Wordplay with languages

Since we have an international group of people who are interested in languages, I would like to ask you all if you know of examples, anecdotes, or jokes involving the differences or similarities in languages.

For example, this sentence is frequently given as an example of the differences between British English and American English:

“She was mad about her flat.”

To an American, that sentence means she was angry about her punctured tire. To an Englishman, it means she was wildly enthusiastic about her apartment. The same words have completely different meanings in the two countries -- as Mark Twain said, “two great peoples separated by a common language.”

Robert McNeil’s TV series on the history of the English language gives this example of the relationship of English to Friesian: “Good butter and good cheese is good English and good Friese.” Different as the two languages may be, having grown apart over the course of some 1,500 years, in this sentence every word is perfectly correct and understandable in both languages.

I know that cases like that exist in other languages. When I was studying Latin in high school, an Italian exchange student told me a story about a Latin teacher in Italy who assigned his students the task of writing a poem in Latin. When one boy brought his assignment in, the teacher was at first angered: the poem was in Italian. Then the teacher looked at it more closely, and realized that it was also perfect Latin. Unfortunately, I do not remember the poem. Do any of you Italian-speakers out there know this story?

Or this example, rather funny and rather smutty. Russian students of the Old Russian language thought up this poem, supposedly an inscription in Old Russian:


That, by the way, is my reconstruction of it. I believe that it was a bit longer, and that a part of what made the joke work was that there were “scribal errors” in the inscription. (For example, НАС should be НАСЪ in Old Russian, but the “yer” at the end had become silent over time and was frequently overlooked by scribes. The yers that had lost phonetic value were only officially dropped after the 1917 revolution.) The translation of the words in Old Russian would be: “War ahead of us; war behind us. “Behold Rus,” said Mamai, and ran into Sarai.” (Rus was the Medieval name for Russia; Mamai was a Mongol leader who waged war in Rus; Sarai was the capital city of one of the Mongol Hordes in the territory of Rus.) The modern Russian would be something like “Shit ahead; shit behind; “I’m shitting,” said Mamai, and ran into the shed.” My memory of this bit of word-play is faulty – do any of you Russian-speakers know the proper wording?

So, do any of you have other examples, anecdotes, or jokes involving the differences or similarities in languages?


Vemortuicida strenuus
Sure, I've come across something to this effect: how does an American respond to an Englishman asking, "How do I get to the underground?" The American replies, "Drop dead!" Obviously, the Brit meant the American 'subway'. Here in Poland we call it "metro".


New Member
From http://www.archimedes-lab.org/latin.html:

You can read this both in Latin and in Italian, but the meaning is not quite the same! (in Latin it means: 'go forth, Vitellius, on the call of war of the Roman God!', and in Italian: 'The Roman calves are beautiful')

'Sing, o Nero, the great Persian wars!', in Latin - 'The black dog eats a nice peach', in dialectical Italian.

This poetic verse has exactly the same meaning in Latin and in Italian!


Civis Illustris
I remeber a story about a queen of Sweden. The queen was French and during her first journey across Sweden soon after the marriage she was much pleased by peasants who were greeting her in French: "Vive la reine!(Long live the queen!)" Yet the peasants did not know a word in French. The land had been afflicted with drought and the peasants who believed their monarchs were responsible for the weather, asked for the rain: "Vi vill ha regn! (We want to have rain!)"


New Member
A Greek tourist,while enjoying a walk around Lido,in Venice,had his wallet stolen.In his panic,and only knowing some french,he italianised the french verb voler(=to steal,to rob)and started shouting for help ''Volare!Volare!''(=in italian ,I fly!I fly)!

How is a murderer and mother of many children called in English?
-MultiMedea.(rather silly actually,I am sorry! :D )

Of course,a well-known one,and perhaps one of the most ancient wordplay,is the one that Odysseus said to the Cyclops Polyphemus;''When someone will ask you who was the man that blinded you,tell them that that man is called ''Oύτις''(utis=no one).''
Thank you all for your interesting stories. I know that there are many jokes told about language mix-ups -- here are some more in that category:

I remember reading s story by a German writer of the Enlightenment period (I think it was Lessing, a Swiss). He told a tongue-in-cheek story about his trip into Holland. As he was driving into a large city, he saw a lovely orchard. He stopped his carriage to ask a peasant whose orchard it was, and the peasant answered “Kannitverstand.” Coming closer into the city, he passed a magnificent palace, and he asked a man on the road to whom it belonged. “Kannitverstand,” the man answered back. Within the city, he passed a stately townhouse on the street, and asked a passer-by whose house it was. “Kannitverstand,” was the answer that came back. Further on, he came upon a funeral procession, the black funeral coach leading a crowd of mourners through the street. He asked a man standing on the street who was being buried. “Kannitverstand,” he was told. The events of the trip made our German traveller melancholy. No matter how much of wealth and beauty we have, no matter how great our possessions, we are all mortal, he mused, and we all end up as dust.

