You Wouldn’t Get It: German Jokes are No Laughing Matter

In 2011, Badoo published the results of an international poll where as many as 30,000 people were asked to name the funniest country. While Americans came in on top, Germans were ranked the least funny nationality. This perception of Germans having no sense of humor is not new. It is considered a well-known stereotype (at least in Europe) that Germans are punctual, serious and efficient; the antithesis of comedic. But is this something cultural and innate, or rather, is it a function of language?

In fact, Germans have a rich history of comedy, and even today one can find countless comedy clubs in Berlin. So, why don’t other countries see this side of German culture? The problem seems to be in the language itself. In an article with the BBC, a German linguistics professor explained that the way the German language is constructed affects the delivery and perception of jokes. Humor often relies on ambiguity and word play to create double meanings, like the classic pun. Take as an example: “The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop and asks ‘Can you make me one with everything?’” However, German’s structure is such that the gender and case must be exactly aligned to the intended meaning, making it much more difficult to pun. It’s also one of the few languages that uses compound words. A popular example is Schadenfreude, meaning “taking pleasure from another’s misfortune.” These words can’t be directly translated into other languages, which means German jokes lose some of their punch with foreign audiences.

Even Mark Twain wrote a disparaging essay in 1880 called “The Awful German Language,” where he wrote, “when a German dives into a sentence, you won’t see him again until he emerges at the other end with the verb between his teeth.” With three different genders for nouns and four different cases, it’s no wonder that playing around with German words can be a challenge. However, with a good translator and some creativity, you can get your joke across without ruining the punchline. Contact one of our Account Managers about localizing your German material today!

A little German humor…

Ein Bergsteiger beim Einkauf: “Ich benötige Unterhosen.” Der Verkäufer: “Lange?” Der Bergsteiger: “Ich will sie kaufen – und nicht mieten.”

(A mountaineer when shopping: “I need underpants.” The seller: “Long?” The climber: “I want to buy it – and not rent it.” Not as funny in English, is it?)