Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The German Child and other jokes

This Guardian article, by an English stand up comic on his work experiences in Germany, was unusual in that it managed to be funny and fascinating at the same time.
Here is a snippet that begins with a joke:
An English couple have a child. After the birth, medical tests reveal that the child is normal, apart from the fact that it is German. This, however, should not be a problem. There is nothing to worry about. As the child grows older, it dresses in lederhosen and has a pudding bowl haircut, but all its basic functions develop normally. It can walk, eat, sleep, read and so on, but for some reason the German child never speaks. The concerned parents take it to the doctor, who reassures them that as the German child is perfectly developed in all other areas, there is nothing to worry about and that he is sure the speech faculty will eventually blossom. Years pass. The German child enters its teens, and still it is not speaking, though in all other respects it is fully functional. The German child's mother is especially distressed by this, but attempts to conceal her sadness. One day she makes the German child, who is now 17 years old and still silent, a bowl of tomato soup, and takes it through to him in the parlour where he is listening to a wind-up gramophone record player. Soon, the German child appears in the kitchen and suddenly declares, "Mother. This soup is a little tepid." The German child's mother is astonished. "All these years," she exclaims, "we assumed you could not speak. And yet all along it appears you could. Why? Why did you never say anything before?" "Because, mother," answers the German child, "up until now, everything has been satisfactory."
The implication of this fabulous joke is that the Germans are ruthlessly rational, and this assumption leaves us little room to imagine them finding time to be playful. But be assured, the German sense of humour not only exists, it actually flourishes, albeit in a form we are ill-equipped to recognise.
It seems to me that all of his observations are true. I'm from a German family but was born and raised in an English country - Canada. English is not only my first language, it is what I studied in University. Germans do indeed have a very hard time with irony and double entendre and that probably goes a long way towards the English description of them as humourless. It must also play a role in the peculiar nature of German jokes. If you've listened to them in translation, or even if you read the ones at the end of the article, you'll know what I mean.
Our linguistic and cultural blinders are usually opaque to us; the blessing of the stranger is that he or she reveals them to us.

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