Of course, “kannitverstand” means “I don’t understand.” Whether that is truly the Dutch phrase or not, I don’t know, but that is what was in the story.

Or there is the story of the German traveler going through Bohemia with his pet parrot. He stopped at the pub in a village, and all of the people were astonished at the big colorful bird on his shoulder. Finally one of them got up the courage to ask the man: “Co jedy takovy velky ptak?” (= “what does such a big bird eat?”) The German looked up from his dinner and said “Was?” and all of the Czechs ran out of the pub in a panic. “Vas” is the Czech word for “you.”

Or this one, told in Czechoslovakia during its time in the “socialist camp.” A girl in a Communist youth group, who was impressed by all of the beautiful stories told about the wonderful life in the Soviet Union, gushed to a visiting Komsomol: “U vas yest krasny zhivot.” She wanted to say “You have a beautiful life.” She got the grammatical construction for “you have…” in Russian correct, “u vas yest,” but she did not realize that the meaning of other Slavic words had changed between Russian and Czech over the course of the centuries. “Krasny” no longer means “beautiful” in Russian and has come to mean “red.” “Zhivot” means “life” in Czech, but “belly” in Russian.

I am hoping to find some stories that might be used as illustrations of linguistic principles.

Iohannes Aurum

Technicus Auxiliarius
Here's one funny story that is commonly told in English class to Germans:

A German tourist in a New York restaurant may say to the waiter that he would like to “become” a steak – he simply translated “Ich bekomme ein Steak,” word for word, not aware of the different meaning of “bekommen” and “become.”



Civis Illustris
I've found an anecdote about Russian poet Balmont (1867 - 1942). The case happened in Paris. (I don't feel confident to translate a literature passage into English, but I have tried to. :oops: See also my signature. ;)) I cite the Russian version as well.

It happened as follows. The moon was shining brightly when Balmont, being rather drunk, was on his way home and saw a French woman with an open purse. Out of gallantry, he ran after the woman, crying out in Russian: "Vash ridicul! Vash ridicul! (Your reticule! Your reticule!)" It had not occurred to Balmont that in French his exclamation meant "Ridiculous cow!(Vache ridicule!)" The indignant woman applied to an agent (policeman) for help and the latter stopped the drunken passer-by who indeed had a suspicious air: he was hobbling (Balmont was a bit lame), gesticulating exceedingly, rumpling his shaggy reddish hair and crying loud, "Vash!.. Vash!.. (Your!.. Your!..)" The agent got quite furious because he took it as referring to himself: agents were called "mort aux vaches" ("mor-o-vash: death to the cows") in Parisian argot. Without going into details he arrested Balmont... for the harassment towards the woman and insulting a policeman on duty. Balmont's companions discovered him in the jail on the next day; they saw him wearing a prisoner's striped suit and fulfilling his task: he was making match boxes. A trial followed, Balmont was discharged.
(From Sofya Dymshits-Tolstaya's "Memories")

...Дело было так. Однажды лунной ночью, после основательной выпивки, Бальмонт, возвращаясь домой, увидел впереди француженку, у которой был расстегнут ридикюль. Желая быть галантным, он принялся догонять незнакомку, крича ей по-русски: “Ваш ридикюль!.. Ваш ридикюль!” При этом Бальмонту не пришло в голову, что его восклицание в переводе на французский язык означало: “Смешная корова!” Возмущенная француженка обратилась за помощью к ажану (полицейскому), который остановил пьяного прохожего, производившего явно подозрительное впечатление: он ковылял (Бальмонт прихрамывал), сильно жестикулировал, ерошил и без того всклокоченную гриву рыжеватых волос и громко кричал: “Ваш!.. Ваш!..” Ажана эти выкрики привели в ярость, он принял их на свой счет, ибо на парижском арго ажанов звали “мор о ваш” (“смерть коровам”)*. Не вдаваясь в подробности, он арестовал Бальмонта за... приставание к женщине и оскорбление полицейского при исполнении им служебных обязанностей. Приятели Бальмонта нашли его на следующий день в тюрьме, облаченного в полосатый арестантский костюм, занятого выполнением арестантского “урока” — он клеил спичечные коробки. Был суд, и этот суд оправдал Бальмонта.
(из "Воспоминаний" Софьи Дымшиц-Толстой)
Even more interesting stories!

Johannes, your story reminded me of another one about an American who went with a German friend into a pub. The American did not speak much German, but he learned enough to order a beer, and even enough of the local culture to know the difference between a light beer (“ein Helles”) and a dark beer (“ein Dunkles”). The two got their beers, and the Greman raised his glass in a toast. “To your hells” he said, stumbling over the English “th” sound. The American, misunderstanding, raised his glass and toasted “To your Dunkles.”

