Sunday, 10 February 2008

Unfunny Puns

Japanese humour is rightly considered weird. (When I first arrived in Japan back in March 2003, I remember about two days into my stay being sat down in front of the TV by my American flatmate and told to "Watch and learn." Together we sat drinking shochu and watching a guy dressed in a cockroach outfit repeatedly taking running jumps into giant toilet bowls filled with confetti while an audience of hundreds laughed hysterically. And it was funny. But weird too.)

However, one thing the Japanese and the British in particular share is a love of puns. Japanese is a language perfectly suited to the pun, because the number of distinct sounds is so small - with the consequence that similar sounding words are very common. It's difficult to explain examples if you don't know the language, because puns are so language-specific. Last night though, Ijuin-san came through our communal kitchen area, noticed we were cooking hokke, a kind of haddocky fish, and immediately said, "Hokke o Hott-okke!" ("Leave that haddock alone!") That's a typical example; you can probably appreciate at least the pleasing congruence of sound and meaning.

One other similarity between the Japanese and British is that we love puns, but we're also ashamed of them - as if we know they're a deeply boring and ridiculous form of humour but we're unable to stop it. Interestingly, when somebody in Japan or Britain makes a pun the reaction of the surrounding people is exactly the same: everybody groans and tells the punner to f--- off (in the case of Britain) or that they're an oyaji [old fart] (in the case of Japan), while at the same time chuckling at the joke.

In fact I think the point of the pun isn't really to make people laugh; it performs the function of uniting the group in condemnation of the pun and hence promotes group cohesion by being an ice-breaker. In societies such as Britain and Japan, where people are quite reserved, such things are important in keeping the juices of interpersonal relations flowing.

1 comment:

Bilbo said...

Puns have a bad reputation, but I think they're an elegant form of humor that really tests one's command of a language. My family is very pun-oriented, and I drive my office mates crazy with my puns. I knew my German was getting fluent when I could appreciate puns in the of my favorite German puns is the expression "Wissen ist Macht...Nichts wissen macht auch nichts" ("Knowledge is Power...but if you don't know anything, it doesn't matter") - a great and very useful phrase around Washington, DC.