Ian Farrell explores the origins and development of Berlinerisch – and shows us how to speak ‘like a local’…
Moving to Berlin is a big step in anyone’s life. No matter where you’ve lived before – Paris, Rio, Stockton-on-Tees – Germany’s capital is guaranteed to be a new experience for you. Every day holds a new discovery: a future favourite bar or café, stumbling upon a spontaneous live concert or dance performance, or simply making friends with some of the many colourful folk on the streets of your adopted home.
If you want to make the most of this life-changing decision, you’re going to want to learn the language. Maybe you studied German at university in your home country. Maybe you’re planning on doing a crash course when you get here. Maybe you are German (or Austrian, or Swiss, or another native speaker of Deutsch).
Either way, you’ll settle into it sooner or later. The grammar might be a bit tricky for beginners, but after a month or two you’ll probably be able to hold down a half-decent conversation, and this multi-kulti metropolis is generally pretty tolerant of your mistakes.
At some point, you’ll stumble across one of those elusive creatures: a born-and-bred Urberliner. Maybe someone will come round to read your meter, or install a new boiler, or perhaps you’ll make the mistake of trying to strike up a conversation with your bus driver when buying a ticket. You greet them with confidence and the opening gambit you had prepared in your head trips relatively smoothly off your tongue.
You prick your ears up for the response…but wait, what was that?! Was it even German? It sounded like something between a grunt and a mutter, far too fast for you to understand, and now they seem to be laughing and/or scowling at you! Did you say something wrong? You are very, very confused. Welcome to the world of Berlinerisch.
What is Berlinerisch?
“Berlinisch ist eine Art von Nuscheln mit eigenartiger Intonation, wobei der Hörer das Gesprochene kaum versteht” / “Berlinerisch is a type of mumbling with a peculiar intonation whereby the listener barely understands what is being said“ – Helmut Schönfeld, Berlinisch Heute
Contrary to what some natives would have you believe, Berlinerisch, or Berlinisch, is not a language in its own right. It would be easy to mistake for an accent or dialect, but is in fact neither. An accent would simply involve pronouncing some words differently to standard German (Hochdeutsch). A dialect would do the same, but also include new words of its own and maybe the odd tweak to the accepted grammar rules. Berlinerisch does all these things – but there’s more to it than that.
Strictly speaking, Berlinerisch is a metrolect – a mixture of different dialects all piled together in one big urban area, usually due to a long history of immigration into the city, from both elsewhere in the country and further afield. There is no one “standard” form of Berlinerisch; everybody speaks it differently.
A rough equivalent in English might be the Liverpudlian “Scouse” dialects spoken in the Merseyside area of North-West England. Until the mid-1800s, the way of speaking in this region was similar to the rest of Lancashire. The situation changed radically following an influx of Welsh and Irish immigrants, whose accents (and languages) combined with the native tongue and those of other passing sailors and merchants to create a number of variations on a theme, which then spread further beyond the city’s boundaries following slum clearances in the inner city in the 1950s.
Different varieties of scouse can now be found as far from urban Liverpool as parts of North Wales, Cheshire and Lancashire.
Origins Of Berlinerisch
So how exactly did this acerbic group of dialects come about? As with so many aspects of Berlin’s culture, the answer lies in the city’s mottled history. In the early stages of its existence, Berlin’s local lingo was defined by its trade links. In the 15th century, as a member of the Hanseatic League that traded across northern Europe, the city adopted the Low German dialect used by its business partners.
Way back in the thirteenth century, before Berlin as we know it really existed, the simple folk who lived down this way spoke a form of East Low German, a dialect still used today in much of the north-east and even by minorities in Poland. As the towns of Berlin and Cölln began to grow through the influence of the Hanseatic League and the Holy Roman Empire, their populations were boosted by a high influx of outsiders.
Flemish settlers brought their own language, which was closely related to the local way of speaking, while merchants from Saxon cities such as Meißen added the slightly different East Central German dialect. Others also came from further afield, adding their own linguistic flourishes. This mixture of tongues quickly melded together into a mutually intelligible metrolect – the basis for modern Berlinerisch.
