"There has been an ongoing discussion of this sentence by JFK. I was always under the impression that one does not use the indefinite article (ein) with occupations or nationalities, such as "ich bin Lehrer" not "ich bin ein Lehrer" or "ich bin Amerikaner" not "ich bin ein Amerikaner." Although Berlin is a city and not a country, would this explain the so-called " mistake" or was it merely that the phrase has two meanings?"
Here is an example of this misunderstanding from an advertisement, which demonstrates how this has unfortunately come to be the accepted view. The following comments below are used with the kind permission of their authors and should settle this issue once and for all.
There was an excellent article on this question in a recent issue of "Monatshefte" (see Urban Legends page for reference and excerpt). If memory serves me, some points stand out:
Berliners obviously did not misunderstand JFK. They cheered rather than laughing.
A Berliner would never call a "Kreppel" a "Berliner [Pfannkuchen]". They leave that expression to SouthWestern Germans. See Classical Berliner Krapfen and Berliner Idioms: Ich bin ein Berliner = Ick bin een Balina!
You leave out the article when you are talking about actual provenance or profession, you use the article when you are referring to someone as having character traits of a certain profession/nation. Thus, you could say "Dem kannst du nichts glauben, das ist ein richtiger Schauspieler" where you are not saying that the person in question is earning his living on the stage, but that this person knows how to play on his audience's emotions.
General note: This is one of the most useless rules to torture students with and also confuses them about 2 nominatives surrounding the forms of "sein". There are plenty of regions (Bavaria, for example) where the "ein" is extremely common. There are plenty of "jobs" which are not really careers. You will usually arouse mirth among Germans if you say of someone "Er/sie ist Dieb/in". The use or no use of the article is not worth wasting more than 30 seconds on in the first three or four years of language instruction (i.e. point out to the students that in standard German one usually does not use the article with nouns denoting natinal origin, profession or religion, but that it's OK to do so). In later years, one might give it some instructional thought, but one should make sure that the examples one teaches end up being correct.
The article referred to is: Eichhoff, Jürgen: '"Ich bin ein Berliner": a History and a Linguistic Clarification', Monatshefte 85 (1993), 71-80. It demonstrates that Kennedy did not make a mistake and was not misunderstood. In a previous post, I cited numerous literary examples of the use of ein with nationality or profession (ich bin ein Preusse; er ist ein Bauer). There are sometimes stylistic reasons for the one or the other (with or without the ein), but the elementary fact that seems hard to learn is that 'ich bin ein Berliner/ Bauer/etc.' are not incorrect, and are quite common.
The base cause of this misconception is the inability to realize that the grammar rules we learn are almost always falsifying oversimplifications. If we have learned 'you don't use the indefinite article with nationality or profession', that is exactly such a false rule. Properly stated, it should be 'you usually don't use etc.'
Simply remembering that almost all grammar rules are 'usually'-rules, not 'always'-rules, would keep us from leaping to the false conclusion that a usage we find which does not fit the rule we learned is wrong.
Further to Joe W's message, I want to add that using these words without an article sounds more technical, purely informative. When the article is added, the word seems to gain an extra dimension, communicating more than a simple fact. There seems to be added emotion, personal emphasis or envolvement. "Ich liebe die See. Ich bin eine Hamburgerin." (the "eine" providing emphasis: "After all, I'm from Hamburg.")
It's a subtle thing. Maybe the impact of the "ein" can be conveyed by the fact that the article leaves room for an imaginary adjective, or further explanation: "Ich bin ein (stolzer) Preusse, kennt ihr meine Farben?" (from a song). "Maedel heirat' mich, ich bin ein Baecker; kann ja Kuchen backen schoen und lecker..." (from another song) Kennedy's speech did not try to provide the technical information that he was a citizen of Berlin, but the message that he had a historical and emotional connection with the city: "Ich bin ein Berliner...." (preceded by the explanation of why he was saying this).
-by Doris Kiernan
On a personal note, a friend of mine was a university student in Berlin at the time of Kennedy's address. I asked him about the double meaning of "Berliner", and he gave me an incredulous look. He felt that EIN Berliner was correct, that "Ich bin Berliner" would have sounded as if Kennedy were actually a citizen of Berlin. The EIN added an emphasis needed for his figurative use of BERLINER. My friend then added that he could assure me that no one in that crowd, at that time, would have misunderstood Kennedy's words.
-by Hank Schwab
Excerpt from the speech, in which this phrase was used twice:
...Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was "civis Romanus sum." Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is "Ich bin ein Berliner."
I appreciate my interpreter translating my German! ...
...All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner."
National Archives Exhibit on Kennedy in Berlin with authentic records, images, sound. "The speech was peppered with German and one sentence in Latin, written phonetically on one of the speech cards (shown on the above link) here."
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