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'I am a doughnut': JFK's famous Berlin speech and a lesson in grammar (PHOTOS)

The explanation is a point of grammar that baffles English speakers in particular, given our love of indefinite articles.

berliner doughnutEnlarge
A Berliner doughnut - not to be confused with President Kennedy. (Wikipedia/Wikimedia commons)

Germans mark the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's famous June 1963 speech in Berlin this week.

Much has been made of the speech, mostly regarding its historical significance, but also regarding a charming, if small, grammatical misstep.

Here's the problem: To show solidarity with the good people of Berlin, Kennedy said, "Ich bin ein Berliner," which translates into English as "I am a Berliner."

Unfortunately, there's also a doughnut called a "Berliner," which contains a smooth jam filling and is often topped with icing sugar (see picture).

The grammatical error baffles English speakers in particular, given our love of indefinite articles.

In German, to tell someone where you're from you might say, "Ich bin New Yorker" or "Ich bin Berliner," dropping the indefinite "ein" because it is useless.

Similarly, in French, one would say "Je suis Parisien" rather than "Je suis un Parisien."

There is likely a complex etymological history behind this, but to put it simply — it's quicker to say it without the "ein" or "un." However, in English, it would sound rather strange and unsophisticated to say, "I am New Yorker."

Yet, when talking about an object and not a person, the indefinite article makes a return in both German and in French.

Using the indefinite can also give a sense of the metaphorical or of the word "like" — often reserved for those who identify with others by figuratively saying "I am one of you."

However, what saves Kennedy is that when you are emphasizing where you are from during a political speech or just before you attack your foreign enemies for example, you can indeed reinsert the indefinite article.

It's a bold move that Kennedy apparently came up with himself.

Germans weren't confused and you shouldn't be either.

Oddly, the History Channel story on the confusion, includes a recipe for the famed doughnut.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/germany/130626/i-am-doughnut-kennedys-speech-and-lesson-grammar-storify