


Practical jokes are another aspect of humor in many different languages. During the presentation I used an example from the Norwegian comedian Ylvis.

At the conclusion of the presentation, I recommend a strategy of using a prop as a way to help make somebody laugh. The example I gave was one where I was waiting in line to receive a towel and a locker key at a gym in Madrid. The individual in front of me was yelling about something and the attendant was in tears. As I waited for my turn, I thought about what I might be able to say to make the attendant laugh and forget about the abusive client.

As I looked around, I noticed a silly looking poster of a man in a 1920s workout suit. So I decided this would be my prop. My plan succeeded.  When I reached the attendant, instead of asking for my key and towel, I looked at the attendant and pointed to the funny poster and asked, “¿tengo que vestirme así para hacer ejercicios aquí?” 

The plan worked. The attendant began to crack up laughing, and wiped away her tears and was able to switch over to a happier mood, leaving behind the previous mood of the verbally abusive client.

What is your experience on humour in different languages and within different languages? Sign in and feel free to comment on humour and language and cultural differences.

At Yozzi, Dimitris welcomes guest articles and interviews. Please complete the contact form to participate. Yozzi encourages us to write in different languages and receive feedback on how to write better in foreign languages. Learn more about how to use the platform to help improve your writing skills.

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