Thanks to a Transblawg post linking to this article, we now have confirmation of what I always thought concerning the famous Kennedy speech:

Linguist Jürgen Eichhoff, writing in the academic journal Monatshefte, confirms there was no flub on Kennedy’s part. “‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ is not only correct,” he says, “but the one and only correct way of expressing in German what the President intended to say.”

An actual resident of Berlin would say, in proper German, “Ich bin Berliner.” But that wouldn’t have been the correct thing for Kennedy to say. The indefinite article “ein” is added to a statement like this, Eichhoff explains, to express a metaphorical identification between subject and predicate. In fact, “ein” is required in a sentence such as this unless the speaker wants to be taken literally.

For 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. The first means, more exactly, “He is (literally) a politician.” The second means “He is (like) a politician.” You would say of George W. Bush, “Er ist Politiker.” But you would say of an organizationally astute coworker, “Er ist ein Politiker.”

So let’s hear no more of this “jelly doughnut” nonsense.


  1. Well then, why DID the effete Europeans name all their great cities after pastries and sausages?
    Does this also mean that Hitler was not a Wiener?

  2. Ah, I was bearing down on my keyboard, ready to bust the pastry misconception once again … but of course I should have know who’s writing this blog.
    FWIW, this native speaker of German declares loudly that you are right. Whatever other German speakers may say. Obviously, Kennedy’s pronouncement is a little amusing, just like your other example would be if there was a dish called “Politiker”.
    For anecdotes sake, in my high school we could buy various snacks during break time, one of which was called “Amerikaner” (rounded on one side, flat on the other with a cover that was half chocolate and half icing sugar; the racist, or at least problematic nature of this name only occurred to me when I was about to graduate). And when our English class covered sentences like “I am a plumber”, or “I am American”, some of the 12 year olds would find it very funny to say “Ich bin ein Amerikaner”. Childish giggling.

  3. My wife lived in Germany for a little while. When she brought this up to Germans there reaction can be summarized thus:
    1) Kennedy was in Berlin? That’s cute
    2) So he said he was a donut, who cares, that’s not what he meant.
    3) Why is that funny?
    She never got this explanation. Also, she asked me to mention that if you say you’re American in German you’re also saying, literally, that you’re a black & white cookie.

  4. Another thing to add: Kennedy said this in Berlin. The (hole-less) jelly doughnut is called “Berliner” in most of (mainly northern) Germany, but not in Berlin. Where I grew up, it’s called “Krapfen”. Real Berliners call it “Pfannkuchen”, which is the term that in the rest of Germany denotes pan cakes. (The Berliners call those “Eierkuchen”).

  5. Why does everyone take it for granted that cities are less ridiculous than buns? Consider carefully: would YOU prefer to be Dortmund or a moist piece of raspberry cheesecake?

  6. Oh, I should point out that my wife lived in Northern Germany. Also, uh, there=their, that’s what I get for editing for clarity on preview 🙂

  7. A Dortmuder is a kind of beer.

  8. Well, now, there’s a perfectly good Eddie Izzard stand-up routine ruined, absolutely ruined! I hope you’re proud of yourself…

  9. Kind of like iw=i m vs. ink in Egyptian. 😉

  10. My experience is that although we have black-and-white Amerikaner here in Franconia, they aren’t always 2 colours in other parts of Germany (the British zone?!).

  11. “”The first means, more exactly, “He is (literally) a politician.” The second means “He is (like) a politician.”
    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but to my Sprachgefühl it should be the other way around…

  12. MM: I did grow up in Franconia (Erlangen, Middle Franconia). And I have neglected to sample Americaner elsewhere. Nussecken always had my preference.

  13. Chris: that explains why I could only find a white Amerikaner in Fürth today. The black-and-white ones must be more common in Erlangen. However, a Monday in a heatwave is not the best time to search. (Photo coming shortly in my weblog…)

  14. Margaret, and here I was told American food portions/pastry sizes far exceed European! It might be true of croissants, but that millstone you pictured takes up half a paper!
    Or may be it’s a family size?

  15. Tatyana, it’s just like a small American cookie.
    Some individual German cakes are huge, but this is about the smallest!

  16. Theloniouszen says

    From experience, yes you can find the black and white Amerikaner in Erlangen, not at der Beck, but if you take Hauptstrasse from the north southward, pass the Kaufland plaza, enter the pedestrian zone, go past the Schlossrestaurant –
    I think that on the road you take to the west to get to the Bahnhof, there is a bakery with a baker figure out front (I don’t remember the name of it) and I’ve bought one there.
    It might be right off of Hugenottenplatz but I don’t remember. (I have not been in Erlangen since late February but I hope to return. Please have a doener at Kapadokya and also Dinkelbier at Steinbach for me, will ya?)

  17. RavinDave says

    The thing is — I’ve heard native German speakers mock this usage. Indeed, the first time I heard of the incident was in a German class taught by a native. This makes me think that it must be a VERY subtle shading.

  18. John: I did add a picture with a tape measure to my entry. It didn’t show the Amerikaner, which had been consumed, but it showed the same newspaper.
    Theloniouszen: I’m quite sure there are black-and-white Amerikaner in Erlangen. This reminds me of Parzival’s brother Firlefanz, who I think was striped, because he had parents of different races. Maybe they have them at Pickelmann. You seem to be referring to the Goethestraße, but I can’t place the bakery.
    The last time I was at the Steinbach brewery I had a Storchenbier. I tend to eat döner in Fürth, of course!

  19. Damn, now I’m hungry. . .

  20. Or perhaps Kennedy just thought “I’m doughnut” doesn’t sound right. Plus, an actual resident of Berlin would say “Ich bin ein Pfannkuchen”.

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