A pun is a joke that exploits the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that there are words which sound alike but have different meanings. Puns are rife in languages that have words called homophones, or multiple words that have the same or similar pronunciation but have different meanings. English is rife with puns and many standup comedians use puns and these double entendre to their advantage.
Puns in English
Since puns depend heavily on pronunciation for their double meaning, puns can often work in one variant of a language, but not in another. For example:
I enjoyed my 1st time ever bobbing up and down in the sea today.
It’s been my dream ever since I was a little buoy.
This pun depends very much on the pronunciation of buoy. If you have learned American English, this pun won’t make much sense when it is said aloud because the American pronunciation of buoy is /ˈbuːɪ/ (boo-ee for those who do not know IPA) while the British pronunciation is /ˈbɔɪ/ (which is very close to the pronunciation of the word ‘boy’). While Americans could read the joke and understand it, they would probably not understand the spoken version.
A more universal example of a pun would be the following due to a lack of variation in pronunciation:
The funghi pizza wasn’t very good. There’s mushroom for improvement.
The term ‘mushroom’ has a similar pronunciation as ‘much room’ (‘much room for improvement’ is a set phrase) and its unexpected substitution for the set phrase makes this one-liner chuckle-worthy.
Puns in other languages
As I stated above, English is not the only language that has puns. Spanish also has some great ones, such as the following:
¿Cuál es el vino más amargo? (What’s the most bitter wine?) Vino mi suegra. (When my mother-in-law came to town.)
The joke exists because there are both a noun and an inflected (conjugated) verb that has the form vino and is pronounced the same way. The noun means wine and the inflected verb means ‘he/she/it came’.
Romance languages aren’t the only ones. German and German-based puns also are a hoot!
Puns are a great way for language learners to improve their knowledge of the language. Not only does it help you with pronunciation (incorrect pronunciation means that the joke is not funny), it helps you understand the nuances of your target cultures’ humour (or maybe it’s not nuanced).
A pun across languages
Puns usually have a hard time crossing language barriers, but occasionally there are exceptions, although what makes the joke funny might change, such as the following example (with cats!!!):
English: Where do cats go when they die? Purrgatory (purr is the sound that cats make in English)
Spanish: Adónde van los gatos cuando mueren? Purgatorio (gato is the word for cat in Spanish)
Italian: Dove vanno i gatti quando muoiono? Nel purgattorio (gatto is the word for cat in Italian)
French: où vont les chats quand ils meurent? Au purchattoire (chat is the word for cat in French)
Portuguese: Para onde os gatos vão quando morrem? Para o purgatorio (gato is the word for cat in Portuguese)
Hindi: Billiyan marne ke baad kahan jaati hain? Purrlok (Parlok is the afterlife, purr is the sound a cat makes)
While this perhaps isn’t a universal pun, it does at least reach across the Indo-European Language Family. Do you have any puns? I would love to hear them in the comments below!
If you want to read more about the English language, visit my Teaching English page for other articles and resources for teaching and learning English.