This article will be a bit different than usual: we will talk about the sense of humor in the Italian language. Obviously, humor is a human ability that is independent from the spoken language, but today I want to talk about how humor works in Italian: I’ll tell you some jokes and we’ll see if you can understand them before reading the explanation.
Sense of Humor in Italian: how does it work?
The Treccani encyclopaedia defines humour as follows: “the faculty, the ability and the fact itself of perceiving, expressing and representing the most curious, incongruous and in any case funny aspects of reality that can arouse laughter and smile, with human participation, understanding and sympathy“. In short, if you have even an ounce of sense of humor, you know very well what we are talking about.
Understanding humor in a foreign language is particularly difficult, because it requires implicit knowledge, i.e. not expressed by the speaker, that sometimes only a native speaker can have. For this reason, if you are studying a foreign language, you already know that understanding a joke in your target language is often very difficult: sometimes it is necessary to explain the joke in order to understand it; and we all know that if a joke is explained, it is not so funny anymore… Well, in short, today I will try to tell you some short jokes and I will explain them to you, so you can check if you have understood them well. And maybe in the meantime, we can have some fun!
First type: “Cosa fa…?”
The first joke I want to tell you belongs to the category “Cosa fa…?”. This kind of joke always begins this way: “Cosa fa…?” or “Cosa fanno…?”; there’s a lot of them, but my favorite is this one:
“Cosa fanno due sassi uguali?” – “Sassomigliano!”
Literally translated: “What do two identical stones do?” – “They look like alike!”
Did you get it? Well, let me explain it: the irony lies in the answer, i.e. “si assomigliano” (=”they look alike”), which, with the elision of the vowel “i”, becomes “s’assomigliano”, practically creating the word “sasso” (=”stone”), which echoes the subject of the question. At the auditory level, that is, at the level of what we hear, we immediately notice the similarity between the words.
The second joke belongs to the same type:
“Cosa fa un pasticciere quando gli muore la moglie?” – “La crema”
Literally translated: “What does a pastry chef do when his wife dies?” – “The cream”/”He cremates her”
In this case the humor is linked to the whole answer, which can have two meanings: the first is given by a noun, “cream”, preceded by a definite article. So, according to logic, “the pastry chef makes the cream”. The second meaning, on the other hand, is obtained if we consider the answer differently: “la” becomes an object pronoun referring to his wife, while “crema” is the third singular person of the verb “cremare” (=”to cremate”), that is “to reduce a corpse to ashes”. So, according to this meaning, “the pastry chef cremates the wife (who is dead)”.
Second type: “Perché…?”
The third joke belongs to another type, that begins with “Perché…?”; let’s see if you get it:
“Perché il pomodoro non riesce a dormire?” – “Perché l’insalata russa!”
Literally translated: “Why does the tomato have trouble sleeping?” – “Because the salad snores!”/”Because the Russian salad!”
In this case the irony is based on the double meaning of the answer, and in particular on the polysemy of the word “russa”: in one case, “russa” may be the third singular person of the verb “russare” (=”to snore”), which gives us the reason why the tomato cannot sleep. In the other case, “russa” can be a singular feminine adjective referring to the word “insalata”: “insalata russa”(=”Russian salad”), in fact, is a very common dish in Italy, made with potatoes, carrots, pickles and peas boiled and then mixed with mayonnaise.
The fourth joke belongs to the same type:
“Perché il pane non ha mai problemi?” – “Perché li-evita!”
Literally translated: “Why does the bread never have problems?” – “Because it avoids them”/”Because it rises”
Once again, the irony of this joke is based on the double meaning of the answer: in the first case it’s written as two separate words “li evita” (=”it avoids them”) and it means “the bread avoids problems, which is why it doesn’t have any”; in the second case instead it’s written as a single word, i.e. “lievita” (=”it rises”), and refers to a property of bread, that is to increase in volume due to the effect of yeast fermentation. So, “the bread rises”.
Third type: “Professions”
The fifth joke belongs to a particular category, that of jokes related to some professions:
“Dottore, ha qualcosa contro la tosse?” – “No no, tossisca pure!”
Literally translated: “Doctor, do you have something against coughing?” – “No, no, go ahead and cough!”
This joke is pretty self-explanatory: the English translation helps a lot in understanding it, since both in English and Italian the phrase “to have something against something” means “to have a problem with something”. So the patient asks the doctor if he has “something against coughing” as in “cough medicines”, but the doctor replies to the other meaning, that of having a problem with coughing.
Fourth type: “Dove…?”
The sixth joke belongs to the category of those that begin with “Dove…?” and it goes like:
“Dove vanno a scuola i bambini egiziani?” – “All’asilo Nilo!”
Literally translated: “Where do Egyptian children go to school?” – “They go to daycare”
This one is a bit harder to understand for someone who isn’t a native speaker of Italian: in the answer, “asilo Nilo” is not actually a thing, i.e. nothing is actually called this way, but it echoes “asilo nido”, which is the name of the school where children under 3 years old go, i.e. “daycare”. So why “Nilo?” Well, Nilo is the Italian name for the river Nile, which is Egypt’s most important river. So the irony lies in the resemblance of the words “nido” and “Nilo”. Did you get it now?
Of course, there are many other types of jokes, some of them more common and some lesser known. Anyway, these were 6 of my favourite jokes, I hope they made you at least smile a bit! Do you know any other Italian jokes? If so, write them in the comments, so we can have a laugh together!
If you want to have a bit more fun, you should really watch the video where I make parmigiana di melanzane with my mother!