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This morning, in an attempt to find inspiration for a name for my new puppy (who is a great talker), I googled "great orators". The second hit took me here, where JFK is again listed as one of history's great orators. However, I was surprised to read,

Perhaps President’s Kennedy’s finest oration moment was his Ich Bin Ein Berliner speech – a notable moment of the Cold War. Delivered in front of the Berlin Wall in 1963, the speech provided a morale boost for West Berliners who feared an imminent East German occupation.

“Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was civis Romanus sum [I am a Roman citizen]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’… 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!’

Okay, so technical speaking what JFK told those German’s that summer day nearly 50 years ago actually meant: “I am a Jelly Donut” (No kidding, look it up). However, the crowd understood what the young president was speaking about and so did the Soviet Union.

There is a jelly donut called a Berliner in English.

Did the crowd think JFK said he (was) a jelly donut, and did they laugh?

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    Berliner also (and within the context probably almost exlusively) means someone from/belonging to Berlin. The source seems a bit unclear about the misunderstanding. What is meant by "technically speaking" and "the crowd understood"? Maybe the source is not a very good one. – Trilarion Jul 30 '17 at 21:23
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    Only to the same extent that Richard Nixon called himself a penis when he called himself "Dick". – Jon Hanna Aug 1 '17 at 9:34
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    @MaskedMan - Can you name me another country which had a President Kennedy (first line of quote)? – medica Aug 3 '17 at 4:54
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    @MaskedMan - "Your claim that a few seconds of your time are more precious than the time spent by thousands of users to figure out what you are talking about is at best uncharitable." Um... that's baffling. I never made that claim. If one of us is uncharitable, I don't think it's me. – medica Aug 3 '17 at 17:37
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    JFK is an abbrevation many understand correctly, at least in Hungary and probably in Europe too. Scource: personal experience in, among others, local media. – Neinstein Nov 27 '17 at 19:56
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No, it wasn't interpreted that way. Berliner is a name for a doughnut, similar to a Frankfurter being a type of sausage. However, it does also mean living in/being from Berlin, similar to Londoner.

See this article, The Real Meaning of Ich Bin ein Berliner, as told by the director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum:

Afterward it would be suggested that Kennedy had got the translation wrong—that by using the article ein before the word Berliner, he had mistakenly called himself a jelly doughnut. In fact, Kennedy was correct. To state Ich bin Berliner would have suggested being born in Berlin, whereas adding the word ein implied being a Berliner in spirit. His audience understood that he meant to show his solidarity.

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    So, out of curiosity, what does a person from Frankfurt call themselves? – mickburkejnr Jul 27 '17 at 12:14
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    @mickburkejnr: Frankfurter, just like Berliner and Hamburger. See this table – Eric Duminil Jul 27 '17 at 12:36
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    @SteveJessop There isn't an actual difference in meaning. But there is a subtle difference in how it may be received. "Ich bin Berliner" (omitting the article) is everyday speech, while "Ich bin ein Berliner" suggests "I am one of you (the inhabitans of Berlin)" (because 'ein' also means 'one'). Both mean "Berlin is my (adopted) home city" – KarlKastor Jul 27 '17 at 18:15
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    As being born in Berlin and having been lived all my life in Berlin I don't see a difference between the two versions and feel that both "Ich bin Berliner" and "Ich bin ein Berliner". Neither of those implies that the Person was born in Berlin. A person who lived a few years in Berlin can say either of those without implying that they were born in Berlin. – Christian Jul 31 '17 at 7:05
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    Isn't it just the same as "I am American" vs. "I am an American"? Remember 9/11, after which you'd hear people use variations of "Today, we're all Americans." – JimmyB Jul 31 '17 at 11:50
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No.

The Berliners (people) do not call berliner (jelly doughnut) a "Berliner", they call it Pfannkuchen (which - curious part here - stands for a pancake in some other parts of Germany). So even if JFK wanted to call himself a jelly doughnut, saying "ich bin ein Berliner" would not have achieved this goal - the Berliners wouldn't have understood it that way.

There is a widespread misconception, but only outside of German-speaking countries, that Kennedy made an embarrassing mistake by saying Ich bin ein Berliner. By not leaving out the indefinite article "ein," he supposedly changed the meaning of the sentence from the intended "I am a citizen of Berlin" to "I am a Berliner" (a Berliner being a type of German pastry, similar to a jelly doughnut).

