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Lost in translation: The funny Germans Posted by on Jul 26, 2010 in Culture, Language, People

It is a prevalent belief that we Germans have little or even no sense of humor (Sinn für Humor). Especially British people often suppose that Germans are humourless (humorlos). But why is that?

First of all, of course, Germans love to laugh just as any other nation. But humor is always connected with language and culture. Each language has particular characteristics (Eigenschaften), which sets it apart from other languages. For example, English vocabulary (Wortschatz) and grammar allow funny confusions in meaning. This makes the English language highly effective when creating puns (Wortspiele).

This flexibility hardly exists in the German language. The German language is characterized by its functional clarity instead. Maybe this contributes to the stereotype that we are a ruthlessly rational people. Whatever the case may be, most English puns cannot be translated into German. For example:

Judge: Order, order in court.

Prisoner: I’ll have a ham sandwich.

Richter:  Ruhe, Ruhe im Gerichtssaal. (Ruhe, here: silence)

Gefangener: Ich nehme ein Schinkenbrot.

Due to the fact that the German language scarcely allows for making puns, Germans fall back on alternative ways in order to amuse themselves. Germans like to make fun out of the prevailing context by saying apparently serious statements. Admittedly, this way might sometimes give the impression to be very brusque. For example, a British comedian, Stewart Lee, reported about a trip to Hannover, where he had gone out with some German actors. One of the German actors said to him: “You will notice there are no old buildings in Hannover. That is because you bombed them all.” Fortunately, Lee realized that this was a joke and eventually found it hilarious. Of course, you mustn’t take such statements seriously. So, whenever you will hear a German uttering a statement of that kind you can be sure that this person is only joking. Probably, the following popular German saying may describe this branch of German humour best:

“Wer den Schaden hat, braucht für den Spott nicht zu sorgen.” (lit.: he who has the damage, doesn’t have to see to it that there is mockery) – the laugh is always on the loser

Of course, there is also a more shallow form of German humour but generally Germans like to laugh about people’s shortcomings, their own, as well as the ones of others. The favorite means of German comedy is parody (Parodie) and caricature (Karikatur). Below you can find some videos by different German comedians in order to get an idea of what German humour really is.

This is one of Germany’s most popular comedians: Hape Kerkeling.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoQfiXLinvU

This is a parody of Star Trek from the “Bullyparade”, a former German comedy show. English subtitles are provided.

This is a parody of Lena Meyer-Landrut., the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest. Here, she is not singing about “satellites” but about Stefan Raab, the man who discovered her.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKoIuyQvz2w

(der) Sinn für Humour – sense of humour

(die) Eigenschaft – characteristic

(der) Wortschatz – vocabulary

(das) Wortspiel – pun

(die) Parodie – parody

(die) Karikatur – caricature

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About the Author:Sandra Rösner

Hello everybody! I studied English and American Studies, Communication Science, and Political Science at the University of Greifswald. Since I have been learning English as a second language myself for almost 20 years now I know how difficult it is to learn a language other than your native one. Thus, I am always willing to keep my explanations about German grammar comprehensible and short. Further, I am inclined to encourage you to speak German in every situation. Regards, Sandra


Comments:

  1. M:

    Prevalent where? In Europe? I’ve been living in the L.A. area for years and if anything Germans are known to be party animals 🙂

  2. Pete Flawn:

    Hi. I found your article most interesting. My favorite comedian is Stan Boardmana, a Liverpool chap who;s comment on his attitude to your couintry is ‘they bombed our chip shop’. As you say humour can be lost in translation and understanding. Have a ,look on You Tube at Ronnie Corbert abd his sketch ‘Four candles’.
    (Fork handles)
    Regards Pete Flawn_