I recently read this article in The Telegraph, which assures me that the mystery of what tickles our funny bones has finally been solved. The journal Psychological Science has published a paper by American researchers who claim the things that make us laugh involve “a benign violation of the way the world ought to be.” The study’s co-author Peter McGraw adds, “it’s hard to find a comedy that’s funny cross-culturally because the ways that violations can be benign differ from culture to culture.”
True that. When it comes to cross-cultural communication, humour is definitely the final frontier. I’m loathe to mention the words “Jerry Lewis” and “the French” in the same sentence, because using an obvious cliché is such a lazy way to illustrate a point, but oh, look — I just did it.
There’s one category of knee-slapper that seems to disregard cultural boundaries, however, and that’s the language mishap. Right now, while you’re reading this, locals all over the world are laughing at foreigners’ attempts to communicate in the local dialect.
Several weeks ago I wrote about some of my linguistic faux pas over the years. I’m one of those obnoxious people who always laugh at their own jokes, and I don’t mind telling you that those stories still crack me up. (I forgot to mention the time I went to the hair salon in France and asked for les moches (ugly people) instead of les mèches (highlights). The staff at the salon teased me about that until the day I left the country.)
A couple of readers very kindly shared their own mistakes in the post’s comments section. How did I react when these generous souls exposed their failings for all the world (or at least the handful of people who read my blog) to see? I snorted milk out my nose, of course, because language blunders are irresistibly funny.
Why is this so? I’m a reasonably nice person, yet I once dissolved into helpless laughter when a co-worker exclaimed, “The weather is so strong today! My hat blew off because I had very bad wind.” I think it stems to a certain extent from a sense of superiority on the part of native speakers. If you and everyone around you mastered the basics of a language while still in pigtails, watching an adult crash and burn at something you found effortless is a “benign violation” that can go to your head a little. Add that to the inadvertent double entendres and ridiculous images novice speakers produce, and you’ve got yourself an instant laughfest.
Whatever the reason, I must admit that one of my guilty pleasures when I travel is seeing signs that make unintentional mincemeat out of my mother tongue. I wish I’d taken more photos like the one posted above, from Koh Maprow, Thailand. Instead, all I have to offer is this list of signs with delightfully mangled English that I found in an old textbook. May you always tootle melodiously!
In a Bucharest hotel lobby: “The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.”
In a Yugoslavian hotel: “The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid.”
On the menu of a Swiss restaurant: “Our wines give you nothing to hope for.”
In a Belgrade hotel elevator: “To move the cabin, push button for wishing floor. If the cabin should enter more persons, each one should press a number for wishing floor. Driving is then going alphabetically by national order.”
In a Rhodes tailor shop: “Order your summer suit. Because is big rush we will execute customers in strict rotation.”
In an Austrian hotel catering to skiers: “Not to perambulate the corridors during the hours of repose in the boots of ascension.”
In a Bangkok temple: “It if forbidden to enter a woman even a foreigner if dressed as a man.”
In a Norwegian cocktail lounge: “Ladies are requested not to have children at the bar.”
In a Copenhagen airline office: “We take your bags and send them in all directions.”
On the menu of a Polish hotel: “Salad a firm’s own make; limpid red better soup with cheesy dumplings in the form of a finger; roasted duck let loose; beef rashers beaten up in the country people’s fashion.”
In a Zurich hotel: “Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for that purpose.”
A sign posted in a German park: “It is strictly forbidden on our black forest camping site that people of different sex, for instance, men and women, live together in one tent unless they are married with each other for that purpose.”
On the door of a Moscow hotel room: “If this is your first visit to the USSR, you are welcome to it.”
From a brochure of a car rental firm in Tokyo: “When passenger on foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor.”