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Four Important Words

May 31, 2017

On June 26, 1963 President Kennedy addressed a crowd of 450,000 from the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg in West Berlin.  Although he spoke in English, he included one Latin phrase and two German sentences in his remarks.  The shorter German sentence, a four-word assertion of solidarity with the people of Berlin, has become the most quoted part of this address.  At first, these words were quoted because the implied sentiment was clearly understood, but in the decades that followed, these four words have become a source of amusement.

In an attempt to identify with the people of Berlin, Kennedy said “Ich bin ein Berliner.”  Translated literally, this means “I am a Berliner,” but some have suggested the sentence, translated idiomatically, really means “I am a jelly donut.”  Others have said that while people in the north, west, and southwest regions of Germany may have eaten Berliners at their lunch counters, when the citizens of West Berlin asked for a jelly donut, they used the word Pfannkuchen.  Therefore, Kennedy did not make an inadvertent pun when he said “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Perhaps Kennedy might have better said “Ich bin auch Berliner,” which means “I am also a Berliner.”  Perhaps he might have said “Wir sind alle Berliner,” which means “We are all Berliners.”  Apparently, this phraseology was not suggested to him by the native speakers of German who previewed his speech.  Neither did they object to Kennedy’s use of the indefinite article “ein,” which, when included, gives the sentence a double meaning.

In any event, President Kennedy knew what he meant, and apparently so did the people of West Berlin.  On June 26, when Kennedy addressed the crowd, they stood in the Rudolph-Wilde-Platz.  On November 25, three days after his assassination, it was renamed John-F.-Kennedy-Platz.

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