Ich bin ein Berliner-The Jelly Doughnut Myth

The ambiguity of the German word Berliner

Man on a coffee break with donut
Proof: JFK was (eating) a Jelly Doughnut. Hill Street Studios-Photolibrary@getty-images

German Misnomers, Myths and Mistakes > Myth 6: JFK

 

Did President Kennedy Say He Was a Jelly Doughnut?

When I first read that there was a persistent claim that JFK's famous German phrase, "Ich bin ein Berliner," was a gaffe that translates as "I am a jelly doughnut." I was puzzled as there was absolutely nothing wrong with that sentence. And just like me, when Kennedy made that statement in a West Berlin speech in 1963, his German audience understood exactly what his words meant: "I am a citizen of Berlin." They also understood that he was saying that he stood by them in their Cold War battle against the Berlin Wall and a divided Germany.

No one laughed at or misunderstood President Kennedy's words spoken in German. In fact, he had been provided help from his translators who obviously knew the German language well. He wrote out the key phrase phonetically and practiced it before his speech in front of the Schöneberger Rathaus (town hall) in Berlin, and his words were warmly received (Schöneberg is a district of West-Berlin).

And from a German teacher's point of view, I have to say that John F. Kennedy had a pretty good German pronunciation. The "ich" very often causes English speakers serious trouble but not in this case.

Nevertheless, this German myth has been perpetuated by teachers of German and other people who should know better. Although a "Berliner" is also a type of jelly doughnut, in the context used by JFK it could not have been misunderstood any more than if I told you "I am a danish" in English. You might think I was crazy, but you wouldn't think I was claiming to be a citizen of Denmark (Dänemark).

Here is Kennedy's full statement:

All free men, wherever they live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

If you are interested in the transcription of the full speech, you'll find it here at the BBC.

 

How did that myth evolve in the first place?

Part of the problem here stems from the fact that in statements of nationality or citizenship, German often leaves off the "ein." "Ich bin Deutscher." or "Ich bin gebürtiger (=native-born) Berliner"  But in Kennedy's statement, the "ein" was correct and not only expressed that he was "one" of them but also emphasised his message.


And if that does not convince you yet, you should know that in Berlin a jelly doughnut is actually called "ein Pfannkuchen", not "ein Berliner" like in almost all the rest of Germany. (In most of Germany, der Pfannkuchen means "pancake." in other regions you'd have to call it a "Krapfen".) While over the years there must have been many translation or interpreting errors with U.S. public officials abroad, but luckily and clearly this wasn't one of them.

In my eyes the persistency of this myth also shows that the world really needs to learn more German and the world also certainly needs more "Berliners". Which kind I leave to you.

 

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Original article by: Hyde Flippo

Edited on the 25th of June 2015 by: Michael Schmitz