German-Russian North Dakotan Joke


Original Script: (Person One): “Wie gehts?” (Person Two in Response) “Oh the gate’s fine, it’s the fence that’s broken.”

Transliteration: (Person One): “How does it go?” (Person Two in Response) “Oh the gate’s fine, it’s the fence that’s broken.”

Translation: (Person One): “How’s it going?” (Person Two in Response) “Oh the gate’s fine, it’s the fence that’s broken.”

*Note: the essence of the joke depends on the German word “gehts” rhyming with the English word “gates,” so the transliteration and translation don’t necessarily represent an “accurate” translation of the joke.


The country of Germany as we now know it is of course a relatively modern sovereign state. Prior to the unification of the German states in the late 19th century, Germany existed as a myriad of different “mini-states” all with their own governing bodies and economic models. Unfortunately, this led to many Germans becoming demoralized due to religious, economic, and political hardships, and many emigrated to Russia in the 18th and 19th century. To make try and make the historical background as succinct as possible, many of these Germans living in Russia were eventually forced to leave Russia, with many settling in the northern plains of the United States.

This was the case for my ancestors on my mom’s side of the family, with my great-great grandparents settling in North Dakota. In North Dakota, there’s a heavy concentration of German-Russians living within the state, who through a combination of their prior ethnic and national heritage, as well as an amalgamation of their new American life created a unique culture and folklore.

My informant first heard this joke in a banterous conversation between her father and a family friend. She’s heard it many times since then, as it’s a common joke in North Dakota. Her analysis of it explains the joke well – “wie gehts means ‘how are ya’ in German, and so when somebody goes ‘wie gehts,’ you say ‘gehts?’ (gate), ‘the gate’s fine, it’s the fence that’s broken! It’s just a silly little thing.'”

My Analysis

I find this joke to be quite humorous despite its relative simplicity. I enjoy how it reflects the fact that most German-Russians living in North Dakota (at least older generations) are generally proficient in German and English, and thus are able to make jokes that reflect the multitude of their cultural influences. Unlike other German-Russian sayings, “wie gehts” (which translates to “how’s it going) is entirely German and without Russian influence so this joke would translate to German audiences in addition to specifically German-Russian ones.