A Classical Vignette
I was recently studying in Harvard’s special collections library, poring over books by mid-eighteenth century philosophers of language, when I came across a small slip of very yellow paper inserted between the pages of an essay by Johann Peter Suessmilch (appropriately titled “Versuch eines Beweises, dass der Ursprung der menschlichen Sprache nicht vom Menschen, sondern allein vom Schoepfer erhalten habe”). This small slip of very yellow paper contained a few lines of what appeared to be some variant of Hebrew writing. After some further observation, I noted that the paper was quite thick, and of a texture unlike most of our papers today. When I accidentally spilled some of my tea on it, I was fortunate enough to notice very faintly some letters that had all but faded, written in Latin script at the bottom of the slip. This writing was German--apparently in Suessmilch’s own hand! It read: “gefunden Alexandria, Kohlgarten, 1765”. Obviously, this slip of paper had been discovered in some ancient library in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1765 by a person named Kohlgarten (Suessmilch’s essay was published in 1766). Who was this Kohlgarten? Who knows--but he probably liked sauerkraut.
To make a long story short, I copied the Hebrew-like characters and did some further research after leaving the library. What I found was astonishing--it may be the earliest recorded joke in all of history. The writing is apparently some form of pre-Hebrew, rather similar to Phoenician. The language, however, is certainly Hebrew. It appears that there was an ancient tongue--of which we have lost all independent evidence--closely related to Hebrew, but with a few small syntactic and phonological changes, and so forth. Let us refer to this unknown language as Twobrew. Among other things, Hebrew [h] is cognate with [s] in Twobrew, much as Latin [s] is cognate with Greek [h]. The tense-aspect system of Twobrew seems to have been richer than in Hebrew, and Twobrew made much greater use of the dual person marker. Lastly, consonants are palatalized before the front vowels.
The gist of the joke reads as follows:
Two people, a Hebrew and a Twobrew, talking together:
Twobrew person: Did you know that God identified in nature that men should make coffee for their wives?
Hebrew person: How’s that?
Twobrew person: Think about it--He looked at Abraham and Sarah and said “Hebrews”. Selah.
Hebrew person: That’s not funny at all, and you’ve got your facts messed up. God said the women should make coffee for their husbands.
Twobrew person: And how do you expect to demonstrate that?
Hebrew person: Think about it--He looked at Abraham and Sarah and said “Shebrews”. Selah.
Of course it isn’t obvious from the translation, but there is some bantering in this dialogue, with each person making use, mockingly, of the other person’s dialect, both in grammar and in pronunciation.
I put the note back inside the Suessmilch essay where I found it, and assuming that someone has not removed it in the meantime, anyone should be able to find it and determine for themselves the truth of the claim: that this is the earliest recorded joke in all of history.