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TGIF: Another Eddie Izzard video August 22, 2008

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Fun stuff, German culture, Random musings.
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Hi folks,

It’s Friday, and I am taking the afternoon off yet again to go to the dentist and then go on a Happy Hour cruise of the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie on the Goodtime III with one of my Meetup.com groups. I could get used to working four days a week… After slogging my way through a really tough text yesterday about philo-Semitism I am really looking forward to some R&R.

Anyway, here is another Eddie Izzard video discussing President John F. Kennedy’s utterance “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which every Intermediate German student laughs about. This is in fact an urban legend, but Izzard is always worth a laugh.

Now onto the educational portion of this post… Here’s President Kennedy’s original speech for those of you who aren’t familiar with it.

According to Wikipedia:

Kennedy came up with the phrase at the last moment, as well as the idea to say it in German. Kennedy asked his interpreter, Robert H. Lochner, to translate “I am a Berliner” as they walked up the stairs of the Rathaus (City Hall). With Lochner’s help, Kennedy practiced the phrase in the office of then-Mayor Willy Brandt and in his own hand made a cue card with the phonetic spelling. [Note: The cue card can be viewed at Haus der Geschichte in Bonn.]

According to an urban legend, Kennedy allegedly made an embarrassing grammatical error by saying “Ich bin ein Berliner,” referring to himself not as a citizen of Berlin, but as a common pastry:

Kennedy should have said “Ich bin Berliner” to mean “I am a person from Berlin.” By adding the indefinite article ein, his statement implied he was a non-human Berliner, thus “I am a jelly doughnut”.

The legend seems to stem from a play on words with Berliner, the name of a doughnut variant filled with jam or plum sauce that is thought to have originated in Berlin.

In fact, Kennedy’s statement is both grammatically correct and perfectly idiomatic, and cannot be misunderstood in context. The urban legend is not widely known within Germany, where Kennedy’s speech is considered a landmark in the country’s postwar history. The indefinite article ein can be and often is omitted when speaking of an individual’s profession or residence but is necessary when speaking in a figurative sense as Kennedy did. Since the president was not literally from Berlin but only declaring his solidarity with its citizens, “Ich bin Berliner” would not have been correct.

The origins of the legend are obscure. The Len Deighton spy novel Berlin Game, published in 1983, contains the following passage, spoken by narrator Bernard Samson:

‘Ich bin ein Berliner,’ I said. It was a joke. A Berliner is a doughnut. The day after President Kennedy made his famous proclamation, Berlin cartoonists had a field day with talking doughnuts.

The New York Times review of Deighton’s novel added the detail that Kennedy’s audience found his remark funny:

In fact, the opposite is true: The citizens of Berlin do refer to themselves as Berliner; what they do not refer to as Berliner are jelly doughnuts. While these are known as “Berliner” in other areas of Germany, they are simply called Pfannkuchen (pancakes) in and around Berlin. Thus the merely theoretical ambiguity went unnoticed by Kennedy’s audience, as it did in Germany at large. In sum, “Ich bin ein Berliner” was the appropriate way to express in German what Kennedy meant to say.

During the speech Kennedy used the phrase twice, ending his speech on it. However, Kennedy did pronounce the sentence with his Boston accent, reading from his note “ish bin ein Bearleener,” which he had written out in English phonetics.

It’s a shame that a great speech is now the subject of ridicule based on half-truths and an urban legend.

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