However, these were hardly the last peoples to immigrate to Berlin – nor even the first. The name Berlin itself comes from the Slavic tribes who set up shop in this area as far back as the 6th and 7th centuries (it literally means “swamp”, in reference to the natural landscape they found on arriving here). They also named many of the surrounding areas – Treptow, Teltow – and some of their terms hung around long enough to find their way into the common slang when the area was finally urbanised over a millennium later. The popular Berlin term Kiez, for example, was a Slavic word for settlement often used to describe small fishing communities (Berlin-Köpenick being one local example).
Later contributors to Berlinerisch included Jewish people from eastern Europe, whose Yiddish phrase for a strong wind, hech suha, got mangled into the endearing Berlin complaint “Det zieht wie Hechtsuppe” (literally “There’s a draught like a pike soup in here!”). However, perhaps the most surprising influence on the way Berlin natives speak today is that most sophisticated of tongues, French.
Much like with English today, it was very fashionable for Germans in the late 17th Century to throw French words into conversation in order to seem educated and posh. The trend increased in Berlin when The Great Elector and Duke of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm, offered sanctuary to 20,000 Huguenots who had been hounded out of their homeland by the Catholics.
These well-educated religious refugees thrived in Protestant Brandenburg, comprising up to a fifth of the capital’s population and integrating well with the upper classes. Soon, French had become the official language of the royal court, and the Academy of Arts was instructed to put on all its performances in French, with Berlinerisch now seen as somewhat vulgar by those in charge.
Those not in charge, however, barely batted an eyelid, instead simply taking the words being spoken around them and using them to add a little French panache to their linguistic hotpot. A Frikadelle became a Boulette, and the typical Berliner on the street took to ordering them “aus der Lameng” (à la main) when they were eating on the go (a little further down the line, the same phrase became common parlance for the act of proposing an idea off the top of one’s head).
This trend continued through Napoleon’s invasion in 1806, a period which gave birth to the popular urban myth that the Berliner phrase “mach doch keine Fisimatenten” (don’t make such a fuss/stop giving me excuses) came from French soldiers propositioning impressionable young German ladies with the words “visite(z) ma tente” (“come back to my tent”). Unfortunately, fuddy-duddy linguists no longer belive this to be true. The overall effect of French on Berlinerisch, however, remains undisputed.
The Berlinerisch Wall
When the industrial revolution hit Germany, Berlinerisch was already well-established among the local workforce, especially in what we now know as Mitte and Kreuzberg, the centre of the Berlin at the time. As the city’s population boomed, so did Berlinerisch. What had once been confined to the heartland of the Prussian empire now spread rapidly to surrounding Brandenburg, pushing out the East Low German those in the countryside had still been speaking before.
For several decades, Berlinerisch thrived, remaining the go-to lingo of the average German on the S-Bahn. It survived two world wars in relatively good shape, but the uneasy peace that followed was a different story. The city’s two regimes had differing ideological attitudes to Berlinerisch from the start, but it wasn’t until the wall put an end to mingling among normal folk from both sides that the signs really began to show.
As money poured into West Berlin in an effort to rebuild and establish a capitalist economy, competition for jobs led to people dropping their accents in order to seem better educated. At the same time, there were people moving into the city from elsewhere in the Federal Republic for a myriad of reasons: work, sympathies for the East German regime or simply to avoid conscription (as an occupied territory, West Berlin had no German army presence). Berlinerisch began once more to be seen as a vulgar and lower-class, an attitude that was only strengthened by West Berlin’s isolation from its more provincial surroundings.
The GDR, on the other hand, with its emphasis on hard work and equal social standing for all, provided the perfect environment for a working-class way of speaking. Berlinerisch was used not just informally, but also in many public situations. Indeed, it was often seen as impolite or pretentious to speak standard Hochdeutsch. Speaking Berlinerisch was a sign of solidarity; it showed you were one of the normal, everyday Volk. The rude health of the dialect was also maintained by direct and constant contact with East Germans from smaller towns and villages around Brandenburg, who rarely had any reason to posh up their accents for anyone else.
However, the changes were not all black and white. Despite the slow decline in its status in the West, it was during this era that Berlinerisch began to gain more national recognition due to an increase in exposure on West German television. Likewise, covering up one’s dialect could still be advantageous in the GDR. My friend Ralph, who has lived in Brandenburg and Berlin all his life, took this decision at quite a young age in order to help his career.
