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learning French For Members

5 tips to understand French humour and jokes

Emma Pearson
Emma Pearson - [email protected]
5 tips to understand French humour and jokes
France's President Emmanuel Macron shares a laugh with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP

When learning French, one of the hardest things to do is to understand jokes - which are often layered in cultural references or complicated wordplay.

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It's common for new arrivals in France - and sometimes those who speak the language well - to struggle to understand French humour. Learning how to crack jokes or at least get other people's jokes, it's a tricky process.

It's even led to accusations that the French don't have a sense of humour - of course that's not true as the wide variety of comedy films and TV shows made here attest to its existence, plus the fact that jokes are a key part of everyday life.

But it is true that French humour can be very different to the style of comedy found in English-speaking countries like the US and UK, leaving you scratching your head when your French neighbour, friend or colleague cracks a joke.

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Here are our tips to help you understand French jokes;

Wordplay

Humour is both cultural and linguistic, and foreigners may struggle with word-play (jeux de mots).

There's not a lot of studying that can be done specially for jeux de mots, other than to keep plugging away at French language learning so you will (one day) have a vocabulary wide enough to understand the references.

Here's an example - Comment cuire des carrottes sans feu. Vous mettez neuf dans une casserole puis vous en enlevez une et les carrottes sont qu'huit.

This translates into English as - How to cook carrots without heat. Put nine carrots in a pan then take one out and the carrots are then eight.

Makes zero sense, right?

The joke comes from the fact that les carrotes sont qu'huit (the carrots are eight) sounds the same as les carrottes sont cuites (the carrots are cooked).

Here's another one. The message on the person's mailbox reads C'est pas grave, manges des pâtes - don't worry, eat pasta.

The joke being that the person's name - G. Paderi - sounds like j'ai pas de riz - I have no rice.

And finally the popular 'monsieur et madame' jokes that French kids enjoy (they're vaguely similar to 'knock knock' jokes in English) also rely on wordplay.

Example - Monsieur et Madame Honnête ont une fille. Comment s'appelle-t-elle? Camille. Camille Honnête.

The imaginary daughter of Mr and Mrs Honnête is transformed into a means of transportation - une camionnette (a van).

READ ALSO 4 types of popular French joke

Look, we never promised you sophisticated humour . . .

Puns

Similar to wordplay are puns. French magazines and newspapers in particular adore a pun. These are often a play on well-known phrases in French - so again the more French idioms or sayings that you know, the more likely you are to get the joke.

Small business owners also seem quite fond of a pun - I spotted a kebab shop in Normandy called 100 Dwiches (sounds like sandwiches when you say the 'cent' out loud).

News and topical jokes

All humour references culture, but the anthropologist Edward T. Hall considered France to be a 'high context culture', meaning communication tends to be more nuanced, subtle and indirect.

These types of cultures expect a higher degree of context, particularly in humour. Therefore the more you know about France and its culture, the more likely you are to 'get' the joke.

For example, an advertising campaign for the US doughnut chain Krispy Kreme's French launch included the tag line 'macaron démission' - suggesting that the French pastry the macaron should give up since Krispy Kreme dougnuts are in town. But the phrase is also a play on the political slogan Macron démission (Macron - resign) - and you won't really know that without following French news.

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You can keep up with French news - and therefore have a better chance of understanding these references - via French newspapers, TV and radio, and of course The Local will always keep you abreast of what's going on.

If you're keen to try and crack political or news-based comedy try watching news-based TV comedy shows like Quotidien, or reading satirical publications like Le Canard Enchainé - or simply follow their social media feeds.

Film and TV

As well as topical news references, you can also expect a significant amount of references to old French films, comedies and TV shows - which you're unlikely to have seen if you didn't grow up in France.

Often heard by foreigners in France is t'as la ref ? - meaning 'do you get it?' or more literally 'do you get the reference?'.

If you're looking for a crash course in the biggest stars of French music, cinema and stage we suggest Netflix comedy Dix Pour Cent (Call My Agent) which features big French stars playing a (hopefully exaggerated) version of themselves.

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And you could always start by watching some of France's best known and classic comedies - we have a list of suggestions.

Social media

One of the most awkward things about not getting the joke is the tumbleweed silence while a French person stares at you as you try to decipher their wordplay and figure out the reference to a cult comedy film from 1973.

However, you could start out by reading the jokes and a good place to find them is on French social media feeds that deal with topical comedy - we like Complots Faciles (easy conspiracy theories) on Facebook and Twitter, which mocks conspiracy theorists, but there are many options.

This lets you figure out the joke in the privacy of your own home and is therefore less pressured - you won't understand them all, but as time goes by you may find yourself understanding more and more.

Pratfalls

Fortunately some types of humour are universal and people falling over, farce jokes over mistaken identity and foreigners using the wrong words are never not funny. Just be prepared to be the butt of the joke from time to time . . .

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Comments (1)

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Gina Jolliffe 2024/06/13 12:13
Yes. I would try to keep up with French politics. But c'est pas la peine. Boum-tisch!
  • Emma Pearson 2024/06/13 16:25
    Haha, very good!

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