Punning is no fun in Chinese

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chinese whimsical pun

The Economist is probably not the best place to look for rigorous scholarship on comparative punnology, but a recent article did ask a very good question: Why English is such a great language for puns? I am not sure if the superiority of English in punning is that obvious, but the argument seems to be convincing:

For English is unusually good for puns. It has a large vocabulary and a rich stock of homophones from which puns can be made. It is constantly evolving, with new words being invented and old ones given fresh meanings. And it is mostly uninflected, allowing for verbs and nouns to switch places. Moreover, other than the occasional customary feminine pronoun, for ships, say, or nation-states, it has no gendered nouns, which makes it easier to play with innuendo and double entendres.

Following the same logic, it would appear that Chinese is an even better language for punning, because the Chinese language doubles down on the features that make English so pun-able. Homophones are not just abundant: almost every single character in Chinese has more than a dozen perfect homophones. And since the grammar is completely uninflected, you can transplant a character to a entirely different context freely, without violating syntactic rules. Upon learning this, all ambitious punsters in the world are probably thinking: “If I could master this language, do you know how unstoppable I would be? I’ll boldly pun where no punsters (except the Chinese ones) have punned before!”

They would be disappointed. I don’t have charts and statistics, but my working hypothesis is that punning effectively in Chinese is difficult precisely because of its flexibility. For starters, in English you have this wonderful word “pun”. It’s short, and it sounds humorous. In Chinese, the word “pun” doesn’t even have a universally accepted counterpart. 「諧音 」might be as close as it gets, but the word is dry and pedantic. The fact that the wikipedia’s entry on “pun” doesn’t have a Chinese version should tell you punning in Chinese is a different kind of beast. The Chinese do pun. You can see puns in business advertisements and headlines, but there are no competitions like Punderdome or the O. Henry Pun-off World Championship. The compulsive punster friend that everybody has in English-speaking countries is not a thing. And there is definitely no literary inventions like Ferdinand Feghoot in Chinese.

First consider homophones. The example in the Economics article “Though Mooch is taken, Mooch abides” is effective, because it’s clear that the first Mooch is a pun. The key is that “Mooch” and “much” are near homophones, not perfect homophones. If Mooch is pronounced “much”, you’d have to nudge the listener and go “Much is taken, much abides. Much, eh? eh? You see what I did there?”. That’s often what you have to do in Chinese when you pun, because you pretty much have to use perfect homophones. Near homophones are so abundant that using them to pun can result in too much ambiguity in a sentence.

Chinese is famously a tonal language, meaning that if you change the intonation of a word when you say it, it becomes a different word. For example, if you say「你喜歡我嗎?」with a raising tone, it means “do you like me?”. But if you say it with a flat tone, it can sound like 「你喜歡我馬」, or “you like my horse”. Manipulating the tone is a way to produce near homophones. English speakers can only dream about this new dimension in punning, but even for the Chinese, it’s hard to pull off.

The argument that I have advanced so far is only valid for spoken Chinese. What about written Chinese? Since the homophones are written as distinct characters, it should be obvious enough to signal the intention to pun. Interestingly when Chinese speakers pun in the written form, they often feel compelled to put quotation marks around the character to signal that it is intended as a pun. It’s probably because homophones are so common in Chinese that if the “pun intended” quotes are not used, the pun becomes indistinguishable from a typo. You see the problem? Where’s the fun if you have to say “pun intended” all the time? That’s why punning is no fun in Chinese.