peadarog (peadarog) wrote,

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Quips, Sticks and Linguis-Tics

I doubt I'm the first human being in all of history to notice that jokes are funnier when heard in a foreign language. Poems are more profound that way too, and emotions feel more... well, emotional.

A lot of humour works through flattering our egos. It's funny because you have worked it out, you have made the connections. It's telling you how clever you are and the more loops your brain jumps through to find the answer, the cooler that makes you. Well done!


But try telling some of those jokes in your native language when you get back from your holidays. Just try it! For then you must suffer the cold stares and the beatings of your friends. “I guess you had to be there!” you screech. “Please! No more! You had to be- OUCH!”

The language trick works with philosophy too. No wonder Shakespeare is so much more popular now than he was in his own day! Before we can understand what he has to say, our brains are forced to translate his vocabulary and word structure into modern English. Thus, almost every line seems extra special or particularly beautiful.

And what about the lyrics of pop songs? How many times have you enjoyed them in your car, straining to pick them out from behind a wall of sound, feeling the emotions as though they were your own, as though you were living them right now? And then you go home, look them up, and rereading them, discover how bland they are in the plain light of your screen? How childish, or worse, how empty they are?


So much of writing turns on this phenomenon: we need to give our readers the pleasure of working out who the killer is, of getting the joke, whatever. We provide just enough distraction to flatter them when they see through it, -- and the more they've worked out, the smarter they'll feel --, but there can't be so much noise that it becomes impossible to hear the lyrics underneath. I've never met a writer yet who didn't agonise over hitting that particular sweet spot. I agonise over it all the time, myself. But maybe I could get around it by writing my next book in Italian?

What do you think? I could call it, “La Pizza Catatonica.” Or something. All suggestions welcome.

Tags: nothing to see here, ranting, writing
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