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"Ich bin ein Berliner" - Did Kennedy Really Call Himself a Donut? A Translation and Explanation
Did President John Kennedy call himself a donut in his famous speech of June 26, 1963, by declaring "Ich bin ein Berliner"? Some call this an urban legend. The answer is not so simple.
The Short Answer
German can be a titan of a language to learn. It's been described as a spitting language to simply a terrible one by the famous Mark Twain. The grammatical rules and declensions leave a student's head swimming. So it can take some guts for someone to make declarations in a language filled with nuances before a large audience. President John Kennedy certainly had guts.
Did the people of Berlin hear him call himself a donut? No, and yes.
Cultural versus Literal Translation
When a person grows up in Berlin, they can declare themselves as Berliners by saying "Ich bin Berliner." A literal translation would be "I am Berliner" - synonymous with "I am American." One would think, then, that adding the indefinite article "ein" would also translate just as well: "Ich bin ein Berliner" should mean "I am a Berliner" just as we would say "I am an American." While that statement is true and correct for Americans, it is not for Berliners. A person from Berlin would never use that indefinite article; it's simply grammatically incorrect.
The complexity comes in recognizing that President John Kennedy is not German, so definitely not a Berliner. To suggest so by saying "Ich bin Berliner" would be rude to those Germans. There are cultural examples in the United States that could identify with that. Supposing I grew up in New York City and a friend comes to visit and says "I'm a New Yorker!" Are they really? They are potentially stepping on toes.
So if saying "Ich bin Berliner" - the grammatically correct way to say "I am a Berliner" - is offensive, what other options are available to President Kennedy to convey that he stands with all Berliners in their struggles? The most appropriate way would be to add the indefinite article, accentuating his otherness while also showing solidarity. It's the beauty of the German language that we lack in English. One three-letter word can completely change the meaning of a sentence from "I am a Berliner" to "I stand with all Berliners," which is what he really wanted to say.
It was simply a misfortune that "ein Berliner" is also the vernacular term for a type of donut popular among citizens of Berlin. Technically speaking, yes - school children everywhere would recognize that he called himself by the name of a donut they have on Saturday mornings. But the general population understood the deeper, more poignant meaning. President Kennedy did not embarrass himself; he spoke correctly, but both translations ("I am a Berliner" and "I am a Berliner donut") are correct.
There is also an element of civility. When we speak to a person for whom English is a second language, we often forgive grammatical errors. We do it to people who speak English as their first language, nevermind second! Consider former President George W. Bush. "I know it's hard to put food on your family." It's a slip-up, but we understood his meaning. Because we understand his meaning, do we teach our children to say it that way? No. We teach them proper grammar, thus why President Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" is used as a teaching tool for children and German students. Grammar matters, and the nuances of simple words can make all the difference. Had he said "Ich bin Berliner," we never would have toyed with the donut joke; but Germany may not be America's peaceful allies after he insulted them by pretending to be one of them. So he did the next best thing: he showed camaraderie with the interjection of a simple, three-letter word.
In the end, the donut coincidence only made him more charming.