Homonymy in Russian Jokes about Stierlitz

Homonyms are different words with different meanings, which accidentally happen to be pronounced identically. Therefore, we don’t expect for words that are homonymous in one language to be translated identically to another one (unless the two languages are very close). For instance, the word night is translated to Russian as noch and knight, as rycar’. Thus, homonymy strongly depends on language-specific properties. As a result, puns that are based on this relation are very difficult to translate.

But this does not mean that homonymy is not a cross-linguistic phenomenon. It is found in different languages, but each language has its own set of homonyms and its own jokes based on the inventory. I’d like to devote this post to jokes that are based on homonymy in Russian. The discussion will also make the translation problem obvious.

I will concentrate on a particular group of puns. Certain movies and movie characters constitute sources of inspiration for the creation of jokes. In the former Soviet Union, one such character was Stierlitz, a Soviet agent in Nazi Germany.

There are numerous jokes about Stierlitz. Interestingly, a considerable group of these jokes is based on wordplay, largely homonymy. With most jokes of this type, I cannot see any logical relation between the jokes and the original movie. In other words, it’s rather unclear to me why specifically these jokes are told specifically about this character. But anyway, let us look at some of them. Given translation difficulties, I will leave the homonymous words non-translated, and then explain their double meanings.

1. Штирлиц подошёл к окну. Из окна дуло. Штирлиц закрыл окно. Дуло исчезло.

“Stierlitz approached the window. From the window DULO. Stierlitz closed the window. DULO disappeared.”

dulo in Russian is ambiguous between the verb ‘blow’ in a past tense form and the noun ‘muzzle’. The first sentence containing this string of sounds is thus interpreted, roughly, as “There was a draught from the window”. But the second sentence makes it obvious that dulo is used as a noun, and the word is reinterpreted as “muzzle”, with the last sentence meaning “The muzzle disappeared”. Not very funny, is it? Well, this only shows the difficulty of translating homonymy-based jokes!

2. Штирлиц шёл по лесу и наткнулся на сук. “Шли бы вы домой, девушки. Война всё-таки!”

“Stierlitz walked in a wood and ran into SUK. ‘You’d better go home, girls. It’s wartime.’

suk is ambiguous between the noun meaning ‘bough’ and the plural accusative (and genitive) form of the noun suka ‘bitch’. Since in the first sentence, a wood is mentioned, the word is naturally interpreted as ‘a bough’. But when Stierlitz starts talking to it and even calls it “girls”, it becomes clear that the noun has to be reinterpreted.

3. Штирлиц шёл по лесу и увидел голубые ели. Штирлиц присмотрелся и увидел, что голубые не только ели, но и пили.

“Stierlitz walked in a wood and saw GOLUBYE ELI. On a closer view GOLUBYE not only ELI but also drank.”

Here, we deal with double homonymy. The word golubye is ambiguous, similarly in part to the adjective gay in English. The Russian adjective can mean either ‘blue’ (a color) or ‘homosexual’. In turn, eli as a noun means ‘fir-trees’ (in the plural) and as a verb, ‘ate’ (past tense, plural). Like in 2, we begin with a sentence about a wood, so in the first sentence, the ambiguous expression gets interpreted as “blue spruces” (a very beautiful kind of fir). But the syntax of the next sentence, as well as the verb pili ‘drank’, forces us to reinterpret the expression as a clause “homosexuals ate / were eating”. You can see from 2 and 3 that German woods during WWII formed a rather curious place with rich social life!

4. Штирлиц выстрелил в Мюллера в упор. Мюллер не упал. “Броневой,”- подумал Штирлиц.

“Stierlitz shot Muller at point-blank range. Muller didn’t fall. ‘BRONEVOJ’, Stierlitz thought.”

The adjective bronevoj means ‘armored’ or ‘shielded’, so everything would make sense and there would be nothing funny about the joke…but the family name of the actor who plays Muller is Bronevoj! So Stierlitz’ insight becomes ambiguous. The fact that information from the real world, which could not become accessible to Stierlitz, is brought into the reality of the movie,
contributes to the humorous effect.

As you see, when a joke based on homonymy is translated and then explained, the result is not funny at all. You can appreciate the work of translators who have to deal with such challenges!

