I don’t understand a thing linguists say

Oh man, I got lost fast in this discussion. Anyway, there was an old Sumerian joke going around the interwebs a short while ago. It was totally incomprehensible.

Someone who is apparently an expert in Sumerian (I assume, I have no idea, they could be a highly skilled bullshitter) took the original text apart in an extremely detailed fashion on Twitter. I’ll just have to trust them. Follow the thread if you want to see the train of logic and obscure Sumerian grammatical rules. But they do come to a conclusion, an interpretation of the joke that actually makes sense.

I think it might be the oldest known Dad Joke.


  1. says

    When I was a kid, back in the 1970s, we asked the Ouija board to tell us a joke from the future. Here’s what came up:
    How do you eat a cowboy’s ass?
    You end him.
    Is it funny yet? No?
    Maybe a dad joke from the far future.

  2. azpaul3 says

    The humor is so light yet deep. Here’s another.

    Knock, Knock.
    Who’s there?
    It’s me.
    Come in.

    Freakin hilarious.

  3. robro says

    LykeX — You might be onto something with this “blind drunk” joke idea.

    azpaul3 – Here’s the funniest knock joke I ever heard:
    Person A: Want to hear a funny Knock-Knock joke?
    Person B: Sure!
    Person A: OK, you start it.
    Person B: Right…Knock-Knock
    Person A: Who’s there?
    Person B: (looks bewildered)

  4. climateteacherjohnj says

    I told the one about the seeing-eye dog and the blind man who entered a faith-healing service (he didn’t recognize the dog afterward, “never seen him before in my life!”) to a couple of Evangelical Christians. The funniest part of the joke was they were not amused.
    I sure got a kick out of that one!
    Kicked right out of their house that is.

  5. Rich Woods says

    An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar. “Ouch!”, they say.

  6. moarscienceplz says

    Yeah, I go along with LykeX. I don’t get why a bar or tavern has to be involved, unless the Sumerians were just in the habit of “x walked into a bar” jokes.
    Although, the one about a panda who eats shoots and leaves does usually include a bar for no particular necessity.

  7. moarscienceplz says

    I would like my eternal soul to observe how linguists 5000 years from now interpret, “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo”.

  8. Silentbob says

    There were two symbols at the end linguists were unfamiliar with but have since been translated phonetically as “ba-doom tish”.

  9. Silentbob says

    Now I’m imagining people seven thousand years from now trying to work out what was funny about, “Take my wife please”.

  10. brucegee1962 says

    I’ve actually been able to use my prepared response for the “reverse knock knock joke” mentioned in @6 above, several times.

    Person A: Want to hear a funny Knock-Knock joke?
    Me: Sure!
    Person A: OK, you start it.
    Me: Right…Knock-Knock
    Person A: Who’s there?
    Me: Isis!
    Person A: (not expecting a response and trying to remember their part) ummm…Isis who?
    Me: I suspect you’re trying to trick me with this knock-knock joke.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    As Bernard Shaw pointed out, the ancient Sumerians never practiced adultery, and are now extinct.

  12. bcw bcw says

    @17 ” take xxxx” is a phrasing used to introduce a subject xxxx. For instance: “Take blog comments as a place to introduce language-specific ambiguous language structures, we really don’t know how common they are.”
    Of course the alternative meaning is to literally take an object.

    My favorite English-Specific joke: “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.”

  13. PaulBC says

    bcw bcw@20 As I like to put it: “Time flies like an arrow. A banana flies like a fruit.”

    Kind of a metajoke that only works if you know the original. And… well I chuckle to myself when I say it, but that does not mean it is actually funny (I know, I know). It is literally true and involves a flying banana, both points in its favor.

  14. robro says

    brucegee1962 @ #18 — It’s always good to prepared for any Knock-Knock joke that comes along. Unfortunately they mostly come along when your 16yo and the concept of “prepared” is Sumerian to you.

  15. birgerjohansson says

    In Neal Stephenson’s SF novel Snow Crash the Sumerian language played an important role. If you open the wrong nam-shub bad stuff happens.

