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How's your Berlinerisch?

It might be somewhat surprising that Berliners have their very own distinctive dialect. Sure, every major language has dialects, and German is no exception, but you'd expect the language spoken at the capital to be, well, at least similar to the official one taught in schools. But German is different; the official Hochdeutsch (High German), standardized by Martin Luther in his translation of the Bible, came about in the 16th Century, before Berlin rose to prominence and long before Germany existed as a political entity. Luther ended up choosing the dialect spoken into the highlands near Hannover (hence 'High German'), confining the Berlin dialect (Berlinerisch) to the borders of the city. A major characteristic of Berlinerisch is its pronunciation, which does away with many of the the more refined sounds of the German language. Thus, instead of the so-hard-to-pronounce sounds of the German Ich (I) - something between the sh in shell and the ch in loch - the Berliners just say ick. A friend once told me Berliners don't realize they speak in dialect - they just think they speak as if they don't give a damn, a kind of 'Berlin Attitude' which they take pride in.

For a visitor in Berlin, However, the more important aspect of the local dialect is several important words which do not exist in formal German and convey specific Berlin concepts. Here are four which I find particularly useful.

Kiez (pronounced like 'kits', with a longer i) - The local mini-neighborhood, or couple of blocks.

Berlin is built as a mosaic of tiny units, much smaller than the official divisions of the city, giving rise to great differences in the atmosphere and character of areas which are just across the street from each other. Berliners are proud of their Kiez, and take great care to maintain and present its unique character.

late night licqour store in Berlin

A Späti in an alternative-atmosphere Kiez in Friedrichshain, former east Berlin

Späti (pronounced Shpe-ti) - A shop for basic provisions (sometimes just tobacco and drinks but usually also basic groceries), which is open till much later than most supermarkets. Some Spätis are open 24 hours, and some double as bakeries or coffee shops and thus are allowed to open on Sunday (unlike all other shops in Germany). Other than providing milk and cigarettes, Spätis also function as meeting points for Kiez residents, the place where you meet your neighbors and hear the latest gossip, and as such, they're a vital part of the local culture.

Bulette (also written Boulette; pronounced Boo-le-te) - A simple meat patty, usually pork, traditionally served with potato salad but also available in a bun. Similar dishes exist all over Germany (and Europe for that matter), but only in Berlin do they have a French name (literally meaning a small ball). Berlin is nowhere near the French border, but like most foods associated with the city, the humble meat patty was brought in by immigrants - in this case, Huguenot refugees from France who came to the city in the late 1600s and brought the first mincemeat knives with them.

Berlin meat patties (Boulette)

Berliner Buletten

Last but not least, Berliner Schnauze (pronounced Shnau-tze, the first part rhyming with 'now') is that unique attitude of a proud Berliner: blunt, sassy and fraught with coarse humor. The word literally means 'Snout' (and connected to the Schnauzer breed of dogs) and embodies the traditional response to anyone who doesn't follow the unwritten rules of the city. Just try to stand still on the left side of an escalator stair (it's supposed to be reserved for people who are in a hurry and walk up the escalator) and you'll get an earful of Schnauze. The attitude doesn't disappear even in the tourism industry: In Berlin, the customer isn't always right - and if you try something fancy like combining dishes or ordering stuff that isn't on the menu, don't be surprised if your waiter seems gruff, or mutters something in Berlinerisch on his way to the kitchen.

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