Sunday, February 3, 2013

For Linguistic Kindness and Sanity: Case Study 1 in Politics

If you know the following story, just pretend that you don't and that you are hearing a language teacher tell it for the first time to make a humorous point about mistakes we make when learning languages. We'll analyze the story and the humor afterwards.

The Story
President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin in 1963 and gave a speech to express solidarity with the people of West Berlin (and thus express America's foreign policy against the Soviet Union). He said one sentence in German because, of course, it always comes across well if you say a little something in your audience's natural language. He said, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Translation: I am a Berliner -- right? Well, actually, a Berliner is a specific type of German pastry, meaning that the president actually said, "I am a jelly donut." Whoops! Ha ha!

Analysis: The Story
I am no expert on this story, much less the Kennedy presidency or the Cold War. You can read a thorough account of the speech and context on Wikipedia. I don't think the facts are important to the linguistic point other than the use and meaning of the German phrase. What is significant, however, is the supposed humor of the story.

Analysis: The Humor
The humor is supposed to remind us of the fraughtness and dangerosity of using words we don't know or trying to make up words in our second language. And it comforts those of us who have made hilarious mistakes in other languages to know that even the most powerful and public figures have done the same.

The problem with this story, however, is that Kennedy simply did not say that he was a jelly donut. If he had, of course it would be hilarious. Even if he had, however, it would not be a good reason to ignore the politics of his speech or grounds for disagreeing with his politics and presidency (although other reasons there may be). Thus linguistic kindness, or fairness, is in order. Don't look for any old reason to attack someone whose politics you disagree with.

What Kennedy did say (in German) is "I am a Berliner." And he meant that he was a (West) Berliner ideologically speaking, as opposed to a Communist. A Berliner in German does refer to a type of jelly donut. And it is also refers to an occupant of the city of Berlin. Thus we have an example of a homograph/homonym, a word that has multiple (and sometimes quite disparate) meanings but all of which rely on the same orthographic and phonetic representation. Read more (and watch a video) on Wikipedia.

For example, have you ever said, "I'm dead"? If you have and no one laughed or at least looked at you with a weird look, why not? Because dead means "physically dead" as well as "physically tired."

To the Point: Linguistic Kindness and Sanity
So let's be both kind and sane in how we think and talk of others' language usage. Kind, because it's right. Even if a politician makes a linguistic mistake, that probably has no bearing on whether his or her politics is good or bad. Sane, because otherwise we might be the ones people laugh at! In other words, we have to make sure we know what we're talking about before we critique someone for saying something like "Ich bin ein Berliner," or the joke will be on us.

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