Telling Jokes in Russian Discourse

Elena Shmeleva, Institute of the Russian Language, Russian Academy of Sciences

The paper will have three main points.

First, it will discuss that the conceptualization of the world in Russian jokelore, that is, what is taken for granted in Russian jokes and what one need to know to understand them. Special reference to stereotypes of family life will be given. (E.g., the “standard” husband (muzh) as presented in Russian jokes usually tries to get out of making love with his wife; he prefers to drink vodka with his friends.)

Second, it will give an account of the rules of telling jokes in Russian along the lines suggested in (Shmeleva, Shmelev 2002). Thus, in a regular Russian joke, the setting of context is a narrative sentence which starts with a verb in present tense (or a perfective verb in past tense) followed by its subject, for example: Sidit Shtirlits v restorane… (‘Stirlitz is sitting in restaurant…’); Edut v poezde russkii, ukrainets i evrei… (‘A Russian, a Ukrainian, and a Jew are traveling on a train…’). There are some formal means of introduction of a joke text into discourse like Znaesh' anekdot? (‘Have you heard this one?’). To understand a joke, the audience often must be able to recognize the main characters that act in the fictitious world of the joke. Characters of Russian jokelore are recognizable by the description of appearance, way of behavior, clothes and other accessories. For example, the description A short, bald man with beard wearing a cap would be inevitably understood as referring to the Communist leader Lenin; if a male joke character wears a red jacket, gold chain and speaks on the cellular phone all the time, he is recognizable as a “new Russian”. Even more important, the hearer often have to recognize the “linguistic masks” of joke characters (linguistic clichés, accent, typical grammar mistakes, etc.), which correlate with their “behavior masks”. Thus, the Chukchi (a popular character of Russian ethnic jokes), a naive outsider, who knows nothing about modern civilization, overuses the word odnako. The Jew (another ethnic character of Russian jokes), who knows everything in advance, often uses the particle -taki. Georgians as fictional characters of Russian jokes usually sport oversized caps, speak with a Georgian accent (easily recognized by the Russian audience) and use a “tag-particle” da? attributed to Georgians of Russian jokes. (Speech characteristics of the basic characters of Russian jokes will be listed.)

Third, ways of using jokes in the media (in particular, indirect allusions to jokes) will be discussed. Canned jokes are very popular in Russia, joke-telling is practiced in every part of society, at all ages. In particular, Russian jokelore is a source of direct quotations, allusions, pithy sayings used in Russian mass media. Hidden allusions to jokes in main Russian newspapers may make use of common stereotypes of Russian jokelore, “linguistic masks” of its characters, etc.


Shmeleva, Elena & Aleksei Shmelev. 2002. Russkii anekdot: tekst i rechevoi zhanr. Moskva.