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Monday, May 6, 2013

Folk Humor Of North Dakota's Germans From Russia

"Prairie Spaas"
The Folk Humor Of North Dakota's Germans From Russia
By Ronald J. Vossler, 1999 Larry Remele Fellow and North Dakota Humanities Scholar

This is an exploration of the oral folk humor of Germans from Russia, one of North Dakota’s most numerous ethnic groups. The history of this distinctive group stretches over two hundred years. It begins in various eighteenth century Germanic provinces; includes a century-long sojourn on the Russian steppes; and, for those who immigrated to America, continued on the North Dakota prairie in twenty-three counties called the “German Russian triangle.”


There are more than a few books about German Russian culture and traditions, but the group’s folk humor remains relatively unexamined. In fact, the stereotype exists that this ethnic group known for their work ethic are generally humorless.

When I told colleagues at the University of North Dakota that I was studying German Russian humor, several of them, trying to be funny, could only reply “That shouldn’t take you long,” or “That will be a slim volume.”

Over a period of six months I gathered examples of German Russian humor. From written sources, both new and old. From tape recordings. From friends, recent acquaintances, and family members. Not until, as the old saying goes, “I’d educated myself right up to the horns” did I realize some of the extent and variety of German Russian humor.

I knew that much had already been lost, not passed to the next generation, that it was locked away in an obscure dialect few any longer spoke, or, as I learned, in people’s memories. As I transcribed and translated the material into English, my own knowledge of German dialect grew; and, at the same time, many humorous jokes, quips, and sayings that I’d heard in my childhood surfaced. 

This study, then, seeks to categorize what remains of the rich variety of this ethnic group’s humor; and, after noting various theories of ethnic humor and comparing German Russian humor to Jewish humor, to discuss the place of humor in a modem multicultural democratic society.

A Fancy Definition Of Why My Granny Spoke So Colorfully

Much of the material I’ve gathered for this project occurs in the German dialect. Therefore, it might be appropriate at the onset to point out how the form of the dialect spoken by German Russians – something called Umgangsprache – is intimately connected with humor. 

The word Umgangsprache sounds like it could be one of those exotic sounding foods so dear to the German Russian palate, akin to koladetz, (pickled pig’s feet), or schwatamaga (headcheese). But it is really just a term linguists use to describe language in which neutral terms could be replaced with emotionally charged expressions. (Keller, pp. 517-523)

So Umgangsprache is just a fancy way of saying that after I’d tracked mud onto my grandmother’s clean linoleum floor, instead of politely asking me to go outside and wipe my boots, she’d announce, in a combination of cranky humor and correction, “Yah, du glana Hossaschissa, ich sot dich aus dem Haus ins Schneebank schmissa” – “You little pants pooper, I should throw you out into the snowbank.”

Proverbs And One-Liners

German Russian culture, both on the Russian steppes and the American prairie, had a wide variety of folk proverbs. Scholars, notably Shirley Arends in Central Dakota Germans (pp. 174-193, and Joseph Height in Homesteaders on the Steppe (pp. 275-278), have included extensive lists of these folk proverbs in their books.

These folk proverbs, which illustrate German Russian cultural beliefs and attitudes, date back to eighteenth century Germanic provinces and are, I think, the earliest evidence of German Russian humor. Their sheer number and variety gives an indication of the depth of German Russian folk culture. Below are a few of the more vivid proverbs.

·         With violence one can pick fleas from a porcupine.

·         Better a louse in the cabbage than no meat at all.

·         You can’t pull hair from a frog.

·         You always give the meanest dog two pieces of meat.

These proverbs are not found only in books. On the prairie, German Russian settlers and their children used them in daily life, to pass to future generations distilled peasant wisdom, and, also, to have a little fun.

I’ve heard my mother and grandmother recite these proverbs on many an occasion. Once, commenting on two rather eccentric people who were getting married, my grandmother said, “Yah, even a crooked pot has a cover.”

These proverbs are only one part of German Russian humor. Joseph Height in Paradise on the Steppe notes the rich mother wit of the German Russian colonists in Russia, and their quickness with repartee, along with the wide variety of jokes, insults, zingers, wisecracks, put-downs, and puns which were part of their daily lives. Height also quotes a German Russian saying which demonstrates this ethnic group’s attitude toward joking and fun: “Wer nit kann Spass Verstehen, soil nit under die Leute gehen” – “Whoever can’t take a joke, shouldn’t go among people.” (p.143)

This past summer (1998), at my hometown centennial celebration, I overheard a conversation about someone who’d married for the third time. “Well you know what they say,” one person said with a hearty laugh. “The first wife is from God. The second wife is from man. The third wife – that one is from the Devil. 

