Truth be told, comedy has deep roots in German culture, with a strong appreciation of political satire as well as physical slapstick. Yet the Germans were voted in a 2011 survey by Badoo.com to be the least funny nationality, reinforcing a well-known stereotype of Germans having no humour.
There is a long tradition in Germany, where the use of political and social taboos as basis for comedy are typical of the satirical talk shows and kabarett TVprogrammes, which are similar to today’s variety shows but heavy with political satire.
So, if the Germans have always had a funny bone in them, just how did this unfortunate stereotype come about?
Nicola McLelland, German linguistics professor at the UK’s University of Nottingham, believes that the way different languages are constructed can affect the way various cultures deliver and perceive jokes.
She explained that humour commonly uses ambiguity in word interpretation and sentence construction to create alternative meanings, which can add comical elements to a situation. For example, the phrase ‘we saw her duck’ has a dual meaning: either that we saw a duck that belonged to her, or we saw her in the act of ducking away from harm.
However, German’s language construct can be very different. Nouns can have three different genders and four different cases. Verbs also have a lot of different forms. The exact meaning of a sentence relies on the correct use of gender and case pertained to the eventual meaning, affecting how humour can be delivered. Basically, it’s harder to pun in German when the grammar makes things so much less ambiguous.
But what the German language does have, however, is the ability to create compounds.
German is one of the few languages where the use of compound words – words made up of multiple individual words, such as schadenfreude, which puts together schaden (harm) and freude (pleasure) – is common. Compound words often can’t be directly translated into other languages, so jokes made with compound words simply won’t be funny to non-German speakers.
There’s a joke in German:
“Why can’t you pick up your watch if you’ve dropped it? Because no Urheberrecht.”
So Urheberrecht means ‘copyright’ – but German has another very similarly pronounced compound word – Uhreberrecht – which has a literal meaning of ‘watch-pickup-right’. When spoken aloud, it’s the dual implication that results in a comical effect.
See how this joke just doesn’t work in English? In fact, this ability of the German language to be extremely concise perhaps explains why even a good German speaker of English might sound a bit overly precise in English – which can add to the impression that Germans are more earnest than funny.