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Humor in Bilingual Couples

How bilingual couples partake in humorous talk

Post written by François Grosjean.

British novelist George Eliot once wrote, "A difference of taste in jokes is a great strain on the affections". This is all the more so when the people involved, in our case bilingual couples, have different language and cultural backgrounds. An yet, humor and, more precisely, jokes, puns, banter, understatement and forms of irony, to name but a few, are an integral part of a relationship within couples. It is well known that humorous talk of this kind is a bonding agent; it creates intimacy, and it helps deal with stress.

In an interesting chapter, Professor Delia Chiaro of the University of Bologna, a British and Italian bilingual and bicultural, reports on a survey she undertook of some 59 bilingual and bicultural couples and their use of humorous talk together. Each member of the couple had been born and raised in a country different from his/her partner's. And on average, the couple had been together for an average of ten years.

For most domains of life, they reported using the one or the other language, which confirms once again that languages in bilinguals are often used for different purposes, in different domains of life and with different people (see here). However, for humorous interaction all possibilities were found–language A, language B or both languages. It is interesting to note that talking about food was done in all three ways as well, as was intimate communication.

Among the examples of humorous talk the author gives, we find word jokes. For example, a Dutch-Swedish couple report using a Swedish word that resembles a Dutch word which is funny normally but which is especially funny with other people around who do not understand it. Translating names is also mentioned, among other forms of humor. Thus, an Italian-British couple might talk of "Cassio Argilla" when talking about "Cassius Clay" or of "Joe Green" when referring to "Giusseppe Verdi".

This said, learning to appreciate the humor of one's partner, which can be so different from one's own, and actually starting to use it takes time and effort. The first step is to acknowledge that it is indeed humor! As British English speaker Sandra states (she has an Italian husband): "British humor is particularly hard for Italians to get, especially the difference between sarcasm and irony and as for understatement... they are just totally unknown concepts here."

Amália, who is Hungarian, comments as follows: "I must say that it really took me a while to get used to my English partner's sense of humor. .... occasionally I still look at him in disbelief at some of his jokes."

Of course, translating a joke or another form of humorous talk is particularly difficult, as any bilingual can report. Colm, one of the author's respondents, declares that "sometimes you lose the complete meaning if you don't translate well" and Claudia, another respondent, actually feels that translating a joke is "always a disaster".

Humorous talk in one's non-native language can be a problem though as it can be misinterpreted by outsiders. Sandra states: "I don't often do puns in Italian with other Italians as they tend to leap in to correct your Italian if they are not linguists"!

But with time and effort, many respondents in the survey indicate that they have learned the humor of their partner, they are starting to enjoy it and even partake in it. As Anne, who is British with a German partner, says: "After 15 years in Germany I can now watch some modern German comedy shows and even find them almost as funny as British ones!".

Delia Chiaro concludes her chapter with this remark: "...humorous interaction in cross-cultural, bilingual couples may well be an important bonding agent to help overcome the myriad of intercultural difficulties such relationships inevitably face." I'm sure she would agree with Frank A. Clark who once wrote: "I think the next best thing to solving a problem is finding some humor in it."

Photo of the couple from Shutterstock.


Delia Chiaro (2009). Cultural divide or unifying factor? Humorous talk in the interaction of bilingual, cross-cultural couples. In Neal Norrick and Delia Chiaro (eds.), Humor in Interaction, pp. 211-231. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

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