Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Berliners are known for several things: their alleged surliness, talent for speaking in an almost incomprehensible metrolect and shooting cheeky ripostes as fast as Oscar Wild on his best nights. Pity those comments are sometimes difficult to understand for they are wells of wisdom and a source of a good laugh.
If you are lucky and blessed with a good ear (and provided you grasp of German exceeds the average bitte-danke-achtung), with time you might begin to appreciate its charm or, as the younger among us define it, to “get it”. But be forewarned, Berlinerisch is nothing like Unter den Linden – it is a long and winding road full of “eens”, “oofs”, “dets” and “icks” and it turns on its head everything you have ever learnt about German grammar.
From linguistic point of view Berlinerisch, a notoriously difficult to understand spoken form of German still used by some 20% of Berliners, is neither a dialect nor an accent. It is a metrolect. Like Kölsch spoken in Cologne or like the Liverpudlian Scouse.
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.
Let´s begin with Slavonic influences: West Slavic tribe, the Sprevane, lived in this area around the eigth century and most likely gave the German capital its name: barl, or brlo, is Slavonic for “marsh, morass”. You will also find their traces in many other local names: Köpenick, Steglitz, Treptow, Pankow, Spandau or Marzahn (to learn more, see chapter “Berlin Etymologies” in Notmsparker´s Berlin Companion published by Yours Truly in 2016).
Another strong influence was East Low German, which appeared in this area around the thirteenth century. It is still spoken in much of the North-Eastern Germany and by some minorities in Poland.
Waves of refugees and traders, who always change and enrich the local language, modified the Berlin dialect further. Flemish first arrived with merchants and traders from the Low Countries sometime around the thirteenth century: it is to them that Berlin´s southern locality of Lichterfelde (originally Lichtervelde) owes its name. Four centuries down the line another wave of Dutch newcomers reached Berlin invited by Elector Friedrich Wilhelm, the Great Elector. If you were ever wondering where the Dutch-sounding street-name Friedrichsgracht (an embankment street south of the Stadtschloß) comes from, here is your answer.
French arrived in Berlin at more less the same time as the second wave of Flemish: it was brought by the Huguenots invited by the Great Elector to settle in Berlin in the seventeenth century and a century later it basically became the official language of the city. Like in the rest of Europe, it evolved into the language of the elite: if you had gone to see a play at one of the bigger Berlin theatres at the time, it would have been almost certainly staged in French.
But that, of course, is yet not the whole picture of Berlin´s linguistic evolution. Today´s Berlinerisch also contains elements of East Central German which came along with the Saxon merchants. And, last but not least, there is Yiddish which arrived with the Ashkenazi Jews of East and Central Europe who settled in Berlin in the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth century (by the way, did you know that the name Ashkenazi comes from the Hebrew “Y´hudey Ashkenaz” or “the Jews of Germany”?)
Many of their descendants can still be identified today by the surname: the family name Berlin (also Bärlin, Barlin, Berling and even Beilin) most probably suggests that a family´s journey took them to Germany´s capital at some point. Many East and Central European Ashkenazi Jews who came to Berlin at the time did not have a hereditary surname and they were given, or took, “Berlin” in order to be registered as residents. In exchange, they gave Berlin such wonderful words as schwoofen (to dance), Bammel (fear) or ausbaldowern (to find out, to spy out).
As far as spelling goes, there is no written standard for Berlinerisch, which means that every publisher uses their own discretion. However, 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 and its own melody, it strikes all newcomers as an almost insurmountable hurdle when striking up a conversation with the Urberliner (the true natives among locals).
Since French came into fashion around the seventeenth century and later became the official language of the Berlin court, Berlinerisch was looked down upon as the proletarian vernacular. 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 mostly retained its popularity in East Berlin – cherished as a historic symbol and a token of the proletarian spirit of the city – while in West Berlin it was steadily losing both its meaning and the number of users.
West Berliners (many straight from the plane/train from Bonn or Hannover) – saw it as obsolete. What is even more important, they perceived it as a potential handicap on the job market as well as negative influence on the social stand of its users. If that sounds like a exaggeration to you, think about the general chances of getting a well-paid job in London in the 1970s if as soon as you opened your mouth, out came Newcastle, Glasgow or Leeds. Not impossible but, well, unlikely.
Today, the tendency seems to be reversed: with Prenzlauer Berg inhabited by over 80% newcomers (mostly from the former West Germany) and the natives having left for the West or been pushed out onto the outskirts, finding a Berlinerisch-speaker in the former central East Berlin is a challenge in itself. At the same time, the former West Berliners began to use Berlinerisch to emphasise their native status.
By doing that they began to convert it into a sociolect or argot, a language spoken in a specific circle and understood mostly only by “insiders”. So today – and, oh, is that History ironically chuckling in the wings? – being able to speak Berlinerisch might actually be a boon.
And if you are unsure as to what the sound of Berlinerisch really is, here is the local classic, a little poem which contains all the main elements. Enjoy learning it by heart!