A Linguistic Labyrinth: The Languages of Berlin

Tunnel of Letters by Susanne Nilsson CC-BY-SA-2.0

photoSusanne NilssonCC

In the small town where I’m from, verbal interactions in any language other than Polish are an extremely rare occurrence. After I started high school in Warsaw, I have become exposed to a little wider range of foreigners, but not quite to the extent that would really meet the demands of my thirst for the exotic. So when in 2014 I got a chance to spend my summer vacations at my brother’s in California, I couldn’t contain my excitement at actually being able to use English on an everyday basis. But it wasn’t before I experienced Berlin that I really got to know an environment truly fitting for a cosmopolitan spirit; I’ve realized that my typical day in Berlin comes with more linguistic challenges than I’d face in an entire year had I not moved here.

It’s not only about English and German. Berlin’s linguistic vibe comprises all the various languages of its immigrants, expats, refugees. I’ve only found scant information about all the different groups, but what I did come across seemed to be a very accurate reflection of what I know to be true. Funny enough, even my current WG is the ultimate representation of Berlin’s three most numerous communities by country of origin with me being Polish, and my flatmates German and Turkish.

photoThomas QuineCC

How many people of the latter nationality I’d met in Berlin came as a bit of a surprise. I did hear at school about the 1958 Theodor Heuss’s invitation and the initial influx of Turks to Berlin, but I would have never predicted how many Turkish friends I’m going to have and how many kebabs I would eat. Speaking about those – I went once to a kebab joint in Lichtenberg and the guy there must have assumed I’m Russian because of my accent (happens quite a lot if you’re a Pole and can’t help but roll your “r”) and very politely said “Do svidanija!” before I left.

Unfortunately, my current experience with this Slavic language does not reach further than reading some product descriptions in Russian grocery shops like the one at S-Bahnhof Charlottenburg. This area always makes me think of Vladimir Nabokov, whose lot in Berlin I described closer here, and who was obviously a prominent figure in the Russian expat scene. What’s interesting, even though he’d spent over 10 years in Berlin, he never learned German. And I have quite a few friends I can think of that match this characteristic.

photo: Alessio Maffeis / cc

Contrary to my Turkish buddies, most of whom are so fluent in German and speak so fast that I only manage to understand “yo digga”, my American and English friends don’t usually have any activities connected with learning German at the top of their to-do list. This is of course a mere generalisation. Many would find it unjustified, and even I myself know cases that prove quite the opposite. But still, I had to mention that there are only few things cuter than a handsome native English speaker staring quite helpless at any German text, and I do mean any: might be a cooking recipe just as well as a letter from Burgeramt. In any case, this current tendency has at least two famous predecessors – Iggy Pop and David Bowie, although enjoying their Schoneberg days very much indeed, never spoke a lot of Berlin’s inherent language. However, Iggy remembers some useful phrases up to this day, singing about “schnell Imbiss” on his album released last year.

Photo: sam chills / cc

I almost feel like resorting to this approach when I try to have some conversation with my coworker who must have lived in Berlin his entire life and is now in his 50s. As a result, there’s a lot of “jut”, “wat”, “ick”, “dat”, which confuses me a lot and simply makes me blame Rammstein for my unrealistic German vocabulary expectations. I have an amazing friend who shares a lot of my pain with getting my German skills on point – he moved to Berlin around the same time as I did and is Italian. He lives quite surrounded by his countrymen, speaks Italian at home and even manages to randomly find some evidence to support the claim that Italy is indeed the 4th most numerous nation in Berlin.

Below is a sticker he found at Schonleinstr of Kittesencula, a communication research centre, a word-play on the phrase “chi te se incula?”, which literally means “who’s going to fuck you?”, but can be translated as “who do you think you are?”. Which is quite an ignenious way to express it. I think I’d have adapted it into everyday use had I not been a very respectable blogger.

After these few paragraphs, you should get the idea of how varied the speakers are here. This means that communication becomes a hilarious challenge sometimes, and the fun can only be spoiled if you’re working as a waiter somewhere and you’d really like to get the order right from some elderly German lady who’s already a little annoyed by now with your constant requests if she could possibly repeat it.

But even then, I believe that breaking linguistic barriers at work is not only possibly the only effective way to learn the language, it’s also a good exercise for the soul. Constrained by the limits of your own knowledge, you feel quite humble and start using the language as a tool for communication, rather than means of expressing your general frustration and discontent. You’re simply trying to get your message across and you get a great sense of accomplishment when you do – and that’s so refreshing after you’ve been used to come up with words just to complain with.

photo: Jacob Bøtter / CC

Realizing your own ignorance in confrontation with another language also makes you appreciate the cultural diversity. I love strolling through Sonnenalle and looking at all the shop signs which meaning I could never fathom, just as I love overhearing strange conversations on the U-Bahn. I don’t care if they’re laughing at me, I just smile back. That’s the language we all should get.

Michalina by Michalina
on January 3rd, 2017
updated on January 3rd, 2017
in Stories
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