Friday, November 13, 2009

Funny in English - or just funny English?

At home in Tokyo recently, I received a phone call from a lady wanting to sell me a burial plot. I replied (in Japanese) that, as a foreigner, I would return to my country when I felt like dying. She praised me for being so practical, we both laughed and the short conversation ended pleasantly. Later that day I bought an ice cream from a convenience store. Handing over my money, I told the sales assistant “Please don’t bother to heat it up for me.” The result: a puzzled stare. Sometimes humour works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Humour is less likely to succeed when people have different language backgrounds. We need a good command of grammar and vocabulary both to make and to understand jokes in another language – if we have to think, or
ask for an explanation, the humour disappears. Also, we need to know when it is appropriate to use humour. Japanese, for example, tend to be rather serious with strangers (only foreigners make jokes in Tokyo convenience stores), whereas Indonesians have few such inhibitions. Another problem is that it may be difficult to know when someone from a different culture is joking. Many Australians and Britons, for example, prefer ‘dry’ humour and keep a straight face when joking.

Few comedians work in foreign countries. Japanese Ogata Issey has given performances in London and New York, but using Japanese with English subtitles and relying on visual jokes. On the other hand, Mark Rowswell, a Canadian who is very fluent in Chinese, is famous throughout China as Da Shan (‘Big Mountain’), a performer of a traditional form of comedy known as Xiangsheng

A recent Japanese TV show took up the theme of cross-cultural humour. Local comedy duo Obeikaa performed for bilingual youngsters from an international school. Then, a Japan-based Australian, Chad Mullane, performed before them in Japanese. Mullane got more laughs, but it wasn‘t a fair competition since his Japanese was much better than Obeikaa’s English.

Teacher-trainer Luke Prodromou has studied how English native speakers bend language to demonstrate cultural solidarity with each other. For example, they may describe light rain as ‘kittens and puppies’ (instead of ‘cats and dogs’, a typical expression for heavy rain). Yet when non-native speakers try to bend English, native
speakers often think they have made a mistake. So when one British teacher said “You can say that again!” (meaning ‘I completely agree with you’) and her non-native colleague joked back “Ok, I’ll say it again”, the Briton thought she had been misunderstood. When I was in Seoul I saw a shop called Buy the way. To me it was clear that the shopkeeper was playing with the words by and buy. But my friend thought it was a spelling mistake.

Of course some funny English is a mistake. I don’t think humour was intended by the Indian hotel that announced “No one is stranger here” or the Iraqi hotel notice that said “No consummation whatever may take place in this foyer.” As a foreigner in Japan I am constantly causing humour without intention. Trying to tell my students that a judge had given a decision in court (hanketsu wo kudasaimashita) , I actually said hanketsu wo dashimashita (he showed half of his bottom).

Skill in humour is an indication of having made a language one’s own. is a website run by people who are fluent in standard Singaporean English (which is similar to British English) but fascinated by Singlish, the colourful mix of English, Hokkien and Malay spoken in the streets but discouraged by the government. When a trailer for their film, –The Movie, was banned because of its use of ‘bad English’, they remade it with exactly the same words but spoken in a very posh British accent. This made the new trailer even funnier.