If that wasn’t a folk proverb, it should have been, for its hard-edged brevity seemed typical of much German Russian short humor. Some German Russians, it was once said, had a hard nature, but also a great belief in God. Sometimes both of those elements were reflected in their humor, which could be used to remind later generations, in memorable terms, how to behave. In the following one-liner, which out of propriety I’ll leave untranslated, young women who wore their skirts too short were not so subtly reminded of their transgressions: “Yah, sieht mir nuff an der scheiss hoga.”

Or, if a son returned home from the army or college with “newfangled” ideas, the father might bellow. “Yah, Hans, du hosch Ideen da dee Hunda dobel frecka.” – “Hans, your dumb ideas make the dogs croak.” (Marzolf, pp. 16-17)


Nicknames

Joseph Height in Paradise on the Steppe has also noted that the German Russian colonist was much given to taunting and teasing and that he was not afraid to apply his “riotous vocabulary of nicknames, epithets, and jibes…to lampoon human foibles and frailties.” (p. 143)

Current political correctness might cast a negative view on name-calling and teasing, or even on the often hard-edged humor of the German Russians in general. But these practices were, for a variety of historical reasons, a part of this ethnic group’s culture.

It should be explained that praise and compliments – because they were thought to tempt fate and lead to the sin of pride – were generally not used to correct, comment on, or influence behavior. But teasing, jibes, and jokes were once used. One pastor to a German Russian congregation once remarked that the German Russians understanding of “words, stories, sermons, and jokes is markedly at variance with the point of view of American or the native Western European.” (Joachim, p. 20)

Here are a few terms that, depending on tone and circumstance, were used as terms of endearment, for teasing, or applied to someone caught in some mischief: stink katz – “skunk”; ver grupta Apf – crippled monkey; arschkarps – “pumpkin butt.”

In some German Russian communities permanent nicknames often were in use. Volga Germans called these Beinamen, based on physical traits or behavior, and used discreetly when swapping news or gossip.

In Russia, in both Volga and Black Sea colonies, there was much intermarriage and little variation in naming children; therefore, a nickname often provided a sense of individual identity. Volga Germans still living in Russia, when asked why they used so many nicknames, replied, “To keep each other straight.” (Kloberdanz, p.121)

Besides providing identity, nicknames also enlivened everyday German Russian life with a dash of humor. Some nicknames were comic; but the recipient of them – branded forever from some momentary indiscretion, or because of a notable physical characteristic or defect – might not have thought them so funny.

Tim and Rosalinda Kloberdanz in their book Thunder on the Steppe give lists of nicknames among Volga German villagers, including one short fat person known as Sackvolisand, literally “sack full of sand”; and another elderly Volga German known as Nudel Deppler, or “Noodle Stepper.”

Some said that “Noodle Stepper” was given this this name as an old man because he took slow, tiny steps, no bigger than finely cut noodles. Another version of how he got his nickname, which indicates the long memory inherent in German Russian village life, was that many years earlier, as a barefoot toddler, he’d stepped on some egg noodles his mother placed on a wooden bench to dry. (pp. 136-136)

Similarly, in my hometown of Wishek, North Dakota, populated primarily by descendants of German Russians, there were in mid-century a variety of nicknames. Here are a couple of the more innocuous nicknames that I remember: Schlang, or “Snake,” was a high school basketball player with deceptive moves on the court; Winegar was a fellow with an accent who’d jammed his thumb in football practice, and, on the day of the big homecoming game, showed up brandishing his ailing member, saying that he was in fine shape because, as the old remedy indicated, he’d given it a good overnight soak in a cup of “winegar” – thus his nickname; and there was also a distant relative of mine we called Entchl because he’d made the mistake of bragging about how he could back his father’s tractor, or, as we called it then in dialect, an Entchi, a hundred yards in a straight line to a hand held hitch.

