Do puns exist in all languages?

The question stems from a conversation I had with a close friend. She has been studying Arabic for several years, lived in Morocco for a spell and has been living in Egypt for three years now. Proficient in a few dialects (if that is the right word) as well as classical/ formal Arabic, she has never come across a pun.

The If Chinese Already Uses Accent for Something Else, Then How Do They Show Emotion? thread reminded me of that conversation. So now I’m turning to the TM. Does anyone know of an Arabic pun? She’d get a kick out of it if I could send her one. But what about Chinese? Japanese? Are there any languages that don’t lend themselves to puns? Thanks!


I can’t speak for all languages, but Japanese certainly has puns. In fact Japanese may even lend itself to puns more easily than English (IMHO). Some examples of “dajare” (Japanese puns):
“futon ga futon da” meaning “a futon is a futon” or “a futon flies” (da is an emphatic, futonda=fly)
“Ikura wa Ikura desuka” meaning “How much is the salmon roe” or “Is the salmon roe salmon roe?” (Ikura means salmon roe and how much? Desuka is a be question)

I wish I knew all languages so I could answer your question, but I’ll have to limit myself to French, Japanese and Spanish.

Yes, puns exist in all three of these. In French, calembours (puns) have been brought to the level of an artform, almost. They’re a staple of Belgian humour and a fixture in comic books; the names of characters in most dessins animes are puns -> Abraracourcix, Iznogoud, Phil Defer, etc.

Japanese, with its inane amount of homophones lends itself particularly well to puns. Hell, sometimes you almost have to make an effort to avoid them. In my experience and from what I’ve been told, older men seem particularly fond of puns which make them somewhat less than cool. As a matter of fact the most likely reaction you are to get from younger folks after having made one is “samui!” (cold!) - a reference to the fact that your joke wasn’t too hot.

In Japanese, there are also litterary puns that show up often in classical poetry. Those are usually not meant to be funny but to carry two meanings in a single text, and considering the length of haikus and tankas, it’s something that’s surely nice to be able to do.

Hamaguri no, futami ni wakare, yuku aki zo!
Matsuo Basho

In Spanish also, word play shows up very frequently in humour, and since I’ve heard some in Italian too, you might want to add that language to the list too.

Hungarian’s got 'em. One popular one during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal went like this: What does Monika Lewinsky’s answering machine message say?

Foglalt a smám

Meaning, either “The number is busy” or “My mouth is occupied.”
(Szám = “number” or “my mouth/lips”)

Um, Foglalt a szám for those who keep track of such things.

>> Do puns exist in all languages?

Your guest is as good as mine. (Good morning major!)

Yes we have puns in Chinese. Can’t recall any off the top of my head now. though. Sorry.

There are puns in Esperanto, due to collision in form between some root-words and other words built out of smaller components.

Example: the root koleg. Koleg/o as one word means ‘colleague’ (with the noun ending o). Kol/eg/o built out of smaller words means ‘big neck’: kol = neck; eg = big; o is the noun ending.

So if you had a colleague with a big neck, that would be kolega kolego. (a is the adjectival ending.)

Then there’s the root koler which means ‘anger’. But er by itself means ‘small part of’: akv/er/o = ‘a drop of water’ and mon/er/o means ‘a coin’ for instance. Kol/er/ doesn’t really make that much sense (‘a part of a neck’?), but then you can say kolerega kolega kolego ‘very angry big-necked colleague’… :slight_smile:

How do you sort this kind of thing out? The usual way: context.

I don’t speak or read Chinese, but I have studied Chinese literature in translation. There are many, many puns in Chinese, both spoken and written. It’s quite easy to make one, since the only difference between some words is the tone or written character. They appear very frequently, which often makes translation difficult because there’s usually no way to convey the same joke or double entendre in English.

There’s a good pun in the New Testament, in Greek: “Thou art Peter (Petros), and upon this rock (petra) I shall build my Church.”

