Passed around in various forms on the net recently, this truly distant, extremely imperfect, pun, partly in German, partly in English, which does, however, come with the signature of its putative maker (Ella Niemans, who, alas, I’ve been unable to find anything about — perhaps because her name might be a joke, playing on German niemand ‘nobody’):

(#1) A monstrously complex joke alluding to  US President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 speech at the Berlin Wall, in which he declared (in his American-accented German) Ich bin ein Berliner, asserting that he was figuratively, in spirit, a citizen of Berlin

So it’s about bin liners and it’s about the Kennedy speech. Complexities on both counts.

bin liner. A noun-noun compound involving one of the senses of bin and one of the senses of liner; from NOAD:

noun bin: … [b] a receptacle in which to deposit trash or recyclables: we tossed the soda cans in the bin marked “aluminum only.”.

noun liner-2: [a] a lining in an appliance, device, or container, especially a removable one.

The resulting compound is pretty much as well-behaved semantically as you could want: a bin liner is a removable lining for a trash / recycling receptacle.  The objects are familiar to me; I have, in fact, what amounts to a life-time supply of these exemplars:

(#2) They’re plain white, the right size, sturdy, and (important for me) unscented

So far so good. Now suppose that you have a kitchen trash can and want a removable plastic insert that you can carry the trash out for pickup in. You can search on that description, and eventually you’ll get shunted to the right items. But things will go more quickly if you know that the label bin liner (rather than trash can insert, say) seems to be the preferred term in the industry.

Dictionaries won’t have an entry for the transparent compound bin liner, of course, but there’s a very substantial repository of information about the sociocultural contexts associated with the choice of lexical items — including associations with particular commercial contexts, as here. These are systematic facts about language use and deserve their own account, which I’m just hinting at here.

Berliner. The pastry. From Wikipedia:

A Berliner Pfannkuchen (referred to as Berliner for short) is a traditional German pastry similar to [an American] doughnut with no central hole, made from sweet yeast dough fried in fat or oil, with a marmalade or jam filling and usually icing, powdered sugar or conventional sugar on top. They are sometimes made with chocolate, champagne, custard, mocha, or advocaat filling, or with no filling at all

Then, in my 11/30/12 posting “Nightmare stories”, on a Zippy cartoon:

The title  [of the cartoon] — “Ich bin ein Frankfurter” — echoes John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” quotation from a famous 1963 speech at the Berlin Wall. Kennedy was using Berliner ‘citizen of Berlin’ (to claim solidarity with the people of Berlin), though critics pointed out that Berliner is also used (by metonymy) to refer to a type of doughnut. There’s a similar ambiguity in Frankfurter: ‘citizen of Frankfurter’ or (by metonymy) a type of sausage (see, for instance, this wiener posting).

In a comment, Bob Richmond insisted (as others have before him) that:

“Ich bin ein Berliner” means “I am a jelly donut”. “Ich bin Berliner” means I am from Berlin.

My reply:

On ein Berliner: there’s extensive discussion of the point, the burden of which is that though many speakers might prefer one reading over the other, both are possible for many.

But things are much more interesting than that. From the Max Kade Institute of the U of WI-Madison, “German-American and American English Dialects”, essay on “Ich bin ein Berliner”:

According to a widespread legend, President John F. Kennedy proudly declared himself to be a jelly doughnut before thousands of Berliners in June 1963. This story is a familiar one to students of German in US classrooms, but it is unfounded.

One of the many differences between the grammars of German and English pertains to the use of articles, especially indefinite articles (a[n]ein) that come right before words denoting professions and geographic origins. While in English one would say I am a student and I am an American, the German equivalents are Ich bin Student and Ich bin Amerikaner, without the ein. It is a common error for learners of German to say Ich bin ein Student (Amerikaner).

Now turn the clock back to June 26, 1963, and President Kennedy’s legendary visit to Berlin at the height of the Cold War. One of the president’s most famous lines of all time was the one he uttered twice, at the beginning and end of his stirring speech, to express solidarity with the citizens of the divided city, namely Ich bin ein Berliner. Ever since, German teachers in this country have quoted this line as an example of what their students should NOT do. Pointing out that one of the regional words in German for ‘jelly-filled doughnut’ is Berliner, people have assumed that President Kennedy outed himself as a pastry to a city of amused Germans.

In a 1993 article [“‘Ich bin ein Berliner’: A History and a Linguistic Clarification”, Monatshefte 85: 71–80], the Max Kade Institute’s founding director, Prof. Jürgen Eichhoff, explains that Kennedy’s words (which were provided to him by a native speaker of German, Robert H. Lochner, were in fact grammatically correct. A rarely mentioned corollary of the rule about ein in front of professional terms and nationalities in German prescribes that if the subject of the sentence only has certain characteristics of the profession or nationality referred to, but is not really a student, American, Berliner, etc., then the ein is required. For example, Ronald McDonald would say in German Ich bin Clown. On the other hand, if someone is just acting silly, that person would have to say Ich bin ein Clown.

Thus President Kennedy did not misspeak, which explains why the myth developed only outside of Germany; see the serious image from German media —


where JFK’s words were reprinted. But even if Kennedy had misspoken, Professor Eichhoff adds, native speakers of German would have understood precisely what he meant. And in an ironic twist, the dialect word Berliner, referring to a pastry, is not even used in the city of Berlin, but farther west. Interestingly, it was introduced by nineteenth-century immigrants into the English of the Upper Midwest, as the Dictionary of American Regional English demonstrates.

(#4) Berliner with plum jam filling (from Wikipedia)

One Response to “ICH BIN EIN BINLINER”

  1. John J Chew Says:

    I look forward to sharing this with my linguist father Jack Chew, who was working at the State Department at the time, and the one who came up with the words that Kennedy actually read out: “Ish bin ine Bear-LEAN-er.”

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