LINGUIST List 7.1214

Sun Sep 1 1996

Sum: Applauding vs. knocking on the table

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. E. Wayles Browne, Re: 7.999, applauding vs. knocking on the table: summary

Message 1: Re: 7.999, applauding vs. knocking on the table: summary

Date: Wed, 28 Aug 1996 12:16:31 EDT
From: E. Wayles Browne <>
Subject: Re: 7.999, applauding vs. knocking on the table: summary

Last month I asked:
'At an international gathering of linguistics and literary scholars,
the participants show their appreciation after lectures and talks by:
1) applauding
2) knocking on the table with their knuckles.
1) seems to be characteristic for attendees from most places
in Europe and the Americas, 2) seems to be for Germans and Austrians.
Is this the correct generalization? Do all German-speaking
people knock, or just some, or perhaps other Europeans in addition
to German speakers do that too? On what occasions would "knockers"
applaud rather than knocking? Responses from "native knockers"
and other observers would be much appreciated.'

Responses showed a high degree of agreement: knocking is
characteristic of Germans and Austrians. One source added
German-speaking Swiss. It is done in academic milieux; some
respondents added meetings and pubs. Opinions differed more
on when "knockers" would applaud: "Applause is restricted to non-
academic performances, like the theater." (Christiane Fellbaum)
"applauding could even be misunderstood as an attempt to ridicule the
lecturer." (Stefan Seufert)
"If an audience is quite carried away, it tends to clap in a
situation where it usually would knock." (Stefan Goes)
"The occasions where we would rather applaud than knock are for
example: If there is a guest lecturer (not necessarily from a foreign
country) we would rather clap our hands, to show a kind of special
appreciation that he came over here." (Irina Tipke)

Excerpts from some replies:

From: (Stefan Seufert)
Speaking as a "native knocker" from Germany:
I think it's only common in an academic context, at university or at a
conference. Here applauding could even be misunderstood as an attempt
to ridicule the lecturer. But nobody tells you to knock at your first
day at university, it's rather some kind of common sense, handed over
from generation to generation, without knowing why.

From: ("Caoimhin P. ODonnaile")
When I was doing a PhD in England in the early 1980s I shared an
office with a student from Germany and we attended a seminar together
(a maths/statistics seminar). He couldn't believe it when the
audience at the end of the seminar gave a round of applause for the
speaker at the end. He said it made the thing look like a comedy show
rather than a learned seminar.

It seems to me that knocking is restricted to certain domains:
academia, political meetings, club meetings (less so in business
meetings, I think). In meetings it is not only used in the function of
applause (after a presentation, for instance), but also as sign of
Dr. Ingo Plag 
Institut fuer Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Philipps-Universitaet Marburg e-mail:

From: (ACORNELL)...
Knocking on a table top is one very common form of greeting used in
German pubs, when someone joins a group of friends or colleagues
already seated at the table. In this case there are only one or two
raps on the table, rather than the dozen or so (or more) used as a
form of applauding. So perhaps in both contexts rapping on wood
symbolises some sort of bond between a group and an individual?
...Alan Cornell
Principal Lecturer in German

From: (Stefan Goes)
I can't tell you where it originated, but here are some observations I
1. this custom not only is followed in academic circles, but also in
cultural societies like literature clubs etc. and the typical german
"Verein", that is club with activities ranging from gardening to
mountaineering etc.. The knocking takes place usually on dignified
occasions such as the annual report of the chairman of the tulip
lovers club. One can notice that in societies with predominantly
working and lower middle class this knocking has the aspect of a
ritual which only lends the occasion dignity and portent. Also, there
often seems to be some disagreement on whether to clap or to knock.
In such cases members of the handclapping fraction, if outnumbered,
often turn with an abashed look to knocking. The group pressure
sometimes is very high to join in the knocking business, but don't ask
me why.
2. If an audience is quite carried away, it tends to clap in a
situation where it usually would knock.
3. In Germany and Austria it is customary in, again, mostly working
class and lower middel class "Kneipen" (i.e. the traditional bars) to
knock on the table when joining or leaving a group of acquaintances at
a table. Maybe there's a relationship.
4. The younger academic generation tends to dislike this ritual, but
nonetheless bows to conformity, sometimes with a bit of irony.
There's a difference, though, between the knocking after lectures,
which is unquestioned, and knocking at the above mentioned portentous
Stefan Goes
Seminar fuer deutsche Philologie
Humboldtallee 13
D - 37073 Goettingen

From: rene.schneiderdbag.ulm.DaimlerBenz.COM (Rene Schneider)
Subject: klopfen und klatschen (knocking and applauding)
Dear Wayles Browne,
as you generalized correctly, knocking is typically german (and
austrian maybe), and is practiced especially on universities by
students, but also in other public places after longer speeches.

On universities students knock after the lectures or after a
presentation by other students. If a lecture is well done, but
really really well done, they applaud to show their appreciation;
something that happens rarely nowadays.

