Speech peculiarities in Russian jokes

Feb 10, 2011 by

To stay on the topic of Russian jokes (anekdoty), let me make an observation about such jokes that involve various ethnic characters. But first a disclaimer: although such jokes would be very un-PC in the U.S., they are very popular in Russia (as in many other places around the world). And, as can be witnessed from many recently created ethnic jokes, they are not just a legacy of the Soviet Union with its weird combination of internationalist ideology and forcible russification of all and sundry.

Of course, ethnic jokes are more of a reflection of the Russians’ xenophobiс views and their stereotypes of other peoples then of the actual qualities attributed to the various ethnic groups: Armenians, Georgians, Chukchis, Jews, Ukrainians and others. For example, in Russian anekdoty Chukchis are naive, Jews are crafty and practical, Georgians are rich and temperamental, Ukrainians are avaricious and despise the Russians. Even the Russians themselves become subjects of their own ethnic jokes, where they present themselves alternatively as lazy drunkards or as adroit heros who can manoeuvre themselves out of any difficult situation.

But what is particularly interesting for me in these jokes is the linguistic portraits of the stereotypical representatives of the various ethno-linguistic groups. Despite the general xenophobia expressed by such jokes and the stereotypical assignment of various — mostly negative — qualities and sins to different ethnic groups, Russians seem to reflect pretty accurately the linguistic peculiarities of this or that language.

A stereotypical Jew in a Russin joke pronounces the Rs as uvular, just as they would be pronounced in most dialects of Yiddish. A stereotypical Georgian pronounces all syllables with equal stress and has trouble distinguishing palatalized and non-palatalized consonants, as in os, the genitive plural of osa ‘hornet’ vs. os’ ‘axis’ (the Georgian language has no stress and no palatalization). A streotypical Frenchman has a heavily nasal pronunciation and a stereotypical German overuses consonant devoicing. A stereotypical Chukchi relies heavily on the word odnako (pronounced [adn'aka], which in Russian means ‘nevertherless’, but is used in anekdot-Chukchi speech as an evidential marker — such evidential markers are very frequent in Chukchi.

Sometimes speech peculiarities of a certain ethno-linguistic group may be even become the basis for how their personalities and temperament are stereotypically presented in Russian anekdoty. An example of that is anekdoty about Estonians that present them as as stupid and slow (thus, the “stupidity” ascribed by Russian anekdoty to Estonians is different from the naivete of the streotypical Chukchis).

The main reason — and the main tool — for presenting Estonians as slow is their speech patterns, highlighting lengthened vowels. For example, in a recent Russian joke an Estonian is asked why they have such fast internet everywhere in Estonia. His answer: “It is no-o-ot that we-e-e have fa-a-ast interne-e-et, but our se-e-econds are slo-o-w”. Indeed, the Estonian language uses a three-way distinction between short, long and extra-long vowels to distinguish meaning (most of the world’s languages that use vowel length phonemically, use only a two-way distinction between short and long vowels). For example, vere [vereˑ] means ‘blood [gen.sg.]‘, veere [veːreˑ] means ‘edge [gen.sg.]‘ and veere [veːːre] means ‘roll [imp. 2nd sg.]‘. Of these, short and long vowels are segmentally phonemic, and the third length level is suprasegmentally phonemic and aided by a distinctive tonal contour. The writing system distinguishes only short and long vowels, marked by vowel doubling, e.g. öö ‘night’.

So the Russian stereotypes of other peoples may be all wrong, but their speech portraits capture the linguistic peculiarities of other languages.


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