The indefinite article is frequently omitted in German when speaking of an individual's profession or residence but is in any case used when speaking in a figurative sense. Since the President was not literally from Berlin but declaring his solidarity with its citizens, "Ich bin ein Berliner" was the only way to express what he wanted to say.

Furthermore, although the word "Berliner" is used for a jelly doughnut in the north, west and southwest of Germany, it is not used in Berlin itself or the surrounding region, where the usual word is "Pfannkuchen."

Further reading on Wikipedia

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    Of course, if someone said "I am a Hamburger" to show solidarity with the people of Hamburg, Americans would find it amusing. – David Schwartz Jul 26 '17 at 16:41
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    And, in Vienna a hot dog is called a Frankfurter, and in Frankfurt it is called a Wiener. – Random832 Jul 26 '17 at 17:10
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    @sgroves in a speech you don't hear the capital letters. – Paŭlo Ebermann Jul 26 '17 at 20:41
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    I can confirm this answer. As a person born (and living) in Berlin, I've said on several occasions "Ich bin ein Berliner". And the jelly donut is not called "Berliner" here, maybe except in national bakery chains. – Paŭlo Ebermann Jul 26 '17 at 20:44
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    Like, "I am a Danish"? – JWT Jul 27 '17 at 2:00
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Assuming that at the time it would be almost appropriate to guess that roughly as many people present understood the English parts as well the Latin bit: Yes, it is perfectly possible that the lack of (language) context might have lead to the interpretation of jelly donut. But this would be a really clueless minority.

Today a note card written in Kennedy's handwriting still counts among the most cherished possessions at Berlin's Kennedy museum. Without it, the people of Berlin might never have figured out what the president was actually trying to say. In red ink and with phonetic spelling scrawled across the page, it reads: "Ish bin ein Bearleener."

Given the larger context of a political speech relating to the wall, the whole situation within the city, the surrounding press coverage, and the fact that in Berlin itself a "Berliner" is not called a "Berliner" it should have been very clear to everyone, so that this misinterpretation would be highly unlikely.

Also, as with so many things in life, context matters! The speech was delivered in Berlin in front of 450,000 people, most of whom I would assume were probably Berliner (no ‘s’ in the plural). It is true that a Berliner is a jam doughnut, but only in certain parts of Germany is it actually called a Berliner. Funnily enough, it isn’t in Berlin. There, it is referred to as a Pfannkuchen (pancake), whereas it’s called Krapfen in southern parts of Germany and Austria. So if JFK had said ‘Ich bin ein Pfannkuchen’, there probably wouldn’t be any room for speculation, but I think we can all agree that it’s pretty clear that he didn’t mean to call himself a pastry.

This rather lengthy preamble of material already answered here in principle is only recapitulated again because no-one seems to bother answering the second part of the question: "and did they laugh?"

Some of the reactions would be called joyous, sure. Then again 'laughing' does not really fit this almost frantic reaction, shown here in a colour video: "Ich bin ein Berliner - John F. Kennedy's visit to Germany in 1963"

Instead, he made it on the steps of the town-hall of the Berlin suburb of Schoneberg. Something like 400,000 people gathered in the square as he spoke. And they erupted at the line which resonated round the world. He had been toying with the phrase for some weeks before. He had discussed it with his main speech writer and with people drafted in to help him with his Boston-drawl German pronunciation, which, it is generally agreed, was pretty poor.

Kennedy himself didn't seem to have any concerns over the reaction he met:

The reaction of the crowd listening to Kennedy address them in front of West Berlin's City Hall was so overwhelming that, on the plane leaving Germany, he remarked to his aide, Ted Sorensen, who had written most of his speech, "We'll never have another day like this one as long as we live."

So, despite the general difficulties the crowd present will have had to really understand everything he said and meant on a word by word basis, the reaction of the crowd indicates that the one part they surely understood best they also really understood in the way it was intended.

