JFK: "I Am a Jelly Doughnut" ("Ich Bin ein Berliner")

Did John F. Kennedy Make a Gaffe in Berlin Wall Speech?

President John F. Kennedy...
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Did John F. Kennedy make a major German language blunder in his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in Berlin, Germany?

The Urban Legend of the Berliner-Jelly Doughnut Gaffe

The story goes that JFK should have said "Ich bin Berliner" ("I am a citizen of Berlin"), and that "Ich bin ein Berliner" really means "I am a jelly doughnut." A Berliner is, in fact, a type of jelly doughnut made in Berlin. But was this an error and a source of amusement and embarrassment?

The Berliner Gaffe That Never Was

Notwithstanding reports to the contrary in such prestigious venues as the New York Times and Newsweek, this is truly The Gaffe That Never Was. Experts say Kennedy's grammar was flawless when he uttered those words on June 26, 1963. The phrase had been translated for him by a professional interpreter.

German-speakers point out that President Kennedy said the phrase absolutely correctly, although possibly with a thick American accent. The German language has subtleties that very few non-native speakers grasp. If President Kennedy had said "Ich bin Berliner," he would have sounded silly because with his heavy accent he couldn't possibly have come from Berlin. But by saying "Ich bin ein Berliner," he actually said "I am one with the people of Berlin." President Kennedy had a German journalist translate the phrase for him, and that journalist coached him at length on exactly how to say the phrase.

Parenthetically, it is true that in some parts of Germany the word Berliner can just as well denote a certain kind of jelly-filled pastry as a citizen of Berlin. But it is unlikely to have cause confusion in the context. For example, telling a group of Americans that your editor is a New Yorker, would any of them really think you'd confused him with the weekly magazine of the same name?

Consider the context.

A German Grammar Lesson

Laying decades of misinformation to rest, linguist Jürgen Eichhoff undertook a concise grammatical analysis of Kennedy's statement for the academic journal Monatshefte in 1993. "'Ich bin ein Berliner' is not only correct," Eichhoff concluded, "but the one and only correct way of expressing in German what the President intended to say."

An actual Berliner would say, in proper German, "Ich bin Berliner." But that wouldn't have been the right phrase for Kennedy to use. The addition of the indefinite article "ein" is required, explains Eichhoff, to express a metaphorical identification between subject and predicate, otherwise the speaker could be taken to say he is literally a citizen of Berlin, which was obviously not Kennedy's intention.

To give another example, the German sentences "Er ist Politiker" and "Er ist ein Politiker" both mean "He is a politician," but they're understood by German speakers as different statements with different meanings. The first means, more exactly, "He is (literally) a politician."  The second means "He is (like) a politician."  You would say of Barack Obama, for example, "Er ist Politiker." But you would say of an organizationally astute coworker, "Er ist ein Politiker."

So, while the proper way for a Berlin resident to say "I am a Berliner" is "Ich bin Berliner," the proper way for a non-resident to say he's a Berliner in spirit is precisely what Kennedy said: "Ich bin ein Berliner."  In spite of the fact that it can also be the correct way to say "I am a jelly donut," no adult German speaker could possibly have misunderstood Kennedy's meaning in context, or regarded it as a mistake.

The Translator

The man who actually translated the words into German for JFK is was Robert Lochner, the son of Associated Press correspondent Louis P. Lochner. The younger Lochner, educated in Berlin and a fluent speaker of German, was Kennedy's official interpreter on his visit to Germany. Lochner translated the phrase on paper then rehearsed it with JFK in Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt's office right up to the moment the speech was to be delivered.

In the interests of international peace and harmony, we can be thankful that the president was well-coached that day before addressing his audience in their native tongue. Otherwise, God forbid, he might have stood before the German people and claimed to be a croissant. Quelle horreur!

Perpetuating the Berliner-Jelly Donut Myth

Following are examples of the "I'm a jelly donut" tale making the rounds via old and new media in recent years:

  • The Jelly Doughnut
    Anonymous pundit says: "His slip-up was overlooked. Can you imagine today how the media would respond if Dan Quayle tried to get away with that one?"
  • A Berliner Remembers
    Margit Hosseini, who heard the speech as a young girl, claims she laughed at Kennedy's reference to a "pancake." Apparently she was the only one who did.
  • And Yes, Even CNN
    Website blurb: "Unfortunately he was not only saying 'I am a Berliner," he was also saying 'I am a jelly doughnut'..."

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