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Today I was laughing my heads off reading puns at 言いまつがい, which is a collection of user-contributed accidental puns and other mistakes.

It struck me that I never experienced this kind of uncontrollable laughter with puns in English. Is it possible that the Japanese language have more room to generate possible puns, raising the number of funny puns?

I'd be happy to be proven wrong, but then again, I'm equally curious to know what language features of Japanese make it such a prolific pun producer.


Note: Sananmuunnos, a sort of verbal play in the Finnish language, looks close to Japanese puns (だじゃれ). Wikipedia explains why Finnish has a large pool of possible spoonerisms:

As Finnish is a mora-divided language, it is morae that are exchanged, not syllables. Also, Finnish inflectional and derivational morphology is extensive, thus applying a suffix from another word often produces a valid word. This leads to large number of possible spoonerisms.

I don't understand all of this, but this is the kind of explanation I'm looking for.

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Is that "言いまつがい" read as "He must guy!"? –  YOU Jun 21 '11 at 15:56
    
+1 for a great grin –  crunchyt Jun 22 '11 at 1:20

2 Answers 2

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I think you're not really talking about puns here, but about something that's somewhat related, but still quite different: you're talking about slips-of-tongue (いいまちがい) that accidentally turn out to mean something else. Puns are quite different, since they are always intentional, and they can have multiple meanings either because they sound the same as something else (homophonic puns) or they just use one or more words that have multiple meanings (homonymic puns). You can read more about these distinctions (and others) in Wikipedia.

Slips-of-tongue (like the ones in 言いまつがい) are not only unintentional - they also don't have rely on double meaning at all. In this case expression gets another meaning just because it's mispronounced, not because there's another expression with a different meaning that sounds the same (though it still happen).

Japanese has many such slips-of-tongue (as well as many homophonic puns) for the same reasons Finnish has - and it's not surprising because both languages are typologically very similar:

  • Both languages have moraic structure which means they are not divided to syllables (as in Eng-lish and most Eu-ro-pe-an languages) but to units called moras (or morae), which always have the same length (while some syllables in English are shorter or longer than others). As far as I know, in Finnish, the word sauna (which comes from Finnish of course :)) is divided just as in Japanese: sa-u-na (and not sau-na, as it is divided by its English pronunciation).

  • Both languages have agglutinative morphology, that is, words are built by attaching many different prefixes and suffixes - this is unlike English and other Indo-European languages (note that Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian and Basque are the only major languages in Europe that are not Indo-European) where verbs and nouns usually have just a single grammatical ending (and that ending may indicate person, number and tense in the same time, for instance), and very rarely have more than one or two derivational affixes (like un- or -ness) attached to a word. In Japanese, in contrast, you can build words such as 見回し出したくなければ which are made of maybe 10 different components: mi-mawas-i-ta-ku-na-ku-na-kere-ba, and have a very complex meaning (if you don't want to look around).

  • Both languages have a more limited phonology than English - that is, they have far less possible distinct sound combinations. This is probably the most important feature, since it means that if you randomly change a word, you're more likely to land on an existing word that means something else - when there are less possible sound combinations, words have to get more crowded. :)

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+1 Great answer Boaz, but I think all the fun just left the room! ;D –  crunchyt Jun 22 '11 at 1:20
    
@crunchyt: Yeah, well. That's what happens when you try to explain them puns. :( –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 22 '11 at 7:12
    
Thanks for the answer! ..I like to think it this way: "rainbows get all the more beautiful when you know the law of physics behind them" (that's from my physics teacher back in high school.) –  ento Jun 22 '11 at 15:31
    
@ento: Yeah, even if you know the physics you can probably freak out on a double rainbow! ;) –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 22 '11 at 16:22
    
Having the notion of mora in a language does not mean that that language does not have the notion of syllable. Both are necessary to explain Japanese. Also note that a single sound sequence is segmented into syllables differently across langauges. So it is possible that there is a language without mora that would segment the sequence "sauna" into the syllables "sa-u-na". –  sawa Aug 11 '11 at 2:38

I will just comment one subquestion: "Is it possible that the Japanese language have more room to generate possible puns, raising the number of funny puns?".

Well, as far as I experienced it, puns are not that well received by the Japanese audience… As it is very easy to do, doing puns in Japanese isn't a highly acclaimed knowledge you can boast about. Besides a few smiles, you may mostly be greeted with something like "さむい" (which you could translate as "doh", or "dude…") or "おやじギャグ" (which is something like "don't you have anything better to do?").

So, while you can probably raise the number of puns by using this language, raising the number of funny puns is something that may not be obvious, culturally speaking…

(PS: there are a few good play on words, such as ねぇちゃんとお風呂に入った?)

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For the sake of beginners, I would add that the ever common "おやじギャグ" put-down is a reference to the fact that puns (and similar humour) is deemed the territory of outmoded grandpas... Which in itself is also proof that it is a valid form of humour for some people, just not a very fashionable one. –  Dave Jun 22 '11 at 2:57
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Thanks for addressing that point. I do agree that quantity may not necessarily lead to quality.. Side note: one exceptional area where puns are used openly is product naming in certain industries. For example, 「大清快」(daise‌​ikai), an air conditioner, is a pun on 大正解(terrific answer). I don't know if these products are well-received in the large though. –  ento Jun 22 '11 at 15:58

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