Welcome to the Arabic Language Discussion Forum

Being a retired professor of Arabic and Linguistics, I have elected to publish an archive on how the Arabic language is used in America and across cultures.

I hope to establish a dialogue with people interested in the language, the teaching of the language, the learning of the language, and the interaction of Arabic and English while learning the language.

I am also interested in having a discussion as to the use of Arabic within the contexts of globalization.

Arabic is very much a language that binds a culture and defines a people. This blog is dedicated to understanding how American use, learn, and teach the Arabic language, and how Arabic, in Arab countries has been impacted crossculturally.

Sep 24, 2010

Observations on Arabic Humor

Copyright © 2010 Aleya Rouchdy, All Rights Reserved

Few weeks ago Al jazeera had a very interesting program on the work of a political cartoonist, Shujat Ali Shamshad (www.aljazeeratalk.net/shujaat). Ahmad Mansour presented the interview and cartoons strips.

Shujat Ali’s cartoons are dealing with political events in the Arab world. They astutely deride Arab leaders. The cartoons are accompanied by a captivating background music.

I have written to Mr. Shujaat Ali and praised him for his work. He gracefully thanked me for appreciating his caartoons. He further stressed his admiration for Egyptian comedians and hoped that in the future he will highlight Arab humor through cartoon strips.

I have to stress the fact that Shujaat Ali ‘s work transcends any Arabic cultural barrier. His humor has universal political features and can easily be applied or translated to other cultures and languages and still be understood.

After watching the cartoons the idea of a post on humor was appealing to me, especially that humor usually sheds light on the culture of a society and could be an excellent tool in teaching a language.

In Egypt humor is an important means through which people express frustration, protest or criticism of the prevailing social, economic and political conditions. Adel Hammouda, a journalist, wrote a book on how Egyptians deride their rulers. In this book he analyzed modern Egyptian political humor within its social and cultural contexts. Although the book was written in 1992, it is still very a propos regarding Egyptian humor. He states “jokes are the opinion of those who do not want to divulge their opinion. Humor is the de facto majority party in Egypt. It competes only with soccer, unemployment and population increase.” عادل حموده. كيف يسخر ألمصريون من حكامهم

Humor usually sheds light on the culture of a society. Its major functions are entertainment and protest. It can be transmitted in a written form or orally. The authorities can easily censor written jokes or cartoons if they are considered too critical. Verbal humor, on the other hand, cannot be easily suppressed since the blame cannot be attached to a specific person.

Jokes and cartoons are transmitted within a specific region where the same language is used. If the jokes or cartoons have universal features, they will have universal appeal and can be conveyed into different cultures with different languages.

I have examined three sources of humor in Egypt. The first consists of analytical studies where humor is recognized as “prose narratives” ( El Shamy, Hasan, Khorshid, Faruk, Ibrahim Nabila, Sharaf, Abdel Aziz ). They look at humor as a literary form of Arabic folk literature.

The second form of humor I have looked into is the verbally performed humor. Such humor achieves its aim only if it abides by rigid rules of performance. They are always delivered in colloquial. Sarcasm, ridicule, puns, exaggeration, imitation, and linguistic incongruity are a must. Only a listener who is very familiar with Egyptian colloquial can understand this type of humor. Minimal phonological variations can trigger laughter from the audience. Or, sometimes homonyms in puns are used to create semantic ambiguity. Usually the performer targets with humor a particular group, such as political figures, stingy people, doctors, nurses, teachers or unfortunately a misunderstood segment of Egyptian society such as the sa9idis صعايدة

The third type of humor is that of cartoonists. One of the most famous cartoonists in Egypt is Mustafa Hussein. He attaches to his cartoons humoristic utterances that are expressed sometimes through proverbs or brief jokes that are semantically ambiguous. These cartoons are written in colloquial Egyptian. A reader who regularly follows Hussein’s cartoons can deduce the different social, political and economic problems that Egyptians are facing daily. *

As in verbal humor the listeners have to be aware of the socio-cultural traits and have a linguistic background to appreciate Hussein’s cartoons. However, the linguistic aspect in this type of humor is not as crucial as in the case of verbal humor. In the later form of humor the listener has to be linguistically knowledgeable with the phonology, morphology and syntax to appreciate the metaphor, homonyms, ellipsis and alliteration. Furthermore, verbal and written humor differ in that in verbal humor the narrator has to have the right tempo, the correct intonation, the proper body language, and avoid hesitation when delivering the punch line. Written humor lacks these aspects of the verbal performance.

Is humor easily borrowed from one culture to another culture, or from one language to another language? Incompatible linguistic structures as well as incompatible social and cultural aspects prevent the borrowing of humor. However, there are some universal features that allow the borrowing of humor. In this case it is hard to determine who borrows from whom.

Humor that depicts certain social conditions is usually short-lived. A clever narrator, however, can use the skeleton of a joke and apply it to different situation at different times to fit the new prevailing circumstances.

In conclusion I would like to stress the fact that listeners can only understand humor if they are well acquainted with both the cultural and linguistic dimensions of the joke. Furthermore, humor can be used as tools in language teaching. They provide a window that sheds light into the culture of a society where the specific language is spoken.

In my opinion humor ought to be systematically used in teaching a language. The universality and/or specificity of some humor might arouse students’ curiosity about the language and culture they are studying. As E.T. Hall wrote “if you can learn the humor of a people and really control it, you know that you are also in control of nearly everything else” (Hall, E.T. 1959, The Silent Language, p.59)

*Aljazeera.net selects daily a cartoon from an Arab newspaper that depicts the political issue du jour. The cartoon appears at the top of the page under “report of the press.”