BERLIN – Legend has it that U.S. President John F. Kennedy made a whopping grammatical gaffe with his iconic declaration “Ich bin ein Berliner” 50 years ago, essentially telling his audience, “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 said of the speech on June 26, 1963. At the end of his 10-minute address, Kennedy said, “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.’ “
The phrase came up twice in the speech. It was Kennedy’s brainchild and was translated for him by official interpreters.
Stefanowitsch 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.
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.”
Stefanowitsch 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 — “exactly what Kennedy wanted to do.”