Quasus, your English is very, very good. I could only make some minor comments. English also uses the French word “argot,” but it is not nearly as well-known as “slang.” There is a slight variation in the meaning, “argot” being the specialized vocabulary of a small group of people, usually criminals. However, as I said, “slang” is a more-widely-understood word, and thus is probably the better translation. The same applies to the word “reticule.” Reticule also exists in English, but, unless you are talking about ninteenth century fashion, “purse” is far more common. Again, there is a slight distinction: a reticule is a very small purse, more like a bag for coins than the large “handbags” that women carry now.. Interestingly enough, I myself did not know the English word reticule until I read a short story by that name by Dostoevsky. You can also say “without going into details,” just as the Russian text says. You certainly got the idea across by saying “without much reasoning,” but it does sound strange in English.


New Member
Huh? I must have missed the bit where he said ‘reticule’ and ‘argot’.


Civis Illustris
I have edited my previous post according to simplicissimus' remarks.

Huh? I must have missed the bit where he said ‘reticule’ and ‘argot’.
Their Russian counterparts are used in the original and now in the English version as well. Apparently Cyrillic script makes sense to simplicissimus. :applause:

Thanks for the comments, simplicissime, I shall bear them in mind by all means. As a matter of fact you have encouraged me greatly. Generally I expect myself to misplace half of the articles and to confuse half of the verb tenses at least. :oops:


Civis Illustris
Here is another little anecdote concerning the pun vash / vache.

It happened in France a long time ago. After a reception in the Russian ambassy a cloakroom attendant handed a coat to the wife of a high-rank French official and said, `Vash salop. (Your coat. - Rus. dated.)' In French vache salope means harlot. Naturally the lady caused a scandal.


Civis Illustris
I sometimes ask my Spanish-speaking students in the ESL class to spell words while I'm pointing to a picture. One time I was pointing to a picture of some socks and asked them to spell the word. The students correctly spelled "S-O-C-K-S." Some of them started laughing. In Spanish "Eso sí que es" means something like "That's it exactly," and sounds like the English letter sequence S-O-C-K-S.


Civis Illustris
My grandfather used to tell a joke that was a play on similar-sounding phrases in Spanish and French with very different meanings, and although it's slightly racy, I'll risk posting it here:

The story is about a Frenchman and a Spaniard walking along a beach one day. As they are walking, they pass a very attractive young woman sunbathing in a very revealing bikini. The Frenchman looks at her, sighs, and says "C'est la vie!" (That's life). The Spaniard hears this as Spanish "¡Se la vi!" (I saw "it" on her), and then says to the Frenchman, "Hombre, yo se la vi también, ¡pero un caballero no lo comenta!" (Man, I saw "it" on her, too, but a gentleman doesn't mention it!).


New Member
i love this thread

here is one from an episode of arrested development

an american is asking for information in an english pub. the brit he is speaking to cannot give him any more information unless he is "willing to lose a few pounds". the englishman was asking for a bribe, but the bemused american thinks he is being called fat.


Staff member
David Sedaris has an amusing essay called "Make That a Double." He talks about his time in Paris and his difficulties in learning French. He makes light of the fact that he cannot seem to remember the gender of words very often, but, apparently in French you don't pay attention to gender in the plural, so he gets through his days by always ordering or asking for two, or more, of something, ha ha.

He is a very amusing essayist, and this essay is from a book entitled "Me Talk Pretty One Day."


Civis Illustris
Decimvs dixit:
David Sedaris has an amusing essay called "Make That a Double." He talks about his time in Paris and his difficulties in learning French. He makes light of the fact that he cannot seem to remember the gender of words very often, but, apparently in French you don't pay attention to gender in the plural, so he gets through his days by always ordering or asking for two, or more, of something, ha ha.

He is a very amusing essayist, and this essay is from a book entitled "Me Talk Pretty One Day."
In French, the definite article in the plural is the same for both genders, but adjectives in the plural are often different. For example, les haricots (the green beans) appears to be of uncertain gender, but when you add the adjective, les haricots verts, you can clearly see that it's masculine, since if it were feminine, the adjective form would have had to be vertes. In the feminine form, you hear the "t" at the end of vertes (but not the "e" or the "s"); in the masculine form, you don't hear either the "t" or the "s" at the end of verts. Just a heads-up!


Civis Illustris
OK, this is a true story, and it hinges on a false cognate.

When I was in my late teens, I was traveling on a bus tour through Andalucía. There was a tour guide on the bus who led us through various historic and tourist locales. He had a pretty American girlfriend along on the trip who spoke fairly good Spanish and was eager to use it at every opportunity.

When we came to Seville, the tour guide's home town, he took her off during our free evening to meet his family. The next day on the bus there was a rather uncomfortable silence between them, and a nosy Spanish woman got up the nerve to ask the young woman (in Spanish, of course) if they had fought and what had happened. The young woman replied that she was angry with her boyfriend because "Él me embarazó delante de su familia." She thought she was saying he had embarrassed her in front of his family, but in Spanish it has rather a different meaning, namely, "He impregnated me in front of his family." I immediately recognized the error she had made and burst out laughing before I could stop myself. The Spanish busybody gave me a glacial look and said, "Y tú, sinvergüenza, ¿de qué te ríes?" ("And you, shameless one, what are you laughing at?")