Playing With Language: Nonsense Sayings, Rhymes and Greetings

When I was a child and hurt my finger, my grandmother would rub the afflicted area and repeat rhymed jingles in a sing song voice. These jingles, with their often incongruous humor, helped us forget the hurt. Here are two that I remember:

·     Heila heila Katz dreck
(Heal, heal cat poop.)
Morgen fruh isch alles wek
(In the morning everything will be gone.)

·     ABC (ABC)
Katz liegt im schnee (Cat lays in the snow)
D’r Schnee geht wek (Snow goes away)
D’katz liegt im Dreck (Cat lays in the dirt
Dreck geht wek (Dirt goes away)
Katz isch verreckt (Cat is dead)

These chants and rhymes bear some similarities to or might have their origins in the German Russian Brauche, a centuries-old folk healing tradition, which was still practiced past mid-century in south central North Dakota. (Arends, p. 193)

Chants of that nature could also be adapted for other purposes, like the one heard in 1965 at the McIntosh County basketball championship. There was a long-standing, heated athletic rivalry between my hometown of Wishek and neighboring Ashley, both of which German Russian immigrants settled.

During a close game, as a Wishek player stood at the free-throw line, the Ashley cheering section bellowed out in unison a resounding German dialect cheer, which everyone on both sides thought was quite amusing. Besides attempting to disturb the player’s concentration, the chant also betrayed, I think, how the younger generation felt about the ethnic foods with which we were all familiar. Here is the chant, along with a translation:

·    Blutwurst, liverwurst, schwatamaga, speck, 
     (Bloodsausage, liver sausage, headcheese fat,)
     Wishek Hochschule, wek, wek, wek
     (Wishek Highschool, go away, go away, go away.)

     In traditional German Russian life there were a variety of children’s rhymes, tongue-twisters, or nonsense phrases which were both a source of verbal fun. They could also be used by adults as a way to fend off curious children’s inquiries. Both Arnds in Central Dakota Germans (p. 193) and Height in Homesteaders on the Steppe (p. 274)include short lists of these, such as the following:

·     Was isch? – Mehr Wasser als Fisch.
(What is it? – More water than fish.)

·     Hasch Hunger? – Schlupf in e Gagumer.
(Hungry? – Crawl in a cucumber.)

·     Wo gehnst du nah? – Ins loch, Bohne lese.
(Where are you going? – Into a hole, to pick beans.)

In German Russian life, there were also a variety of phrases which were exchanged when meeting someone; and these short expressions – seasoned with humor, moral insight, teasing, risqué references, or just hard truth – were the perfect vehicle of expression for a hardworking people who did not want to waste time chatting, but who also wanted to have a little spass, or fun. Below is a parting one-liner to visitors, who, on their long way home might ponder this conundrum:

·     Fahr nit so schnell, aber macht das Hamm kommsch.
(Don’t drive too fast, but make home come quickly.)

Other playful exchanges – in which the reply to the initial query Wie gehts? – may have several meanings to a German dialect speaker, including a risqué one:

·   Question: Wie gehts? (How are things going? Reply: Yah, was nit hangst, muss stehen. (Whatever doesn’t hang must stand.)

    These exchanges seem to fit intoa category termed “ritual insults” by Apte, who maintains that this kind of repartee serves to “reduce tension” and maintain social order. (p 172) One can only conjecture about the value of these exchanges in a small, closed village of German colonists in Russia, where social order was important:

·    Two people meet after a long time. One of them says, “I haven’t seen you for a long time.” The other replies, “Yah, what did I put in your way?” (“Yah, was han ich dir in der weg gelegt?”)

Some “ritual insults” involve replies to “thank you”; these replies might use either playful nonsense rhyming, or a proverb – like retort, as below:

·     Dangashay; Du hash so langa Zahn.
(Thank you; you have such long teeth.)

·     Dangashay; Bezahl die Schulde dann brauchts nit danke.
(Thank you; Pay your debts then you wouldn’t have to thank anyone.)

In German Russian life there is also a rich tradition of what Mahadev Apte calls “linguistic humor.” This kind of humor includes overall misuse of language, on purpose and otherwise, along with puns, plays on words, and “reinterpretation of familiar words and phrases.” (p.179)

German Russia jokes often “misinterpret” similar sounding German dialect words to create double entendres: words with two meanings, one of which is often risqué. These double meanings can also arise from the use of the diminutive, an extra la tacked onto the end of some words. Examples of this kind are too graphic to examine here. Sometimes alternate meanings are embedded in the dialect phrase itself, as in the following:

·     A person might ask you in German dialect if you know someone, to which you might reply: Yah, Ich wass wer du meinsch, aber Ich Weiss yah nit wo ich ihn her nema sot. (I know who you mean, but I don’t know where I should take that person). The wo ich ihn her nema sot can be understood both literally, as in “where should I take that person”; but by the German dialect speaker, that phrase has another, sexual meaning.

BHow To Have Fun In Two Languages At The Same Time

     Some of the short humor of the German Russians can be quite complex. For example, sometimes members of this ethnic group combined nonsense ditties, greetings, and bits of two languages, English and German – all in one or two phrases. Punning of this sort – using similar sounding words with different meanings from two different languages – is termed “interlingual.” (Apte, p. 181)

·         Was isch los? (What is wrong?)
          Bread isch loafs. (Bread is loafs.)

·         Wie gehts?
          The gates OK, but the fence is broke.
       
      Some “interlingual” humor is quite playful and sometimes just goofy or nonsense humor. However some statements, behind the silliness, carry another message. For example, one might infer from the veiled hint, “the fence is broke,” that things might not be going too good for the speaker. (Just as in High German usage ziemlich gut means that not everything is right in the speaker’s life.)

      Out of expediency, or just by accident, English and German phrases were sometimes blended, creating odd linguistic construction which could be a source of amusement, as below:

      Everyone knows what "below zero" means. German has a similar phrase, unter null. Once I heard both of them used together by one of my brother's friends, who said, as he came in from outside, "Yah, it must really be 'under-below' today."

     There was a similar linguistic construction - I'm told this is a true story - which grew out of an 
     encounter in a grocery store in my hometown. An elderly gentleman was relating a bit of local news to a fellow shoppe, who wanted to know about the origin of the information. Disturbed that his credibility was being questioned, the elderly fellow telling the story replied with a huff, "Yah, I saw it standing in the newspaper." - which is a literal translation from the German phrase, es steht, which is used to indicate that it was printed, as in the Bible, or in a newspaper.

Narrative Jokes

     Besides the shorter humor outlined above, this ethnic group also had longer jokes which used a narrative or story-line. In his Memories of the Black Sea Germans, Joseph Height has collected and printed a few of the longer variety. (pp. 216-221)

     Based on occasional references to life on the steppes, or to Russian locales, Height's jokes obviously date from the time of the German colonies in Russia. Tame in content, moralistic in tone, these examples illustrate fairly typical German Russian attitudes, such as the balance needed between "faith" in God and reliance upon one's own resources.

     In Paradise on the Steppe Height mentions the German Russian "lack of Puritan inhibitions, and their penchant for ribald anecdotes." (p. 143) Despite that, Height offers no examples; and there are few, if any, collected narrative jokes, or, for that matter, one-liners or other short humor, either from the steppes or the prairies, which show that penchant.

     Some of the longer narrative jokes I've collected from the oral tradition of the German Russians are ribald; but more importantly, they contain a gold mine of information about German Russian life, attitudes, and worldview. These jokes are like an archaeological site, for imbedded within them are markers of the long, and often difficult, historical journey of this ethnic group.

     Some of the people who told these jokes often insisted that they "actually happened" and that they were based on real people and incidents. Below I've translated a couple into English; I've included punch lines in both English and German dialect. One of these jokes which bears closer scrutiny is "Not Until the Combine is Paid.

 Once there was a very poor farm family with three boys. The oldest, who was eighteen, told his father one day, "I'd really like to have a car." "No," his father said. We just bought a combine. Until that combine is paid you won't get a car."

     Several days later the second boy, who was fourteen, told the father, "I'd really like to have a bicycle.

     "No," his father said. "Your older brother won't get a car, and you won't get a bicycle — not until the combine is paid for."

     Finally the youngest, who was five, went up to his father one day and said, "Father, I'd really like a tricycle."

     "No," his father said. "The other boys won't get anything, and neither will you — not until that combine is paid."

     Oh my, the youngest ran away, screaming and throwing a tantrum — until he looked up and saw a hen coming across the yard, with the rooster in pursuit.

