Tell me who you laugh at… and I will tell you who you are!

Oct 9, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in March 2012]

Chukcha_joke_white_backMy recent post discussed Russian jokes about the Chukchis. But why is this specific indigenous group among so many others is chosen as the butt of jokes about stupidity? According to Emil Draitser’s Taking penguins to the movies: ethnic humor in Russia, there are several reasons that the Chukchis “won” over nearly a hundred other indigenous groups inhabiting the Russian Federation.

First of all, Chukchis are members of the umbrella group towards which the Russians have always had a condescending attitude: the “Asians” (sometimes referred to across the board as “Tatars”). The Urals are perceived by Russians as the borderline between civilization and savagedom; witness the quote from the 1986 movie Samaya obayatelnaya i privlekatelnaya, expressing the character’s contempt for the heroine who looks like a country bumpkin: “What is she, from the Urals?”. The Chukchis not only live beyond the Urals, but even their ethnonym suggests “Asianness” to a Russian ear, familiar with Turkic loanwords that either start with chu- or end in -cha: chuviak ‘shoe’, chulan ‘boxroom’, chugun ‘cast-iron’, and alycha ‘kind of plum’, parcha ‘brocade’, and sarancha ‘locust’. According to Draitser, “the word chukcha can be perceived as a variant of a denigrating collective nickname for a man of any Asian ethnicity – chuchmek” (pp. 82-83); it is also similar in sound to another Russian demeaning classification term for non-Russians and especially Asians: churki nerusskie ‘non-Russian blockheads’. The initial chu– also brings to mind such words with negative connotations as chudnoj ‘strange, eccentric’, chuzhoj ‘a foreigner, stranger’, and chumazyj ‘a dirty one’.

But most importantly, the Chukchis fit perfectly the prototype of a group that is expected to become the butt of ethnic stupidity jokes, as identified by Christie Davies in her Ethnic Humor around the World (p. 43):

“Within any nation the culture of the metropolitan center or centers tends to be dominant over that of the remote periphery. Innovation, modernity, fashion begin at the center and spread outward and not the other way around; thus the people of the periphery appear slow, provincial, old-fashioned, and a fit subject for jokes about stupidity. This is especially likely to happen if the group at the “edge” of the society has a distinctively different ethnic identity; whatever the achievements of the members of the group in their own terms, they may appear to the people at the center as failing to meet the dominant cultural standards.”

The Chukchis fit this profile to a “T”: they inhabit the region farthest from major Russian industrial and cultural centers, such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and maintain their distinct identity and traditional way of life more than most other indigenous Siberian groups, such as the Itelmen, Nivkhs, and the Udege, which have been more heavily assimilated by the Russians. Although most Chukchis under the age of 50 speak Russian with varying proficiency, about half of them claim to speak the indigenous language known as Chukot or Chukchi. Nomadic, reindeer-herding groups especially remained largely outside the Soviet collective system and still resist Russian language and culture.

Other ethnic groups that live on the periphery of the dominant culture and thus become the subject of ethnic stupidity jokes in that culture include Newfoundlanders (Newfies) in Canada, the Irish in Britain and the Kerrymen in Ireland, Belgians in both France and the Netherlands, Ostfrieslanders in Germany, and Sa’idis (people from Upper Egypt) in Egypt. Perhaps even better examples include groups that serve the butt of stupidity jokes which are also a linguistic minority whose members may have only a limited knowledge of the main language of the joke-telling group: Yukatecos in Mexico who speak Mayan languages rather than Spanish, Rashtis (Azeris from Rasht) in Iran who speak a Turkiс language rather than the predominant Farsi (an Indo-European language), and Kurds in Iraq that speak Kurdish rather that Arabic.


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