Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Ich bin ein Berliner?

My head is still stuck in a 'I wonder what that is in German' place at the moment. It's actually good from a wordgeekiness point of view because it makes me analyse what I say in English more.

While in Germany I had a conversation with a lovely woman called Kate from Australia about the benefits of being 'adjectivised' (I let this blatant example of verbing pass, because she made a good point.) being adjectivised is a good thing. It means to be described with, you know, describing words. As I have mentioned previously, we do not talk about 'queers(n)', but we can talk about 'the queer(adj) community'. Similarly, Kate prefers to be called lesbian, not A lesbian. atheist, not AN atheist.
It's fair enough, especially if one's identity is tied up with words that have been - or are - used in a derogatory fashion. Using nouns to describe someone, apart from breaking pretty basic, primary school literacy rules, is less that one step away from name-calling.
With this in mind, I started feeling uncomfortable listening to the German spoken around me. Germans (oops, German people! Is that a WW2 leftover? We don't talk about Frenches, 'Spaniard' rather than 'Spanish person' is derogatory, but The Germans is... fine?) talk about 'Schwulen and Lesben', literally 'gays and lesbians'. They refer to the Turkish community as 'die Turken' - the Turks. It just makes my skin crawl a little bit. Even though it was clear that this did not carry the dodgy connotations this would have in England.

But then something else occurred to me.
You would talk about lesbians, for example, but you would never say 'sie ist eine Lesbe' - 'she is a lesbian'. You would say 'sie ist Lesbe' - 'she is lesbian'. The word taking on a sort of 'nounjective' quality (think 'I am woman, hear me roar'). You could say 'sie ist lesbisch', making the adjectivisation complete. But this, I think, would be less, not more respectful.

This of course (wild tangent alert!) is where JFK went wrong in Berlin.

By saying 'Ich bin EIN Berliner' he removed his humanity. The indefinite article made it clear to the Germans that an inanimate object was being discussed. unfortunately for Kennedy, the inanimate object which is a synonym for 'citizen of Berlin' is 'iced doughnut'. Hence much sniggering ever after.

But you can see why he did it.

Because in the USA, if you think about it, the opposite is true. In England too, for that matter.

If you say 'I'm American' or 'I'm English'. It's a statement of fact. Whatever.
But 'I'm AN American', 'I'm AN Englishwoman'. Aha! Suddenly we're talking nationalism, civic pride; indeed, faintly racist territory. But in Kennedy's case, he was just trying to show his own pride at being associated with Berlin, and tried to apply an American nuance to the German language.

Which is a warning to us all: Try to be nationalistic in an unfamiliar language, and you might end up a doughnut.

Ich bin ein Word Geek.


  1. I am awfully font of the letter A (I blame too much Sesame Street as a child).

    I like to define myself simply - I am person. Is it cocky to throw an A in there?

  2. I love that bit about him being a doughnut - have you seen Eddie Izzard's take on that?

  3. RK: Yep! seen it and borrowed heavily from it.
    PH: But are you human, or a human being? (I reckon the latter has a ring of self righteousness to it - as in "I AM a human being you know, I have some rights!" Is this just me?

  4. Without using technical phrases, 'Germans' can be referred to as such because the -an suffix somehow supplants the definite article in the plural.

    Ex. Canadians like geese. The Canadians like geese (possibly meaning a specific group of people who happen to be Canadian). Americans like reality telly. The Americans are obtuse.

    To say American people, Canadian people or German people while politically correct sounds a bit awkward in certain contexts...which suits you just fine =)

  5. Also, I'd agree with the human thing. If you say "I am human" it sounds like you're admitting to the flawed aspects of humanity (Yes I ate the cake, it was in front of me, I'm only human) whereas "I'm a human being" sounds like you're affirming your superiour status to that of, say chimpanzees, zebras, or people from Texas (just kidding, Texas).

  6. Aha! -an = non-offensive nounification - I never would have worked that one out! That'll be why "A lesbian" is ok but "a gay" is not. And since I've been trying to answer that question at work for a while now, this totally validates me playing with my blog from work! Yippee

    Working(ish) WordGeek

  7. you made me smile before i even finished my coffee today. way to go!

    also: gigglepeppers, look out... it's both legal and culturally acceptable to be armed in Texas. (okay, i'm totally kidding. we wouldn't, in fact, shoot anyone for putting us down. but we would talk about our concealed handgun laws as though that made us superior.)

  8. You are not a cunning linguaphile. This article is one of the worst collections of popular prescriptivist tripe and unquestioningly regurgitated urban legends I have ever come across.