     When the rooster tried to get onto the hen, the boy booted the rooster aside and said, "You Satan, you can walk too, until that

     Punch line translation: Du Sutton, laufst au bisch der combine bezahit itsch. (Schultz)

     Most longer German Russian jokes that I've collected contain many of the same elements as in "Not Until the Combine is Paid." The narrative, or story line, is in English, German, or a combination of the two languages. The punch line is invariably in German dialect; and the joke includes a number of references to rural prairie life, along with a few key English words, which are clear indicators that the joke takes place in America.

     Identifiably German Russian, these long jokes, just as Height's jokes, focus on issues that grow out of this ethnic group's experience, moral attitudes, or values. In the case of the "Not Until the Combine Is Paid" joke, the concern is with making careful purchases and prudent use of money. But the "Combine" joke is different from Height's jokes in one major respect: the humor hinges on a sexual reference in the punch line.

     Most of the longer jokes I've collected and translated include, in addition to the German dialect punch line, other shorter comedic elements, like name calling, such as the Du Sutton, or colorful exclamations like Grossa Elend. These phrases, when given verbal emphasis by the joke teller, seem to operate as cues for laughter, at least to German Russian ears.

     Some jokes gathered from the German Russian oral tradition use other groups, such as Englishmen, Russians, or, as in our next example, Norwegians, as the butt of the joke. 

     Once there was a young man who went into the hospital for an operation on his brain. After they'd removed his brain, they placed it in clear fluid of a glass jar so it could be examined. When the nurses and doctors gathered around to observe the brain more closely, the young man escaped. They hunted high and low for him, but couldn't find him. For three days the hunt went on, but to no avail. They had his brain, but not him. After three years, they finally found him. He was in a Norwegian school, teaching. (Schultz)

     German Russians didn't only aim their jokes at other ethnic groups; they also aimed their jokes at German Russians from other locales or at German Russians of different faiths from themselves. In Russia, German colonists kept to their own village and faith, whether it was Catholic, or Protestant. On the American prairie this tradition of marrying within their own faith continued until well past the middle of the twentieth century. Here is an example of a short, fairly simple joke, which turns the table on a couple of prejudiced Protestants. 

     Once there was a Catholic nun who broke her arm. She was walking down the street in town when she was approached by two bachelors who asked what happened because her arm was in a cast. 

      "Oh," the nun said. "I fell in the bathtub."

As they walked on, one of the bachelors turned to the other and said, "What's a bathtub?"

The other said, "How should I know. I'm 
not Catholic." (Die andere hat gesagt, Wie 
soil ich wisse? Ich bin nit Katholische.)

How To Laugh With Lizards

     Jewish humor, which has enriched American life, has much in common with German Russian humor. They share a root language, for Yiddish is a German dialect spelled with Hebrew letters. In addition to these similarities, both ethnic groups have jokes which contain more harshness than merriment. That kind of humor, which in Jewish tradition is called "laughing with lizards," is illustrated by the following:

·    Mrs. Bloomberg was complaining to her neighbor about the rats in her house: "I tried rat poison, but it doesn't work."

     "Have you tried giving them rat biscuits?" asked her neighbor.

     "If they don't like what we have in our kitchen," Mrs. Bloomberg said. "Let them starve."

     As we can see from the next joke, which comes from McIntosh County, North Dakota, that type of bitter humor is also familiar to German Russians:

·    In the first years on the prairie, there was an unmarried man named Jacob who went to his neighbor and said, "I've just taken up a claim of land, which has many stones on it. So now I need a wife to help me pick those rocks."

The neighbor said that he knew just the woman for Jacob and directed him to a nearby farm.

"Eva is tough and strong. She'll get those stones picked for you."


Several months passed, and the neighbor finally meets up with this Jacob again. He 
asks Jacob how it went with Eva. Jacob replies, "During my first visit to Eva's house, I thought that she could bake really good raisin bread. But when I started to eat it, I found out those weren't raisins but flies. But I married her anyway, and, great misery, I never would have believed that those rocks could get picked so fast."


"I told you Eva was just the person to help you," the neighbor said. "But I still don't know how you managed to get those rocks picked so fast."

"Well, I'll tell you," Jacob said. "She was in the box, and ran the whip. I was out in the fields picking stones. Better a heart attack than a crack from Eva's whip."

