Thursday, November 22, 2007

Ich bin ein Berliner

I remember learning from my grade 12 history teacher about the time JFK came to Berlin and made a fool of himself. You all know what I am talking about. He came here, equated the residents of Berlin to the Romans, and said that he took pride in the words, "Ich bin ein Berliner". According to my high school history teacher and North Americans more generally, Mr Kennedy made a slight grammatical mistake and as a result told the German masses that he was a jelly filled doughnut because a Berliner, in Berlin, is a jelly doughnut. Makes sense.

Walking around Berlin, you can see postcards with JFK's phonetic spelling "isch bin eein Bear-lin-er." On more than one occasion, Germans have told me "Ich bin ein Berliner" and it was somehow clear to both he and I that he had made a clever allusion to the 1961 speech. And so the Anglos and the Germans go on happily together in Berlin.

We say or read "ich bin ein Berliner" and chuckle.

They say it and smile.

This exchange has happened many times and will keep happening. What neither of these linguistic groups bothers to do very often is to ask each other why it makes us smile. For the Germans, "Ich bin ein Berliner" means I am a Berliner. And by Berliner, they mean a person from Berlin. They have never heard of the jelly doughnut mistake. It in fact takes a decent amount of time to explain to them that every Anglophone but me is not enlightened. They don't think he made an ass of himself. A jelly doughnut is in fact called a Berliner everywhere in Germany except for in Berlin! And even if it did mean doughnut, as native speakers, they are capable of making the distinction between "I am eating a Berliner" and "I am a Berliner".

My history teacher is one of the reason I am still studying history. It may have even been a reason that I first came to Berlin as a tourist. It definitely made me think JFK should have had a better translator.

And it was all a lie!

If you listen to the speech, those aren't laugs but cheers (contrary to how I interpreted the sounds when I was 17). If I wasn't so far along in this history and German thing, I think I might quit.