I once saw on Dutch television a Danny Kaye show. He was telling a very long joke which involved a bilingual pun in French and English. The program was subtitled in Dutch. It was very amusing to see the efforts of the subtitle editor to explain the pun in two other languages.

I have a friend who is deaf and very fluent in American Sign Language (even taught one year at Gallaudet). I once asked her if ASL has any puns, and she said definitely yes. She gave me one example, but I’ve forgotten it. I think it had something to do with the ASL name for “Las Vegas”.

I’ve worked in deaf education for 15 years, and this was my initial reaction, as well. But so far, I’ve been unable to come up with any examples of true ASL puns myself. I can think of scores of very clever language-based jokes, but nothing that could properly be called an ASL pun.

I am not familiar with the Las Vegas joke you mention, but ASL has many place name puns. The one I’ve seen most often has the punner making the letter “O” with their left (or non-dominant) hand, and moving the letter “L,” made with the right hand, past it. This is the pun for El Paso. Get it?

Problem is, this isn’t really a pun in ASL; it’s a pun in English. And all the “ASL puns" I can think of off the top of my head are like this. The most famous one is probably “understand.” You sign “stand” upside down. But this is really a play on the English word “understand.” The sign “understand” is a one-handed sign made on the forehead and is irrelevant to this pun.

I need to ask some of my deaf co-workers if they know any ASL puns that don’t involve English. There is one joke I can think of that may be a truly self-contained ASL pun, but the punchline involves a deaf person trying to communicate via written English with a hearing person, so I need to think about this one a little more. Unfortunately, I don’t have time right now to post an explanation of it—maybe after work.

In Mexico, this is an art form. We call it “albur” or “alburear”. Here is a quick one:

Entonces, huey, que te gusta ver? Ver gotas o ver gotitas?

There are a lot of movies-straight-to-video that have mostly dialogue consisting of albur jokes.

It’s very common amongst friends to alburear and even more so in Mexico City, which is the capital of the albur.


A Mexican-American friend told me of a joke in Spanish.

“What do you say to cow that fell into the river? Nada, buey! (which means both Swim, cow! and Nothing, fool!)” He gave me the impression that buey is a good deal ruder than “fool.”

–Nott, who is slowly relearning to speak Spanish

buey, or phonetically written…huey, güey, or wey did originally mean ‘ox’, but has become slang for fool. Huey also mean almost the same as ‘dude’ among friends…“sabes que huey…” is more like “you know man…”.
Huey sounds more or less like English “way”. I remember many bilingual puns on huey, I had friends saying “yes way” (meaning yes huey) in response to an English “no way” years before Wayne’s World accidentally happened upon that. Any English phrase with “way” is fair game for a bilingual joke.

Another one is: what did the Mexican biker say to the Geisha?

Hop on esa!


Also there are the piropos, or sexual puns (I think they are puns). The cliched one is “¡ay! tantas curvas y yo sin frenos”.

There are a humongous amount of puns in Chinese, including the various dialects. With some many words having tthe same pronounciation and even the same tone, it’s really easy. Names are very commonly pun-ed. You have to be really careful to pick a Chinese name that sounds good across multiple dialects (eg British govenors pre-1997 handover).

Give you one example. The Volkswagon Passat is produced in China and quite popular. In Shanghaiese, “Passat” sounds like “swat flies”.

When I took a course in Native American languages my instructor told us puns in Salish (found in the Pacific North West), Navajo, and Mohawk. He said that they were common in every Native language he was familiar with.

These are very common in the Chicano community. Two oldies:

1)While driving, one compadre goes to the other, “Look, compadre, it says, one way/huey, which one of us?!”

  1. The Judge - So, sir, what is your excuse for stealing the car.

The Burglar - Well, yer honor, it wasn’t my fault. It was the owners.

The Judge (in indignant voice)- Juat! What do you mean the owners faulg!?

The Burglar - Well, chingao, he put a sign that said “For Sale” pos I did!

For sale sounds to “forzar” or “forzale” which is “to force”.



There are puns in Russian. None of which I can recall off the top of my head, but jokes based on plays on words are quite common there.