Punch line in German dialect: Sie war im box mit grossa Beltsch, und ich war daraus und hap stan gelast. Lieve ein Herz schlak wie ein Eva schlak.
(Ketterling)

That theme of adjustment to American life and the accompanying economic struggle was common in Jewish jokes of the previous era. Groucho Marx 
used to tell the following joke: 'When I first came to this county I didn't have a nickel in my pocket," Marx said. "Now I have a nickel in my pocket."


Some scholars have indicated that the kinds of oral humor which survive in a society are those relevant to, or which reflect an important issue of, the existing cultural situation. (Apte, p. 264; Kersten p. 39). In modem Jewish humor, as the fortunes of that group have improved, jokes about the struggle to gain an economic foothold have disappeared. But with the German Russians, jokes of that kind still circulate. For example, on the "Ger Rus list serv," a German Russian web site, we still can find jokes like the following:

• A woman of German Russian descent, whose husband had just died, went to the small town newspaper office to make sure that the obituary of her recently deceased husband was printed.

"50 cents a word," the obituary editor said. "Let it read: Konrad Scherer died," the widow replied. "But there is a seven word minimum for all obituaries," the editor said. "Well then," the widow replied, without missing a beat. "Let it read: Konrad Scherer died. 1984 pickup for sale."

Another theme which Jewish humor introduced was that of the "loser" or "the fool," a character which runs counter to the more heroic American folk type. This "fool" was the extreme version of the "little man," or common man, whose strength is sometimes in his weakness, like the Jew who finds himself on a battlefield, and cries out, "Stop shooting. Someone might, God forbid, lose an eye." (Wisse, p. 23)

There are a lot of "fool," or noodle jokes in German Russian humor too. Some of these most likely derive from immigrant themes, the stranger in a strange land experience. Here is a "fool" joke set in rural south-central North Dakota during the automobile era, but it reflects prairie isolation and the continuing adjustment from traditional ways to the ways of the wider world:

·         There was a hardworking farmer who lived near the small town of Streeter in south central North Dakota. Only rarely did he venture from his farm and then just to deliver his crops to the town elevator or to get supplies. But one day he decided to venture out and visit his cousin, who lived a ways to the south, in the small town of Ellendale.

With his wife beside him, he drove his car onto the first highway near his home. The sign said "Highway 32," so that was how fast he drove. It was a slow journey, but eventually they came to another blacktop road, and this time the sign said "Highway 46," so he drove a little faster. Finally, when they came to another road, which was marked "Highway 281," the farmer turned to his wife and said, sternly, "Hold onto yourself. Now we're going to drive fast."

Translation of punch line: Hep dich 
Welb, jetzt fahren wir wiedich schnell.



Some Stories On Ethnic Humor And The Role of Ethnic Humor In Our Democratic Society



When they first arrived in this country, some German Russians were called "dumb Rooshlans," a term even later generations resented. This lack of understanding and prejudice escalated during the WWI era, particularly in less isolated areas than North Dakota's German Russian triangle. In Texas, South Dakota, and Nebraska, where the easily identifiable immigrants were viewed as unpatriotic, many legal restrictions were leveled against the use of the German language. There were also many threats, some of which were carried out. (Luebke, pp. 31-47)

That era clearly outlined differences between German Russian immigrants and their neighbors. It was clear that there were differences in power, authority, and status. One theory maintains that ethnic humor develops as a means of a minority group to fight back against a dominant group.

According to Pratt, a minority group, such as German Russians, might use "autoethnographic texts," and such skills such as storytelling, parody, and bilingualism, to respond to those differences in power, authority, and status. (p. 183-194)

Here is a joke my mother sometimes told me, which seems to illustrate Pratt's theory:

·         In the early years on the prairie, there was an elderly German from Russia grandmother on an infrequent trip from her homestead to town to get supplies.
In a dry goods store, this alta grossmutter, browses around. The storekeeper finally asks her in English: "How may I help you?"

Nodding and pointing to an atomizer of perfume on the counter, our old granny asks, venturing into English as best she knows, if he could please "shiet a little into my hand." Of course the storekeeper, who didn't speak German, can only stare back, horrified and embarrassed at what he thinks the harmless old granny wants.

This joke is "bilingual": the text or narration completely in English, except for the one word in German dialect, "shiet," which the storekeeper misunderstands. If we examine this joke in light of Pratt's theory, we notice that the humor fights against the stereotype that the German Russians were ignorant.