From: (Annette Lang)
In Germany ...knocking on the table is restricted to the university,
particularly to conferences. We always knock on the tables after a
conference, and it's the intensity that reveals the degree of
enthusiasm and appreciation. We don't do so after
tutorials. Generally, other students' oral presentations are granted
with knocking, out of a feeling of loyalty, I guess. Out of
university, Germans applaud like other civilized people :-) (perhaps
there's no table in a theatre ???:-) )

From: (Pius ten Hacken)
The habit of knocking on a table instead of applauding also occurs in
the German-speaking part of Switzerland. I heard it in Basel and in
Zurich, not in Geneva. In the Netherlands, where I come from, the
habit is not known. I noticed that in Switzerland on certain occasions
applauding occurs when no tables are around or for a foreign
speaker. In the latter case an audience seems to hesitate between
applauding and knocking.

From: Oliver Baumann
...From a sociological point of view, I believe that the audience of a
lecture knock, since first, the hearers intend to document solidarity
with the speaker, that is because he is a colleague (and of course
because of the fact you could be at his place). Second, they reveal
allegiance to an elite. In my opinion, "knocking" means "collegial
appreciation in the consciousness of membership in a select group"=EC.
Interestingly, at first I applauded instead of knocking, perhaps
because I didn't feel integrated. Consistent with this view, (besides
the fact that I surely would applaud, if there's no table...), I
applaud on all other occasions (a concert, a recitation, in the
stadion), but I knock after lectures at a linguistic workshop.
Another account would be, that 'knocking' is a kind of 'reserved
applause' used by "German intellectuals", and the reason German
scholars knock could be explained in terms of "habituation" and "group

From: (ricardo joseh lima)
Here in Brazil, as far as I know, at all Conferences of linguistics,
everyone applauds, no one knocks. That confirms what you have written
about the non-usage of this method in Americas. On the other hand, in
a film whose name is simply "Freud", black-and- white, sorry for not
remembering the name of the director and the actors, everyone
knocks. And they are in Austria. I thought that it would be a practice
at Medicine Conferences (you can test this possibility), but later,
when I saw the fim again, I noticed that they knocked only with one
hand, having the other holding a paper, or writing something. Would be
this the reason ? Well, we can calculate that knocking on the table,
comes from the last century, at least.

Ricardo J. Lima, graduation course, UFRJ.

An English film attestation:
From: (Barbara Abbott)
I happened to see the c.1934 British movie Goodby Mr. Chips the
other night on TV. It's set at a boys' school in England, and at a
farewell dinner for Mr. Chips everybody knocked on the table where
probably here nowadays people would applaud.

One respondent mentioned knocking in parliament:
From: ("Ralf Grosserhode")
Knocking is in fact the normal way of applauding after the
presentation of a paper. I have also seen it in parliament, as well
(ok, on TV, off course)

This appears in at least one other parliament in the world:

From: (Chris Miller)
I was surprised to see that knocking is used elsewhere in the world!
In the Canadian House of Commons, where (unlike in the British House)
Members of Parliament are seated at desks, it used to be the case that
approval of a member's interventions was shown by MPs thumping their
desktops with the palms of their hands. However, sometime over the
past decade this practice has died out and hand clapping is now the
way of showing approval. Just a few weeks ago, though, I saw a news
report on a debate in the British Columbia legislature (I believe that
was the one), which showed the members thumping their desktops in
approval of someone's speech, so the practice appears not to have
completely died out in the Canadian parliamentary tradition.

As to how this practice originated, I have no idea. Since the British
Commons has no desks, it could not have come from there (although we
have imported the terms "front benches", "back benches" and
"backbenchers" from their Parliament, even though unlike them, neither
our Commons and Senate nor any of the provincial legislatures sits
their members on benches).
Christopher Miller
PhD student in linguistics
Groupe de recherche sur la LSQ et le francais sourd
Universite du Quebec a Montreal

"Karen S. Chung" <> says that, to show appre-
ciation, a Taiwan audience might invite the lecturer to a banquet!
She adds:
 But there are some special customs at a performance of Peking opera.
Whenever an actor does an especially impressive job on an aria, scattered
members of the audience will call out "hao3!" in a loud voice, one here
and one there, in rapid and random succession.

Appreciation to all who replied: (Barbara Abbott)
Oliver Baumann
"Karen S. Chung" <>
Ansgar Eilebrecht <eilebrechtdbag.ulm.DaimlerBenz.COM>
"Christiane Fellbaum" <fellbaumclarity.Princeton.EDU>
Stefan Goes <>
"Ralf Grosserhode" <>
Walter Gruenzweig <> (Martin Haspelmath) (Annette Lang)
ricardo joseh lima <>
Chris Miller <>
"Caoimhin P. ODonnaile" <>
"Ingo Plag" <plagPapin.HRZ.Uni-Marburg.DE> -Bruno Repp
"tim schmitz-reinthal" <>
Rene Schneider <rene.schneiderdbag.ulm.DaimlerBenz.COM>
Stefan Seufert <>
Pius ten Hacken <>
Irina Tipke <> (Theo Vennemann)

and my apologies to my fellow participants in the
XXXII Seminar slovenskega jezika, literature in kulture
(Ljubljana, Slovenia), some of whom may have felt
embarrassed at my on-the-spot inquires.

Wayles Browne, Assoc. Prof. of Linguistics
Department of Linguistics
Morrill Hall, Cornell University
Ithaca, New York 14853, U.S.A.
tel. 607-255-0712 (o), 607-273-3009 (h)
fax 607-255-2044 (write FOR W. BROWNE)
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue