Most of us thought that this issue had been resolved decades ago. Somehow, it keeps cropping us as new, with no mention of past clarifications. Jürgen Eichhoff resolved it in 1993, for instance:
German-American Language Myths: Ich bin ein Berliner ... and a Linguistic Clarification” by Jürgen Eichhoff, Monatshefte 85: 71–80 (1993
Here we go again! --rsb
Legend has it that US president John F. Kennedy made a whopping
grammatical gaffe with his iconic declaration "Ich bin ein Berliner" 50
years ago on Wednesday, essentially telling his audience -- and the
world -- "I am a jam doughnut".
The historical lore was that JFK,
in his first faltering words of German, was wrong to use the indefinite
article "ein" and should have said "Ich bin Berliner" to declare his
solidarity with the embattled Cold War city.
Not so, says Anatol Stefanowitsch, a Berlin professor of linguistics. "The sentence 'Ich bin ein Berliner' is grammatically absolutely
acceptable," he told AFP ahead of the commemorations for the stirring
June 26, 1963 speech.
The phrase came up twice in the speech,
delivered in Kennedy's broad Boston accent. It was his brainchild and
translated into German for him by official interpreters -- JFK had
written it out phonetically on notecards so he would be understood. (Perhaps: Eek bean eye-n bear -lean- er ! --?)
notes that while "Berliner" is a German word for a filled pastry, the
context of Kennedy's declaration made his sentence abundantly clear to
the cheering throngs. "The confusion derives from the fact that
(in German), you normally express your belonging to a predefined group
in a sentence without an article, such as 'Ich bin Student' or indeed
'Ich bin Berliner'," he said.
"The sentence 'Ich bin Berliner' is clear and cannot refer to 'doughnuts' because that is not a predefined group," he explained.
said the construction with the article "ein" is used when a speaker
wants to say that he doesn't literally belong to the group (Berliners in
this case), but rather wants to express that he has something in common
with them. "That is exactly what Kennedy wanted to do -- he did
not want to claim to actually be a resident of the city of Berlin but
rather to say that he shared something with the Berliners, namely their
love of freedom," Stefanowitsch said.
At the end of his 10-minute
address, Kennedy uttered the immortal words: "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'."
So there would have been no blank stares or giggles from the crowd of 450,000 Germans that summer's day? "Kennedy
not only delivered a grammatically correct sentence but rather the only
sentence that made sense there," Stefanowitsch said.