How could I best describe my relationship to the German language? Long, difficult, frustrating, but occasionally rewarding, although when these moments occur, they are quickly followed by a series of others meant to bring my spirits down again. Maybe this is the way it should be, after all, it is one of those languages renowned for its traps.
During the first years of my study of German, I had only remotely heard of the existence of several dialects across Germany; actually, besides some cartoons I watched on RTL around the year 2000, I don’t remember hearing the language spoken by natives. So, I had a major language shock when I arrived here and I was baffled by the fact that whereas I could understand what some people were telling me, in other cases I couldn’t get more than the frequent simple words. The reason I discovered soon enough. Berlin, just like many other places around Germany, also sports its own dialect. Admittedly, it’s not so far from the Hochdeutsch in comparison to other dialects, such as the ones spoken in Ostfriesland or Bavaria – as can becomes amusingly clear in this video. Nevertheless, if you have no idea about the differences and are caught unaware, you may end up looking like an idiot to the person talking in front of you, like I usually do.
First things first, the reason why Berlinisch sounds the way it does today is because of the influences it received from the Low Saxon dialect and French in the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, the curious word “Fisimatenten” meaning stupidities is typical for Berlinisch, having been borrowed from French some time during the Napoleonic conquest; whereas due to the influence of the Lower Saxony dialect, a variety of common words are pronounced differently:
– ‘das’ → ‘det’
– ‘was’ → ‘wat’
– ‘Apfel’ → ‘Appel’
– ‘kaufen’ → ‘koofen’, just as with ‘laufen’ → ‘loofen’
– ‘gucken’ → ‘kiek`n’
– ‘kein’ → ‘keen’
Because Berliners are and, looking back in time, have always been busy people, inhabitants of a major city, their speech must also adapt to the fast pace. Thus, their speech is fast, uttered through clenched teeth, while most words are shortened:
-‘solche’ → ‘so`ne’
-‘und’ → ‘un`’
-‘auf` → ‚uff`
-‚mich‘ or ‚mir‘→ ‚ma‘
-‚Wasser` → ‚Wassa‘
-‘Weißt du’ → ‘Weeste`
-‚Sag mal‘→ `Samma`
-‘Haben Sie’ → ‚Hamse‘
What you will probably hear most frequently and what has surprised me most was the swapping of the ‘g’ at the beginning of words with ‘y’, so that in this case ‘gut’ turns into ‘yut’. Besides this, there is the pronoun ‘ich’ which becomes ‘ick’, so that the famous catchphrase “Ich bin ein Berliner” should in practice sound something like this: “Ick bin ‘n Balina”.
Something I have not noticed during conversations (probably because my knowledge of German grammar is also rather flawed, despite the years of practice) is that sometimes the dative case will take the place of the more pretentious genitive. To illustrate this, here is an appropriate example I have found on the Bright Hub Education website: ‘wegen dieses Freundes’ becomes ‘wegen diesem Freund’. Now this aspect makes me appreciate Berlinisch more. The less we have to worry for the declinations, the better.
If all these changes seem rather convenient to get accustomed to once you become fully aware of them, I couldn’t say the same thing about the various idioms typically used in the area:
-‘Kapputt’ → ‚Futsch‘
-‚Knorke‘→ ‚Alles gut‘
Just to give a few light examples, but I am sure the list goes on and on (or maybe this is my way of justifying my limited understanding of discussions with people from Berlin). For those who are interested in reading more about what sets this dialect apart, be sure to check the features on the issue on Visit Berlin, Deutsche Welle, Young Germany or the version of the Berliner Tageszeitung written in Berlinisch.
Nevertheless, a word of advice for those who, on their arrival here, after years of studying German, realise that they can’t effectively understand as much they thought they would: just smile and once in a while say the Berliner version of ‘ja’, namely ‘jo’ (with great emphasis on the ‘o’) and express your love for Berlin by chanting the famous “Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin”.