Vossler Discusses Germans From Russia Folk Humor
Seeklander, Verda. "Vossler Discusses Germans From Russia Folk Humor." Emmons County Record, 30 March 1999, 11.
Complex. Insulting. Hard-edged. Often vulgar-that's Prairie "Spass":
the folk humor of North Dakota's Germans from Russia.
Ron Vossler, a senior lecturer in the English Department at the
University of North Dakota, said the stereotype exists that Germans
from Russia, GFR, known for their work ethic, are generally humorless.
But he was prompted to look for another side to these people that
he called his own after translating the letters of relatives in
Russia who wrote to relatives in North Dakota, begging for help
during Stalin's "terror famine" of 1933.
Last week the Wishek native told a large audience in his hometown
about some of the discoveries he has made since his research began
nearly 30 years ago when he began jotting down jokes and sayings
that he recalled hearing as a child from his mother, grandmother
and others. Some of what he discovered was familiar; some was thought-provoking.
Recently Vossler applied for and received the Larry Remele Memorial
Fellowship, making it possible to more thoroughly research Germans
from Russia humor. His presentations are made possible through the
North Dakota Humanities Council.
Very little of the earthy German-Russian humor has been recorded.
As the language disappears from households, understanding of the
"Spass," which is shot through with words of more than one meaning,
When Vossler told his colleagues at UND that he was studying German-Russian
humor, their response was usually in the form of a jest. "That shouldn't
take long" was their usual reply. And although he was "a little
offended" he wondered if perhaps they were right. He didn't remember
laughing a lot while he was growing up.
German-Russian humor, often interspersed with English, is not
often appreciated by someone who does not understand the dialect
since much is lost in the translation.
Vossler compared German-Russian humor to Jewish humor. The humor
that has survived is meaningful; often harsh humor that reflects
the historical journey of both groups and indicates that their lives
have not been easy.
In 1897 there were 300 babies in McIntosh County alone who died
from diphtheria. As a result many times people didn't draw close
to their children because of their fear of losing them. This humor
is related to the overall history of this ethnic group, and sometimes
reflects that historical journey. "Sometimes people misinterpret
the harshness of the humor, I know I did." Vossler said sometimes
the humor itself, the name-calling, was the one way people could
try to draw close to each other.
They liked to have fun with jokes that had hidden or two-fold
meanings. Scholars call some of these jokes "ritual insults"; either
humorous, sarcastic or sexual in nature, these "insults" were a
way for people to let out their anger in a socially acceptable way.
German Russian humor loses its power in translation. For example,
Vossler has used the expression "You always give the meanest dog
two pieces of meat," if someone becomes a bit aggressive at a meeting.
"I'll think that's kind of funny," he said, "but people just kind
of stare at me."
Or Vossler will comment to someone who thinks they know everything--"Well,
yah, you're educated up to your horns."
The audience snickered knowingly as he said, "I always think that's
kind of funny but people not of German-Russian background don't
The word "Umgangsprache," a form of the German-Russian dialect,
sounds like an exotic food akin to koladertz (pickled pigs feet)
or schwatamaga (head cheese). Linguists use this term to describe
language in which neutral terms can be replaced with emotionally
As an example, Vossler said that if he tracked mud onto his grandmother's
clean linoleum floor, instead of asking him to go outside to wipe
his boots, she would correct him with what he called "cranky humor"--"Yat,
du glana Hossachissa, ich sot dich aus dem Haus ins Schneebank schmissa"--"You
little pants pooper, I should throw you out of the house and into
the snow bank."
The hard-edged brevity is typical of German Russian humor. In
this case "Schmissa" (throw) is an emotional exaggeration that illustrated
the fun in German-Russian humor. Instead of saying "little boy,"
Grandma used the term Hossachissa as a term of endearment.
He attributes the often hard-edged, often vulgar humor, which
he called "dung" humor, to the fact that Germans from Russia lived
mostly in rural areas where they raised, bred and cared for various
types of animals.
Name calling such as "gross gosch" (big mouth) and "stink katz"
(skunk), depending on tone and circumstances, were used as terms
of endearment, for teasing, or applied to someone caught in some
mischief. A tough-minded housewife might be called a 'haus dracha'
(house dragon). An agronomist might be called a "mischt gavel student"
- a student of manure forks.
Vossler said praise and compliments were seldom used because German-Russians
believed if you said positive things it would invite disaster or
bad luck as well as lead to the sin of pride. And so the often harsh
humor was one way to connect with others.
German humor even found its way onto the basketball floor. Vossler
recalls the 1966 McIntosh County basketball tournaments and a close,
heated game between rivals Wishek and Ashley. Vossler was in the
process of attempting a free throw when the Ashley cheerleading
section bellowed out "Blutwurst, leverwurst, schwatamaga, speck,
(Bloodsausage, liver sausage, headcheese, fat), Wishek Hochschule,
wek, wek, wek. (Wishek High School, go away, go away, go away)."
Fans of both teams were amused by the cheer which Vossler said
was not only an attempt to disturb his concentration but probably
also betrayed the younger generation's feelings about those particular
German-Russian jokes aims at other ethnic groups and at German-Russians
of different religions, and Vossler gave examples. He said some
scholars think it's a bad thing to laugh at those types of stories
while other scholars say, "It's fun; it serves a purpose, to bring
stereotypes and prejudices into the open, and it's not a display
Vossler said: "It's better for people to laugh together, so they
do let go of these prejudices."
Reprinted with permission of Emmons County Record.