The misunderstood rule here is that in German, ordinarily, to say that I am a citizen of a particular city or the practitioner of a certain occupation, one says, “Ich bin Berliner” (I am a Berliner) without the indefinite article “ein” (a or an) or “Ich bin Schauspieler” (I am an actor) again not using the indefinite article. Incidentally, this doesn’t apply to other identifications such as, “Ich bin ein Mann,” meaning, in a word-for-word translation into English, “I am a man.”
The trouble is that there are exceptions to this rule. It is acceptable to use “ein” with citizenship or occupation if there is something special or peculiar about the identification. In the case of Kennedy, the peculiarity is that he is not saying that he is literally a citizen of Berlin. Rather he is saying that he is metaphorically, almost spiritually, a citizen of Berlin. Indeed, in Kennedy’s metaphor, to be “a Berliner” is to be a citizen of the Free World.
|Actor Eddie Izzard|
Eddie Izzard is a British actor and stand-up comic who is among the many who have put about the story of Kennedy’s supposed blunder. (Purveyors of the canard include “The New York Times” and many other notable English-language newspapers, magazines and books.) “In German,” Izzard has told audiences, “a ‘Berliner’ is a jelly donut. So the crowd thought he was saying, ‘I’m a jelly donut’.”
Now, Izzard has played a German in a movie (“Valkyrie”), but his knowledge of German is actually negligible (though he does seem to speak conversational French serviceably well), so he compounds his mistake because only Germans outside of Berlin call any pastry a “Berliner.” Berliners themselves call the pastry that elsewhere bears their name, “Pfannkuchen.” My point being that Izzard does not know what Kennedy’s audience was thinking when they heard him say that famous and deceptively simple German sentence.
We could use Izzard himself to illustrate the exception to the rule about the indefinite article “ein.” Izzard once starred in a short-lived television series called “The Riches” in which he played the role of a confidence man named Wayne Malloy. So we could say in German:
“Eddie Izzard ist Schauspieler [without the article “ein”], aber Wayne Malloy ist ein Schauspieler [with the article “ein”].”
“Eddie Izzard is an actor, but Wayne Malloy is A KIND OF an actor,” because a conman is an actor but only in a peculiar sense.
This is the subtle shade of meaning that the use of the word “ein” can bring to the table. Kennedy was not saying that he was literally a citizen of Berlin. He was saying that he was METAPHORICALLY a Berliner, in the sense that he stood in solidarity with the people of Berlin. By the same token, Izzard really is an actor, but the character he once portrayed is an actor only in that he is a phony, and all phonies are SORT OF actors.
|Willy Brandt, Mayor of West Berlin in 1963|
Those who have spread the urban legend of Kennedy’s error have neglected to say—and probably do not know—that the American president rehearsed his speech privately with Willy Brandt, the mayor of West Berlin. I do not know, but perhaps it was Brandt who suggested changing “Ich bin Berliner” to “Ich bin ein Berliner.” After all, he did not want people in the crowd turning to one another and saying, “Do you hear? The president of the United States must be out of his mind, because he thinks he is literally a citizen of Berlin!”