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

Submitted by on March 30, 2012 – 5:35 pm 2 Comments |  
A recent GeoCurrents 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 why the Chukchis acquired this position over nearly a hundred other indigenous groups inhabiting the Russian Federation.

First of all, Chukchis are members of the umbrella group that the Russians have always disdained: the “Asians” (sometimes referred to across the board as “Tatars”). The Urals have long been perceived by Russians as the borderline between civilization and savagery; 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 perfectly fit 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, all of 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 similarly become the subject of ethnic stupidity jokes 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. Linguistic minorities whose members often have an imperfect knowledge of the dominant national language often become the target of such humor.  Examples here include 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 who speak Kurdish rather that Arabic.



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  • Ario

    Rashti’s are not Azeri.You can see that even if you look at the link you’ve provided.They speak Gilkai,Which at times is considered a dialect of Persian or a separate language of Iranic family.
    Back to the subject of the jokes,There are jokes about both Rashtis and Azeris(although with very different characteristics of them are joked about) and almost about all other cities and geographical regions(Persian speaking or non Persian speaking),so i don know how correct it is to say this jokes have linguistic reasons in this case.To list a few
    Azeris and Luri are generally portrayed as peasantish but kind hearted.
    Rashtis are portrayed as “Too liberal” in their relationships with the opposite sex.
    Isfahanis are portrayed as greedy and stingy
    Shirazis are portrayed as lazy
    Qazvinis are portrayed as perverts
    and so on… 

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for your detailed comment. It does appear from it that I was right (or rather the sources I cited were right) in claiming that it is the Azeris that are portrayed as peasantish and therefore stupid. Any good sources on these jokes about the various groups that you can offer? Thanks!