Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.

Everyone Loves a Good Riddle

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More often than I’d like to admit, I’m interrupted while getting ready for bed with the realization that I have a lesson to teach the next morning, and that I haven’t planned it yet. The nice thing about speaking lessons, of course, is that they don’t require a whole lot of advanced planning – just a topic and enough activities or questions to keep a conversation going for the whole hour.  But you still have to come up with something beforehand.

With my more advanced students, I tend to fall back on riddles. They’re hard in a second language, since English riddles (like our jokes) tend to make such heavy use of wordplay. But talking through the double meanings is a fun way to improve my students’ vocabularies, and I’m always looking for a good way to stretch their critical thinking muscles.

And then, of course, I ask them for some examples of their own. For whatever reason, this is typically met with resistance. “Mongolia has many riddles,” they often respond, as though I’d asked them to provide an exhaustive list.

Of course it does; I don’t know of any languages that don’t. I’d love to do a sociolinguistic research project on the subject of riddles: their importance in various cultures, the ways in which they are used, the kinds of logical twists that must be followed in order to guess the answers. Alas, my copy of Speech Play and Verbal Art is back in Chicago, and so I’ve no analysis to inject into this post, nor any cross-cultural examples to present to you.

Instead, I’m collecting my own list of Mongolian examples. “Tell me some,” I insist to my students when they continue to dither. They’re resisting for the same reason I’m persisting: translation is a difficult exercise, and I want them to practice it. And while not all riddles make sense in translation, the Children’s Palace director managed to provide me with a few that did.

1. Ten sons of father are very hard workers; ten daughters of mother are too lazy.

2. Далан давхар хувцастай – It wears seventy layers of clothes.

3. Өглөө дөрвөн хөлтэй, өдөр хоёр хөлтэй, орой гурван хөлтэй – In the morning it has four legs, in the afternoon it has two legs, in the evening it has three legs.

I was particularly intrigued by the third one, given that we have the same riddle in English. I’d love to know whether that one cropped up independently in both languages or was borrowed by one from the other. Khongorzul, though a font of other kinds of information, did not know.

If, like me, you were unable to puzzle out the first two riddles without further information, here are some hints: #1 is something everyone has; #2 is a kind of food.

If you’ve any more riddles from other languages to add to my collection, please leave them in the comments! I’d like to write a more thoughtful post on the subject when I have time to do it justice.

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Author: everywherebuthome

Linguist. Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. Expat in Mongolia. Writer. Scout, dancer, gymnast, equestrienne.

10 thoughts on “Everyone Loves a Good Riddle

  1. Answers, since I’m sure you’re all curious:

    1. Хуруу, хөлний хуруу – fingers and toes

    2. Байцаа – cabbage

  2. I figured out the first one! The second I was thinking onion but I was on the right track. How interesting!

  3. The overlap of the third riddle in several languages is really interesting. I also wonder how they came about in different places: organically or through some transfer? (I smell a PhD dissertation…)

  4. One of my favorite riddles: Throw away the outside. Cook the inside. Eat the outside. Throw away the inside. What am I?

  5. Could be an egg, my son doesn’t like the yolk.

  6. Corn? It’s that time of year! (Although, I remember some French guests being mystified at our grilling corn for dinner; they said it’s pig fodder back home.)

    BTW, my Danish cousins were regaling me with Aarhuser jokes (Aarhusers are, of course, from Aarhus, on Jutland). The jokes were exactly the same as the Aggie jokes I’d been hearing in Texas, which were the same as the “Polack” jokes I’d grown up hearing in Chicago. This was in about 1980. Do those jokes still float around in other cultures?

  7. Well done northerbarb! It is corn on the cob!

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