Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Movie Review: A Better Life - Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part review of A Better Life. The first part dealt more with the background issue of illegal immigration, whereas this part focuses more on the movie itself.

In the movie, neither the undocumented immigrants (representative of all the undocumented, but particularly those with upright motives) nor the police (representative of the legal system, including courts, prisons, and immigration) is entirely at fault. Both are stuck in an imperfect, human system.

The viewer is led to sympathize with the undocumented man, an honest landscaper who wants nothing but to work hard so that his one son can have a better life. He’s away from home; his wife left him when his son was little; he has next to nothing; when he does acquire something (a lawn business and pickup with equipment) it gets stolen from him. And yet, the movie does not excuse what he does wrong nor does it try to show him as a man victimized and ruined by the consequences of his actions.

Apart fr…

教会に影響を与えるために神様が用いる人々の九つの特徴

Read this in English.

これらの9つの特性は、アンドルーボナーから来る。説教でそれらを議論する私の牧師を聞きながら、コピーしたので、ボナーの何本から来たのは覚えていません。これらはクリスチャンに対してとても大事の本質ではないでしょうか。

教会に影響を与えるために神様が用いる人々は次の特徴がある...

1.まじめな人
2.成功を目標する人
3.信仰を持つ人
4.勤勉な人
5.忍耐強い人
6.大胆な人
7.祈る人
8.強力な教義の人
9.深くに清新な人

黒澤監督の『隠し砦の三悪人』

今週初めて黒澤明の『隠し砦の三悪人』という映画を見ました。この三悪人とは、だれですか? 三船敏郎が演じる真壁六郎太(まかべろくたろう)と二人の百姓です。この3人の登場人物の関係はとても面白くて、全ての人間の弱さも愛される性質も示します。

最後の場面で、二人の百姓、太平(千秋実)と又七(藤原釜足)、姫と真壁からもらった金1枚をどうやって分けるかと黙っていて、太平は又七に任そうとしていても又七は断ります。いつもケンカしているこの二人は、後で再びケンカしてしまうと思われますけれども、取りあえずまた仲良くなって幸いです。