“In the business world, even in East Germany you would often be taken more seriously if you spoke Hochdeutsch,” he explains. “But it depended who you wanted to impress. I once attended a meeting for the introduction of our new boss, and he made a point of coming up to me afterwards and asking in his best Berlin accent which area I was from. There were a lot of old Berliners on the board, so he knew it was a way of gaining acceptance – though he could obviously speak Hochdeutsch as well.”
Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that Berlinerisch enjoyed a higher status in the East than the West, and these differences quickly became evident once the wall fell. As citizens from the two halves of the city began once more to mix in the workplace and on the street, the differences in accents served to reinforce the stereotypes that had arisen due to changes in attitude during the Berlin’s decades as a divided city. Easterners still considered their dialect a strong part of their identity, and thought the Westerners snobbish for suddenly acting as if they were somehow above using it. Likewise, those from the old West thought their Eastern counterparts came across as uneducated and chavvy.
In the end though, it was the old Ossis who had to adapt to the Western way of life, and it wasn’t long before attitudes began to change accordingly. Parents and teachers quickly became aware of the advantages of Hochdeutsch in a competitive, capitalist workplace and began passing these values onto the next generation. A study conducted by the Humboldt University in 1998 revealed that Abitur students about to graduate from school at the time had retained an affinity for Berlinerisch, but younger students with little or no experience of the GDR had already learned to prioritise Hochdeutsch in everyday interactions.
As mentioned earlier, these days it may take a while before you truly encounter Berlinerisch, even if you live here. Berlin is now more cosmopolitan than ever before, boasting residents of varying permanency from elsewhere in Germany and all around the world. Sometimes it can feel like there are hardly any Urberliners here to speak Berlinerisch with. But the sandpaper tongue and acerbic wit are still here, especially when you get away from tourists.
Nor is it there a significant generational difference – Berlinerisch may have taken a back seat to Hochdeutsch when it comes to academic and professional interactions, but it remains a popular form of expression among the younger generation, especially those from the old East. My old flatmate, Annika, grew up “janz weit draußen” (an affectionate Berlin term for “out in the Styx”, i.e. Brandenburg) and has spoken Berlinerisch all her life.
“I can’t speak any other way,” she told me over a Schnitzel a few weeks ago. “I Berlinered at home, and so did most of the kids I grew up with. There were some schools in the East that drilled Hochdeutsch into the children, but not mine.”
However, she acknowledges that it is no longer possible to simply address people in Berlinerisch and assume they will understand. “A few weeks ago, my Granddad came to visit and we went out for lunch. He asked the waitress for ‘ne Knacker und ‘ne Molle (a Wurst and a Bier), and she just stared at him and said Wie bitte? – she was probably from out of town.”
Video: Ahne and God discuss the American Tea Party…among other topics (not necessarily safe for work!)
Berlinerisch also retains a cult status in literature and media on both a local and national level. Berlin superstar band Die Ärzte often sing in the local dialect, while Kurt Krömer, a comedian who grew up in Neukölln and has had several popular shows on national television, has built a large part of his act on his local roots and way of speaking. Indeed, comedy seems to be a natural outlet for the love of the Berlin way of speaking, and the dialect can often be heard on the city’s Lesebühnen and stand-up circuit.
One of my own first encounters with it was at the Rakete 2000 prose evening, where local writer Ahne performed several scenes from his irreverent book and radio show Zwiegespräche mit Gott (“Conversations with God”) in which the Almighty is the author’s neighbour and the two engage in the kind of mind-bending, back-and-forth jostling that only true Berliners can deliver.
When he heard I was writing this article, Annika’s boyfriend, Matze, who grew up a stone’s throw from the grand old DDR cinema Kino International on Karl-Marx-Allee, presented me with a volume of Didi und Stulle, a light-hearted comic strip about two slightly chavvy pigs who get into scrapes while bickering in exaggerated Berlinerisch.
Full of running gags, occasionally puerile humour and – somewhat bizarrely – quotes from Nietzsche, it manages to both poke fun at and evoke pride in the capital’s inhabitants and their brusque mannerisms. The dialect may seem a little extreme at first, but once you’ve got the hang of it, there are certainly worse ways to learn how to speak – and act – Berlinerisch.
The continuation of this article – including my guide on how to speak Berlinerisch – can be found on Slow Travel Berlin here.