He: (as I walk into the room) God! You’re looking a bit grunge today.
Me: Really? (looking down at self) These were clean.
He: Going skateboarding or something?
Me: Really? (slightly pleased) Am I looking a bit teenage then?
He: No. More teenage vampire.
He cracks me up, that husband of mine. His family come from the north of England, where the sense of humour is as biting as the weather. It has taken my soft South African sensibilities a long time to get used to it. Now, I screech along with the rest of them, even crack northern-type jokes, but I didn’t used to find it so funny.
When I was a tender little fiancee, Thomas’s Uncle E came to visit us in South Africa. He stayed with Tom’s parents, but we invited him round for dinner. With Tom’s help, I sweatily put together an “English” kind of meal – some sort of roast, multiple veg, potatoes. It took ages, since we weren’t the accomplished chefs we are now, but eventually the meal was finished and we ate. Later that year, Uncle E came out again with his lovely wife for our wedding. He was to play a starring role as the organist. At some point before the wedding, there was a meal at Tom’s parents’ and, for some unearthly reason, discussion ensued about our wedding list. Someone posited that we might need a slow cooker.
“She doesn’t need a slow cooker,” said Uncle E. “She is one.”
The whole room fell about laughing. And I, humiliated and angry, tried not to cry. Now, twelve years on, I would also laugh, but at the time, this kind of rather cruel, personal humour did not tickle my funny bone. Not one bit.
What I’m getting around to saying is that humour is cultural. British humour is about word-play, double entendres, ambiguities, just like above. This article from The Guardian (I know, I know. I’m a one-woman fan-club. One day, maybe they’ll even give me a job) nicely sums up the British humour:
At a rough estimate, half of what we find amusing involves using little linguistic tricks to conceal the subject of our sentences until the last possible moment, so that it appears we are talking about something else.
Now, in German, the article goes on to say, this is not possible. German is a more highly structured language and you can’t shunt the key word to the end of the sentence. German’s compound verbs, though clunky, are very specific and also don’t leave much room for ambiguity. So it’s not that Germans aren’t funny, as the English would love to believe (believe me, we hear it ad nauseum, to the point that we have lost our sense of humour about it), but their sense of humour is different.
Here is a German joke, also from the article:
There are problems in the woods. The animals of the forest are always drunk, so the fox decides to ban alcohol. The following day, the fox spies a rabbit hanging out of a tree, clearly wasted. The fox ticks him off, and carries on his way. But the next day he sees the rabbit drunk again, and gives him a final warning. The next day, the fox does his rounds and there’s no sign of the rabbit, but he notices a straw sticking out of a stream. Wondering what it is, the fox scoops it out, only to find a very drunk rabbit on the other end of it. “How many times do I have to tell you that animals of the forest aren’t allowed alcohol?” says the Fox. “We fishes don’t give a toss what the animals of the forest aren’t allowed to do,” says the rabbit.
I’m not saying this joke is specifically German in its humour, but there are aspects of German humour that I recognise: flouting authority is funny, being clever is funny, pursuing drunkenness at all costs is too. It’s also very visual and many German jokes are about how things look. Too much serious talk about humour tends to take the funny out of things, but let’s allow all cultures to have their sense of humour, even the Germans.