Speaking Berlinish

(Due to some confusion which is entirely the result of my imprecise writing, I’d like to add the disclaimer here that this post is not about the dialect of German spoken in Berlin, or even about German language at all.)

There is something disconcerting about being born into a lingua franca, traveling abroad and hearing words you grew up with awash with various accents, mistakes, —as a tool, simplified, rather than a lived thing.

Native English speakers are uniquely privileged in the world in that we can be lazy—and still be understood. That is to say, we are not obligated to undergo years of language education in order to be attractive to international employers, or even to work a simple café job. But this privilege, it seems to me, comes with its shares of disadvantages. The first and most noticeable of which is, at least for Americans, the largely systemic inability to understand different cultures, the fear of the Other, and the indignant dropping out of Spanish classes the moment the true difficulty of language-learning becomes apparent.

The other disadvantage is perhaps more nebulous.

Upon arrival in Berlin, what is first abundantly clear is the prevalence of English. A city proudly defined by international transplants, Berlin seems to be in the midst of a shaky balancing act between English and German. Every few blocks one sees an advertisement for German classes, and yet there is an overwhelming sense that if your grasp of English is good enough, you don’t need German. But the English spoken in Berlin is far from the comfortable fluency of home. The nuances of an unintuitive verbal tense system, for example, are gone. “I go to the museum.” “I was seeing a movie yesterday.” “Tomorrow I visit friends.” The words which we all sneak into our native tongues, fillers and flavors, have vanished or are misused. Our beloved curse words, even, seem misplaced.

I will never forget overhearing a conversation between two Russians in their early twenties on the subway in Berlin. Speaking animatedly, one of them interrupted the flow of Russian with a comedic, awkwardly pronounced insertion of “I’m asking for a friend” in English. They both laughed, and I sat in my seat wondering about the ownership of such a phrase. English jokes would seem to no longer belong to native-English speakers. We can no longer claim a cultural home in such things. English-speaking culture, for better or worse, is global culture, and while I am left utterly adrift in conversations of Russian humor, my own English comedy is readily taken up by the vast English-enabled world.

What arises are questions of home. We feel at home in our cultures not just because it is what we are used to, but because of the sense that only one who grew up in our circumstances would truly understand what it means to be… us. For most, this would mean, among other things, the language that we speak. Learning new languages is a powerful gateway to new cultures and new understandings, but even as my German approaches fluency, I know that I will never be German, and I will likely struggle with idioms, humor, and the appropriate methods for cursing for the rest of my time with the language. English, however, is no longer an indication of home. Overhearing English while traveling in Berlin especially is almost meaningless. The speakers could be from anywhere, and only a careful assessment of accent can truly uncover any information about origin.

This would also seem, however, to be a testament to Berlin’s powerful ability to obliterate the significance of origin. Language becomes just another thing a newcomer can embrace quickly in order to find belonging as a Berliner. Imperfect English is perfect Berlinish, and one is perfectly correct to use it. Mistakes in German while in Germany are less easily forgiven than those in English, after all.

So to be in Berlin proved a unique experience for me as a native speaker of English. Familiar words were everywhere, baristas and servers switched instantly to English, occasionally even with relief, the moment they heard even the slightest accent on my German. What I hoped was a courtesy on my part—always speaking German first—in fact seemed to violate the hidden code that runs Berlin: Foreigners should speak English.

Any native-speaker of English who has traveled abroad to learn or speak another language can sympathize with the frustration of always being spoken to in English. But in Berlin it would seem, there is more to it. Refusing to speak English is a refusal to speak Berlinish, a rejection of the city’s commitment to acceptance. When I speak English here, I slow my words, simplify, avoid the slang and other markers of home and fluency in my language. I speak Berlinish, another language entirely.

Header image: Kreuzberg, Berlin. (c) Vincent Comparetto, 2017.

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