Can you believe that near the end of my language-learning journey, I had no idea what the Kovol word for “laugh” or “funny” was? It’s crazy the gaps there can be in vocabulary and it’s another reason our system of learning language by covering all aspects of the culture is really helpful.

I learned that the phrase for laughing is “yul woloob igung” which translates to something like we’re hitting laughter, or you can “hosisi pigeb hobol angoom” which translates to “putting play and talking”. A funny person is someone who mixes true talk with lying talk. This makes sarcasm a feature of the Kovol language, which is good because the Bible contains sarcasm and I’ve heard it can be quite difficult to translate that if the target language doesn’t use sarcasm!

Speaking of humour, check out this pig’s ears

The sarcasm of the Kovol people will be things like saying to someone sitting down and being lazy “hey, look at the hard-working guy sitting down”. Interestingly, they use the word lie to describe a statement like that. The guy isn’t hard-working, so you are lying when you say he is, which is funny. I’ve instinctively picked up on this sense of humour, and enjoy using it myself.

I remember when some visitors were looking at our houses and hanging out with us. I’d been speaking Kovol with people for an hour or so, and only at the end realized that these guys on the edge of the group had no idea what I had been saying! Hey, it feels nice to belong, to speak Kovol and belong and have outsiders not understand 🙂 I switched to Tok Pisin at the end to chat with them. They had a request: they had some vanilla money in K100 notes that they wanted to change. When we have the small notes around we change money when we can, but they had K600 which was way too much. I could just about manage to change K100 for them.
Anyway, they handed me the K600 to be changed and I stuffed it in my pocket and said to them “Ok, so I’ll change the K600. There’s a fee for changing money, so I’ll keep K200 and you’ll get K400”. Then I paused to watch him process that. The Kovol guys know me and they were laughing. I then told the guy I was joking and watched relief flood over him.
Humour is pretty hard to judge in different languages and cultures. Where is the line? Was my little joke too mean?

A group prepares for the 2-day journey to town

It turns out not at all! Kovol humour can be brutal!
A friend told me a story of when he had shot a wild pig and was carrying it back to the village. As he was carrying it, he was inspired with an idea. What if instead of a pig, he was carrying a child? That got him thinking. As he neared the village he started crying out to a lady,
“Your child fell off a cliff and he died!”.
He set the pig down and came into the village. He found the woman and again told her “Your child slipped off the cliff and fell; he’s died”. The mother burst into loud, expressive wailing. She fell to the ground and started thrashing around wailing, smearing herself with mud in mourning. As he tells this story the Kovol guys listening are howling with laughter– it’s pretty funny. Then my friend said “Only joking, he’s fine!”, so the lady was happy and relieved.

I warned them that if they tried that joke with the white women here they would not be “happy” with a joke like this. ” You’d better be ready for a beating!” I told them. To which they laughed and said that yes, sometimes that does happen. It’s nice to know that any jokes and tricks I’m comfortable with are very likely to be within the lines for Kovol culture 🙂

Telling tall stories to provoke a reaction then is funny, but slapstick comedy is also valued. Soccer matches are usually accompanied by howls of laughter when people kick at the ball, only to miss and fall over.
One popular trick is to point someone towards a hole under a tree saying “There’s a rat nest in there, let’s grab them”. As the person reaches in someone else reaches in from the other side and grabs onto their hand and gives them a good scare.
Likewise popular is sneaking up on people and grabbing them in the night.

Oscar steals the camera

Lots of Kovol humour, then, is about provoking a reaction! A very funny story my friend told was one where he was sitting in a blind waiting to shoot birds. Birds wash in little pools of water in the dry season. Another guy came along to check the pool himself and didn’t notice the blind. As he reached his hand into the pool my hidden friend jabbed his arrow forward to spear the guy’s hand, causing him to jump a mile and run away completely.

I thought up a wordplay with the word “honnot” which means both clean and white. I asked if when someone goes down to the river to wash and comes back, they sometimes greet them with “the white/clean man has come” and sure enough, they do make that sort of joke. They couldn’t think of any other word plays, but then again, neither can I!

The interviews this week have been fun to do. Lots of loud laughter as funny stories have been told and I’ve come away with a gap in my vocabulary filled in. Well, not quite yet, I still have to look up the word on a piece of paper; for some reason “yul” hasn’t stuck in my mind yet!
Next on the list is marriage. What’s a good wife? What’s a good husband? Who chooses the wife? Is there a bride price? All that next week.


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