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Baffling Jokes
in Paraguay


Taped to the door of a Peace Corp volunteer’s hut I visited shortly after I arrived in Paraguay last year was a photocopied list of “Jokes in Guaraní,” the country’s second language, no doubt a tool to help speed along the process of assimilation.

Video edited by Joe Anderson

At the top of the list: Mba’erepa ojere la jagua oñeno mboyve?...Oheka inarambohá.

In English: Why does the dog turn in circles before lying down? ...He’s looking for his pillow.

The extra “umph,” in the Guaraní version of things goes far beyond humor.

At least for me (for whom the Guaraní version above was gibberish) something seemed lost in translation. He’s looking for his pillow? Either the English to Guaraní was erroneous, or perhaps, accidentally, the list maker had lopped off half the joke. On the contrary, Suzanne, the volunteer, promised that in practice, this one got laughs.

Over the course of a year conducting research in Paraguay — a country of just around 6 million people, landlocked and officially bilingual, at the heart of South America — I’ve collected jokes that translate better than “the dog looking for his pillow.” But they always seem funnier when told in their original Guaraní form. The same line in Spanish, doesn’t tickle anyone the same.

The problem is not the translation to Spanish (or to English), but rather that the joke loses something essential, beyond words or their definitions. It loses its much of the humor.

“It’s not in the joke itself, but how you tell it that’s funny,” explained Javier Sarquis, 27, who grew up bilingually deep in the country’s interior, and now lives on the outskirts of the capital city of Asunción. That’s what the Guaraní adds, he said. “Por la forma de contar, tiene más gracia.”

Indeed, the extra “umph,” in the Guaraní version of things, goes far beyond humor.

Especially outside the wealthy communities of Asunción where Spanish is more apt to dominate, most conversation between Paraguayans is converted to Guaraní as soon as the tone becomes emotional, playful, angry, extreme or heated in any way.

Nora Coronel, 47, a mother of three and resident of Itagua, said in her mostly Spanish-speaking family, the most common reason to convert to Guaraní has to do with her children’s behavior. “When they misbehave, it’s stronger, faster.” The same goes for most wives criticizing their husbands, she added.

Politicians pepper their speeches with Guaraní, to rally the public, just as two national tabloids, mix Guaraní into their headlines. A 27-year-old lawyer, Mónica Medina, who speaks almost exclusively Spanish, said she saves a list of Guaraní swearwords in her cell phone to use in text messages with friends, even though the exact meanings often elude her.

Ultimately, Guaraní, its extra “umph” and its jokes that rarely translate very well, have to do with an uncommon level of expression particular to the language.

“There are more resources in Guaraní,” said linguist David A. Galeano Olivera, author of two books of jokes in Guaraní and Jopará, the mixture or fusion of the Guaraní and Spanish languages. “El Castellano, comparado con el Guaraní es más pobre. No tiene el mismo sabor.”

Mr. Galeano Olivera, said perhaps the best explanation for this is found is the language’s polysynthetic nature. A slew of prefixes and suffixes are added to root words that lend a sense of time, mode, aspect, function, number, and degree, creating a sense of detail that cannot be easily or quickly translated. It is just this sense of detail that makes a joke work, he said.

What’s more, he said, the use of Guaraní delivers a sense of intimacy, place and community.

Paradoxically, the language, with its indigenous roots, has weaved in and out of popular favor throughout the country’s history.

Only in 1992, a new National Constitution — drafted after the fall of General Alfredo Stroessner, who led the longest running dictatorship in South America (between 1954 and 1989) — was Guaraní named one of the country’s official languages, alongside Spanish, and a campaign began to teach reading and writing in Guaraní in the educational system.

“Guaraní brings to life a sense of nationalism, in that the Paraguayan people feel the vernacular language is the heart of the nation,” writes linguist Gérard Gómez in Plurilinguismo Paraguayo: Un fenómeno que enlaza y separa (2006). “Others consider, however, that it is a language without prestige.”

But beyond the language’s thick social connotations — its marginalization and perhaps its current process of rebirth since 1992 — the best leveling ground, seems sometimes to be a bit of humor. Mention “el cacique” or another of a breed of mythical characters all part of the Guaraní culture and humor, and any issue of marginalization, superior, or inferior all seem to be forgotten.

“El Guaraní es para nosotros,” Mr. Sarquis said. “Spanish will enable you to do a lot. Guaraní is for us.”