  16. PaulBC says

    robro@24 Or maybe it’s their job. Sadly, I know that commenting here is not my job.

  17. Matt G says

    Three logicians walk into a bar. The bartender says “do all three of you want a beer?” The first logician says “I don’t know”. The second logician says “I don’t know”. The third logician says “yes”.

  18. cartomancer says

    Humour from the ancient world is very often difficult to engage with properly. There are plenty of jokes in Classical Greek plays that rely on cultural reference points we simply don’t have anymore, and we can’t reconstruct because nobody thought to write them down for us. All we can do is speculate. For instance, a lot of Aristophanes’ plays use incongruous references to figs to create humour. A naughty dog would be punished with a fig-wood collar, or an old man denied a chance to eat figs at the market, that sort of thing. Figs clearly had comedic associations in late 5th Century Athens, and your average Athenian theatre-goer would immediately get those associations, but what they thought was funny about figs is anybody’s guess now. Some have speculated that it’s because figs look a bit like testicles, and it’s crude sexual humour. Others have suggested there were a famous incident of corruption and dodgy dealing in the fig trade, and it’s connotations of bribery and scandal they carried (the word “sycophant” seems to come from “sykon” (fig) and “phantazein” (to reveal, appear, cast light on, or make plain) – quite why may well be bound up in this cultural mess… or it may be for other reasons entirely). I doubt we’ll ever know for sure.

    As for bars, well, they were where people gathered to chat and make merry. So setting a joke in a bar was immediately associating it with levity and convivium. They would be where most jokes were told and enjoyed, so it would be a natural place to set amusing scenarios.

  19. Pierce R. Butler says

    cartomancer @ # 28: …Aristophanes’ plays use incongruous references to figs …

    I never thought of the Gospels as Aristophanean allusions before, but that makes as much sense as most other interpretations.

  20. says

    The real expert on things Sumerian is Irving Finkel from the British Museum. He has a typically eccentric British sense of humour. Here he is lecturing in Noah’s Ark. The Hamster will have to rebuild his big boat when he finds out it was really a coracle and the mysterious gopher wood was actually reed rope.

  21. microraptor says

    PaulBC @21: You got that joke backwards. It works much better as “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.” That gets you an extra layer of pun.

  22. PaulBC says

    microraptor@32 Yes, I know that’s the original joke (identical to @20, which I referenced) and I get the pun. It’s funny enough until maybe the 15th telling or so, at least if you think puns are funny in the first place. (Kind of like the mosquito/mountain climber joke.) Call me lowbrow, but I think a flying banana is much funnier.

    That gets you an extra layer of pun.

    I don’t think mine had any pun at all. Hence the original has at least two additional layers: “flies” and “like” each change meaning and part of speech.

  23. says

    birgerjohansson@17: “Take my wife—please” is a one-line joke made famous by the comedian Henny Youngman (1906-1998), who was noted for his one-liners

  24. christoph says

    @ cubist, # 34: A man goes to the doctor and says, “Hey Doc-it hurts when I do this.” (Bends arm at odd angle)
    The doctor replies, “Don’t do that.”

  25. leerudolph says


    but I think a flying banana is much funnier.

    That gets you an extra layer of pun.

    I don’t think mine had any pun at all. Hence the original has at least two additional layers: “flies” and “like” each change meaning and part of speech.

    You could get a different additional layer (or two) by using the word “fly” in its tailoring sense, one of many senses mashed together in the Oxford English Dictionary, thus:

    4. Something attached by the edge. Cf. flap n. 4.
    a. A strip or lap on a garment, to contain or cover the button-holes; hence something used to cover or connect (see quot. 1884). spec. (frequently in plural) the piece of cloth that hides the fastening at the front of a pair of trousers; also, the fastening itself.

    The joke, then, would be simultaneously verbal and physical, involving opening and pulling down the peel of the banana in the usual way while adding some commentary involving opening the fly of the banana (write it yourself!).