A grammar lesson
Laying decades of misinformation to rest, linguist Jürgen Eichhoff undertook a concise grammatical analysis of Kennedy's statement for the academic journal Monatshefte in 1993. "'Ich bin ein Berliner' is not only correct," Eichhoff concluded, "but the one and only correct way of expressing in German what the President intended to say."
An actual Berliner would say, in proper German, "Ich bin Berliner." But that wouldn't have been the right phrase for Kennedy to use. The addition of the indefinite article "ein" is required, explains Eichhoff, to express a metaphorical identification between subject and predicate, otherwise the speaker could be taken to say he is literally a citizen of Berlin, which was obviously not Kennedy's intention.
To give another example, the German sentences "Er ist Politiker" and "Er ist ein Politiker" both mean "He is a politician," but they're understood by German speakers as different statements with different meanings. The first means, more exactly, "He is (literally) a politician." The second means "He is (like) a politician." You would say of Barack Obama, for example, "Er ist Politiker." But you would say of an organizationally astute coworker, "Er ist ein Politiker."
So, while the proper way for a Berlin resident to say "I am a Berliner" is "Ich bin Berliner," the proper way for a non-resident to say he's a Berliner in spirit is precisely what Kennedy said: "Ich bin ein Berliner." In spite of the fact that it can also be the correct way to say "I am a jelly donut," no adult German speaker could possibly have misunderstood Kennedy's meaning in context, or regarded it as a mistake.
The man who actually translated the words into German for JFK is was Robert Lochner, the son of Associated Press correspondent Louis P. Lochner. The younger Lochner, educated in Berlin and a fluent speaker of German, was Kennedy's official interpreter on his visit to Germany. Lochner translated the phrase on paper then rehearsed it with JFK in Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt's office right up to the moment the speech was to be delivered.
In the interests of international peace and harmony, we can be thankful that the president was well-coached that day before addressing his audience in their native tongue. Otherwise, God forbid, he might have stood before the German people and claimed to be a croissant. Quelle horreur!
Perpetuating the myth
Following are examples of the "I'm a jelly donut" tale making the rounds via old and new media in recent years:
The Jelly Doughnut
Anonymous pundit says: "His slip-up was overlooked. Can you imagine today how the media would respond if Dan Quayle tried to get away with that one?"
A Berliner Remembers...
Margit Hosseini, who heard the speech as a young girl, claims she laughed at Kennedy's reference to a "pancake." Apparently she was the only one who did.
And Yes, Even CNN!
Website blurb: "Unfortunately he was not only saying 'I am a Berliner," he was also saying 'I am a jelly doughnut'..."
Did they really say it?
• Julius Caesar: "Beware the leader who bangs the drums..."
• Nikita Khrushchev: "Small doses of socialism..."
• Hunter Thompson: "Where thieves & pimps run free..."
• Barack Obama: "I will disarm America..."
• Bill Cosby: "I'm 83 and I'm tired..."
• Abe Lincoln: "Pray that we are on God's side..."
• Rush Limbaugh: "Slavery built the south..."
• Marie Antoinette: "Let them eat cake..."
• Sarah Palin: "Without Jesus we'd be Muslims..."
• Mitt Romney: "Of course I'll win, I'm the white guy..."
• Ben Franklin: "Beer is proof God loves us..."
• Neil Armstrong: "Good luck, Mr. Gorsky..."
Sources and further reading:
Audio Recording of JFK's Brandenburg Gate Speech
Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library
Video of the Speech
Pundits: Jelly Doughnuts for Brains?
Article from The New Generation home page
Teaching JFK German
Remembrances of Robert Lochner, Kennedy's interpreter
John F. Kennedy Bio
From the White House
Last updated 06/26/12