The storekeeper, who does not speak German dialect, in Pratt's view at least, would represent the main street businessmen, most of whom at the time the joke is set ("in the early years on the prairie") were non-German Russian. That was generally the situation, as we can see from the last names of main street business owners, as listed in Spirit of Wishek: Wishek Golden Jubilee Book 1898--1948. (pp. 3-5).

And our harmless granny, viewed the same way, represents the German Russian farmers who'd settled in such heavy numbers around the town.

Following Pratt's theory, we can also surmise that there might have been some friction, or even prejudice, between some storekeepers and their German Russian clients; or, at least, some struggle to understand each other. No doubt a few German Russian shoppers felt ignorant, or backward, not knowing much English; and the storekeepers and businessmen might even have viewed them the same way and treated them accordingly.

But the ignorant person in this joke is not, of course, the German Russian grandmother, but the clerk who doesn't know that "shiet" is German dialect for spray or pour. (High German verb, schutten), and so Pratt would see this as evidence that the German Russians were fighting back against how the "majority" viewed them.

There are, besides Pratt's theory, a variety of other theories which examine the role and purpose of ethnic humor. Some scholars, such as Apte, state the obvious, that humor in general, including ethnic humor, "serves the purpose of pleasure and entertainment." Apte also maintains that ethnic humor, even If it uses another ethnic group as the butt of the humor — such as our earlier "brain" joke, which pokes fun at Norwegians — does not necessarily make the listeners, or the tellers of such jokes; hos-tile or aggressive. (p. 145)

Jansen, however, takes a more complicated view of ethnic humor. First, along with many other scholars, he would agree that jokes which disparage another group, like our "brain" joke, act as a unifying force in group identity. But he also says that such "exoteric" jokes have their origin in "fear, mystification about, or resentment of the group to which one does not belong." (p. 46); and that the result of such jokes are that they "mold" negative attitudes towards those — i.e. the Norwegians — towards whom the humor is directed. (p. 44)

Most interesting, however, Jansen would see much of German Russian humor — the "exoteric jokes"; the numerous folk proverbs; and even the "ritual" greetings familiar to only those of German Russian background — as evidence of this ethnic group's isolation, either geographic or cultural, or both. (p. 49)

Some scholars, like Lowe, point out that ethnic jokes actually work to "mediate conflicts between groups" by bringing differences, and stereotypes out into the open. (pp. 441--442) Similarly, Kersten maintains ethnic humor's value lies in its ability to cast a critical eye onto the dominant culture. (p. 16)

Leveen indicates that ethnic group members are more sensitive to issues of identity; and that ethnic humor is important because it marks and clarifies boundaries; reinforces a sense of collective identity; helps to "define ethnicity positively"; and though some ethnic jokes may be understood to confirm stereotypes, those same jokes also show that the teller of the joke intends to overcome those stereotypes. (pp. 29, 42, 60).
Further study of German Russian humor, and ethnic humor in general, is important because, as citizens of a multicultural democracy, we are all concerned with finding the best way to live together, to become full members of American society. Do jokes about other groups, or jokes that only some people understand, help or hinder our living together, our getting along?

In our current era, with so many different ethnic groups and nationalities becoming citizens of our country, German Russians serve as a good example of a group which has already gone through a lengthy process of assimilation into the American mainstream.

Much can be learned from the experience of this ethnic group, who despite differences with mainstream attitudes and ideas, eventually merged with and enriched the American character. My view is that humor, which is essentially democratic, creates community; and one way that the German Russians adapted was by means of their humor —which allowed them to endure difficult lives; to get along with other groups; and also to keep part of their culture and birthright, as they made the long journey from their old peasant life into the modernity of America.

So, I would like to leave you with this old German Russian saying for when people depart from each other:

Nichts fur Ungluck, aber sau       kievel fur streu hut —

"I wish you nothing but good luck, but please, as you go, wear this metal slop pail for a straw hat, just in case."


1 comment:

  1. Thanks. This was very enlightening and entertaining. It is also bittersweet that these dialects are almost gone.
    I also grew up with in a Volga German community in Kansas. Brings back a lot of memories. Old women often wore scarves and were referred to as babushkas. The food was German but also Russian. So I wonder how the Russian environs affected the German?
    I was also given a pet name as were my sisters - but not my brothers. The name was of a then current cartoon character, a female pre Dennis-the-Menace named Snooksy.

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