Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Did you know that Berlin has its own language that is neither a dialect nor an accent and is still spoken or at least understood by around 20% of the city´s inhabitants?
From linguistic point of view Berlinerisch, a notoriously difficult to understand spoken form of German still used by some 20% of Berliners and full of “eens”, “oofs”, dets” and “icks”, is neither a dialect nor an accent. It is a metrolect.
Metrolects, also known as “urbanolects” since they are principally a feature of big cities with a long history of immigration, are in fact a mixture of different dialects and accents enriched by a series of generous contributions from other languages, too. In the case of Berlin the main influences would be: Slavic (see the history of the name “Berlin”), East Low German (appeared around the 13th century; it is still spoken in much of the N-E Germany and by some minorities in Poland), Flamish (arrived with their merchants and traders around the 13th century), French (brought by the Huguenots invited to settle in Berlin by the Great Elector in the 17th century) , East Central German (came along with the Saxon merchants), Yiddish (spoken by the East European Ashkenazi Jews who settled in Berlin in the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century). Kölsch spoken in Cologne is another well-known German metrolects. In the UK, their equivalent is the Liverpudlian Scouse.
There is no written standard for Berlinerisch, which means that every publisher uses their own discretion as to the spelling, but it is immediately recognisable when spoken: full of contractions (shortened words and phrases such as “hamma” instead of “haben wir”), fast-paced, with sometimes very blurred pronunciation an own melody, it strikes all new-comers as an almost insurmountable hurdle when striking up a conversation with the Uhrberliner – the true natives among the locals.
Since French came into fashion around the 17th century and later became the official language of the Berlin court (theatre plays were presented in French, too), Berlinerisch was looked down upon as the proletarian lingo. Prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall, its use was especially widespread in the working class districts of the city: Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, Wedding and Moabit. During the division it retained its popularity in East Berlin – cherished as a historic symbol and emphasising the proletarian nature of the city – while in West Berlin it was steadily losing its meaning und the number of users. West Berliners, many of whom were new arrivals to the city again, saw it as obsolete and potentially hampering one´s chances on the job market as well as negatively influencing the social stand of those who spoke it.
Today, the tendency seems to be reversed: with Prenzlauer Berg inhabited by over 80% new-comers (mostly from the former West Germany) and the natives having left to the West or been pushed out onto the outskirts of the city, finding a Berlinerisch-speaker in the former central East Berlin is a challenge in itself. At the same time, the former West Berliners often use Berlinerisch to emphasise their native status and underline the importance of the local group they are members of, turning the language into a sociolect: a language spoken in a specific circle and understood mostly by those who are inside it.
A Berlin argot.
Here is an episode from a German TV series about German dialects – at 3 min 30 sec (at No 10) you will find several short comments about Berlinerisch as well as some examples of its use.
No less interesting are the street scenes recorded (mostly) in Berlin-Kreuzberg in the late 1980s:-)