Below, I provide several additional jokes of this kind for Russian speakers. All these jokes are based on the relation of homonymy. In the next post, we get back to English facts and turn to a different lexical relation.

5. Лампа светила, но света не давала.  Штирлиц  погасил  лампу  и Света дала.
6. Встретив гестаповцев, Штирлиц выхватил шашку и закричал: "Порублю!" Гестаповцы скинулись по рублю и убежали.
7. Штирлиц лёг на гальку. Галька вскрикнула и убежала.
8. Штирлиц сел в машину. "Всё, можно трогать!"- сказал он. "Ого-го!"- потрогала Кэт.
9. Штирлиц топил печку. Через час печка утонула.

14 Responses to “Homonymy in Russian Jokes about Stierlitz”

  1. Hi Olga
    My husband knows by heart almost all the jokes. Although he’s not a linguist, I think he should subscribe for your blog.
    Also, he can eventually serve you as a living jokes corpus :-)

  2. A variation of the joke #5 is:

    Кэт залезла в машину и дала газу. Газ был немецким агентом.

    As a translator, I can only say that sometimes humor is untranslatable. For example, homonymy jokes in Indian movies… :)

    • Oh, that’s very interesting! Do you know such jokes? Those Indian movies that I saw were already translated, so I have probably missed it all.

      The issue of being “lost in translation” is very interesting. It must be curious to look at translations of Lewis Carroll’s works in this respect!

  3. Hi Olga,

    My husband really enjoyed the jokes, too. Although he insisted he’s known all of them for years, he still laughed out loud. :-) I agree with your analysis of re-interpretation, it’s probably what triggers the humorous effect, because you not only switch a syntactic template (as Danny Fox would call it), but also the entire segment of discourse (rewriting a piece of the conversational background?). How about trying some experiments with such homonyms in the new linguistic lab at HUJI?

    Have a great week,

    • Hi Avigail,

      Thank you for your comment! It is very important for me to know who reads the blog and which topics the people find interesting; this way I can work on making the future posts as interesting as possible for the followers.

      I like the idea of experiments. I would have to wait with it though: I’ve only started reading literature on the theories of humor. When I know more about the theories, maybe I will be able to contribute something from the formal linguistic perspective, and in that case, experiments could be very useful. If you have further ideas regarding how they could be done, I’d be happy to hear about them!


  4. Штирлиц роется в сейфе, мимо пробегает Мюллер, подтягивая штаны. “Пронесло”, подумал Штирлиц. “Чтоб тебя так пронесло”, подумал Мюллер

    • A good one! Интересно, что в шутке используются два по сути идиоматических значения.

      • You’re right on. BTW my longer comment seems to have been swallowed by this system?

        • Oh, so it seems. I can see the comment which consists of a joke, and the one I’m responding right now. Could you maybe send the other comment again?

  5. You’re right, it probably crosses the (fuzzy) line between “strict” homophony and divergent metaphoric / slang usages derived from a shared meaning.

    Congrats for the birth of the blog! It may be hard to gain the right footing at first, to find your own circle of ideas and readers (I know it firsthand since my own first blog fizzled :) ) But I have great hopes for your upstart because I found it mentioned at the very active multilingual “web.crossroads” of languagehat.com. Another crosscultural, multilingual blog I love (and sometimes contribute to) is riowang.blogspot.com, I’m sure you’d enjoy some of the offerings there :) !

    • Thank you very much for the warm wishes! :) And thank you for the links! I didn’t know that my blog has been mentioned on the website, and I am sure I’ll enjoy following the blogs.

      You are right that the beginning is always a bit tough, especially because many people follow without commenting, so there is not too much feedback. For instance, I keep wondering about the right balance between English and Russian jokes. The blog is in English, but when I notice various wordgames in Russian, naturally, I am willing to share those observations, too. :)

  6. Oooo, Штирлиц – это наше все :) ))
    What I’m wondering is, why he? Why are certain characters picked out as characters for innumerable jokes, and most others aren’t?
    but this is not a linguistic question..

    • This is a very interesting question. This happens with characters of especially popular movies, but you are right – not every popular movie gets the privilege. Maybe it’s only about particularly charismatic characters who also come to represent a particular historical period?

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