The origin of this whole misconception seems to be a relatively recent one:

That a former President of the United States should have made such a fool of himself was too good a story to go unnoticed by the media. It was first presented to a national audience by Newsweek early in 1988 when the magazine printed a letter written by one Kenneth O'Neill of Danbury, Conn.: "To the Germans ['Ich bin ein Berliner'] meant 'I am a jelly doughnut'." Not long thereafter, the New York Times featured an entire article entitled "I Am a Jelly-Filled Doughnut." After telling the story, the author added his own embellishments claiming that the Berliners "tittered among themselves" when they heard the President's proclamation. […]
Of course, no one "tittered"or "chortled"; the situation was too tense for the Berliners to be amused. What is more, every native speaker's Sprachgefühl will tell that "Ich bin ein Berliner" is not only correct but the one and only correct way of expressing in German what the President intended to say.[…]

And the support of the natives before delivering the speech should clear up all possibilities of a screw-up:

Both sentences had been translatedinto German by the man to whom Kennedy gave credit earlier in his address: Robert Lochner, son of Associated Press correspondent Louis P. Lochner, who grew up in Berlin and received his Abitur from the Dahlem Wald-Gymnasium. Lochner has provided valuable insights into how the history-making phrase found its place in the President's address: "It was only a few minutes before the address was to be delivered. When we walkedup the stairs in the city hall, Kennedy took me aside and asked me what 'I am a Berliner'and 'Let them come to Berlin' were in German. I wrote it down for him. He then disappeared into the office of Willy Brandt." Indeed Brandt, in his autobiographic "Begegnungen und Einsichten", reports that Kennedy practiced the German words "while taking a breather in my office."' It was here that he wrote the quasi-phonetic version of the German sentences on his note cards. Immediately before the speech, on his way from the Senate Assembly room to the Rathaus balcony he again asked Klaus Franke, Brandt's personal adviser, to practice "Ich bin ein Berliner" with him.
With this array of native support, it is obvious why the President's German grammar could not be wrong. But what about the claim that the audience misunderstood the phrase because in German the word Berliner can denote a 'jelly-filled doughnut'? This, of course, is total nonsense. In all languages, listeners derive the meaning of homonyms from the context in which they appear. Seen in this light, those American colleagues who found fault with the grammar of Kennedy's statement can hardly be accused of unprofessional negligence. In the absence of help from the handbooks, it does indeed require the Sprachgefühl of a native speaker to declare John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" to be correct both grammatically and semantically. (Quoted from Jürgen Eichhoff: "'Ich bin ein Berliner': A History and a Linguistic Clarification", Monatshefte, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Spring, 1993), pp. 71-80)

A small detail about 'laughter' needs clarification though. In John F. Kennedy: "Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a 'Berliner')" delivered 26 June 1963, West Berlin, you get a full transcript of the speech. And in the linked youtube video for that you can hear that shortly after he said the words in question which are met with jubilation he also cracks after some attempts a little joke:

Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is "Ich bin ein Berliner." … I appreciate my interpreter translating my German. (emphasis added)

Only that joke got a bit of a laugh after both Kennedy and the translation was met with bravo cheers and clapping. An impression of the effect with the translator can be heard here (but alas with the crucial first part containing the joke missing). But note that not even the translator deems it necessary to alter the phrase in question in any way.

tl;dr Neither before, nor during and not after the speech did any German understand this quote as a funny mistake. As also shown by the absence of laughter at him. The theory about this error being possible at all originated apparently long after the fact from a non-native speaker.

  • "Assuming", "almost appropriate", "guess", "roughly", "possible", "should have been", "unlikely". Rather than speculating what you think was likely happened, a better answer would have some actual evidence based on the actual event or expert analysis of the event. If you just want to show the crowd reaction was not laughter via the video, focus on that. – Oddthinking Oct 4 '17 at 20:47
  • The last link is broken. – Laurel Jun 11 at 23:16
  • The first known occurrence of the myth is before the 1988 Newsweek letter: Len Deighton's 1983 novel Berlin Game, from which it propagated to the New York Times review of the book and presumably entered the American popular consciousness. Whether Deighton himself or the book's unreliable narrator actually intended the claim to be taken seriously is unknown. – Pont Jun 12 at 8:38
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    Why I was never notified of this answer is a mystery to me. A belated thanks so much for a great answer! – medica Jun 16 at 22:13

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