It was the height of the Covid-19 pandemic when a message came through to my Berlin apartment building's WhatsApp group. It was a video from our neighbour, filming his feet – complete with black socks slipped into a pair of Adidas sandals – as he stomped on a couple of cardboard boxes.
"Cardboard box made small in five seconds," read the caption in German, passive-aggressively punctuated with a kissy face emoji. "If I can do it, so can you."
Berliners generally have a reputation for being cold, outspoken and blunt. This modus operandi is cheekily (or fearfully) called the Berliner Schnauze, literally the "Berliner Snout". It plays off a need for order, an assumption that everyone else is doing something wrong, followed by a brash correction of the behaviour.
Victims of the Berliner Schnauze are usually passersby, getting told off for something they didn't realise they were doing wrong. In our case, it was triggered by the recycling bins overflowing at the apartment building. Others have experienced it on the U-Bahn when they were too hasty getting on and someone barked, "Erst raus dann rein!" ("First out, then in!"). Whatever the case may be, the Berliner Schnauze strikes without warning, usually unprovoked, delivering a brutal level of honesty you never asked for.
Travellers may experience Berliner Schnauze on the U-Bahn if they're too hasty trying to get on (Credit: totalpics/Getty Images)
On paper, Berliner Schnauze is simply a dialect of German spoken in and around Berlin. In reality, it's a visceral dialect merged with working-class attitude and influences from French and Yiddish that can be as polarising as it is varied.
Dr Peter Rosenberg, a West Berlin-born linguist whose familiarity with Berliner Schnauze comes from years of study and lived experience, describes it as a "schlagfertig", or quick-witted linguistic game. He says that it's the colloquial language of Berlin – the spark behind a comment or the way you respond to a situation.
The Berliner Schnauze refers to taking advantage of the comedic potential of any given situation, and occasionally, at the expense of the conversation partner
Sure, there are differences in pronunciation, grammar and syntax between Berliner Schnauze and Hochdeutsch, or High German (the standard German spoken throughout the country). For example, the Berliner Schnauze uses a "j" where High German uses a "g". So gut (good) becomes jut. But most don't think about grammar and syntax when it comes to Berliner Schnauze. It's an attitude that's entirely based on a situation.
"In a certain sense, the Berliner Schnauze refers to taking advantage of the comedic potential of any given situation, and occasionally, at the expense of the conversation partner," Rosenberg said. "This is where the misunderstanding comes from outsiders."
Despite the cultural confusion, Berliner Schnauze has been influenced by foreigners and minority cultures for centuries.
Descriptions of Berliner Schnauze increased in the 19th Century as High German grew in usage. According to Rosenberg, Berliner Schnauze was lambasted as a primitive form of language along with other German dialects like Niederdeutsch, or Low German. The criticisms were varied, and critics played up the supposed rough nature of Berliners. During the Berlin Wall era, Berliner Schnauze was more common in Communist East Berlin, seen by many in the upper echelons of West Berlin society as a language of the underclass.
During the Berlin Wall era, Berliner Schnauze was more common in Communist East Berlin (Credit: Image Source/Getty Images)
But Berliner Schnauze wasn't born from isolation. Rosenberg names a number of cultural and linguistic influences that have left their mark on the dialect. For instance, Yiddish is well represented in Berliner Schnauze thanks to a historically sizable Jewish community. Glück gehabt (to have luck), for instance, became Mazel gehabt. Meschugge (crazy) and Mischpoke (family) also entered the Berliner Schnauze lexicon through Yiddish.
In addition, French influence came from the time of Napoleon's occupation of Berlin in the early 19th Century. Blümerant (unwell), Kommode (chest of drawers), Toilette (toilet) and Kostüm (costume) can all trace their origin to this period. English, too, is having an influence given its position as the city's second-most spoken language.
Despite the dialect's linguistic pluralism, it hasn't always been well received by outsiders, as Rosenberg suggested. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, widely regarded as the most influential German-language writer, wrote that Berliners are "an audacious breed of people", adding that "you have to have hair on your teeth and sometimes be a little rough to keep your head above water".
In an informal poll of Twitter users, those from cultures with differing conversational customs agree, tending to misconstrue Berliner Schnauze as overly aggressive or rude. However, Berliners are well aware of Schnauze's notoriety.
Alessandra Morisse, an "Urberlinerin", or someone who grew up in the city, describes Berliner Schnauze as both a dialect and an attitude. "It means being uncomfortably direct, brutally honest and free," she said. "We say things like we mean them, which can be off putting or come across as rude to some, but nine times out of 10, we mean well."
Berliners generally have a reputation for being cold, outspoken and blunt (Credit: Tony Smith/Alamy)
Sieglinde Tuschy moved to Berlin in 1987 but originally comes from Franconia, a region in south-central Germany tucked within the state of Bavaria. Like Morisse, she describes Berliner Schnauze as both a dialect and the "Lebenseinstellung", or attitude towards life, of born-and-bred Berliners. It's direct, fast, cheeky, funny, and, as Rosenberg said, "schlagfertig" with a certain sharpness, like an "Ohrfeige" – a slap in the face.
You can't really learn this dialect, even when you've lived here for decades
"You can't really learn this dialect, even when you've lived here for decades," Tuschy said. "One thing is for sure: With the Berliner Schnauze, you keep non-Berliners at a distance."
At first, she thought the harsh tone of Berliner Schnauze was "terrible", describing it as "a real culture shock". Once at a post office in Berlin's eclectic neighbourhood of Schöneberg, Tuschy found herself waiting in a long line to pick up a package. She says that the post office workers were taking their sweet time, casually chatting with one another over coffee from counter to counter. That's when an indignant older woman yelled from the back, "Wat'n ditte hier, soll ick nu waaten, bis da Leichenwagen kommt?" ("What's going on here? Should I wait until the hearse arrives?").
Francesca Kuehlers, who grew up in Colorado and has lived in Dublin, Accra, and Berlin since 2007, has even stronger feelings about Schnauze.
"You know how sometimes you might mutter a passive-aggressive comment about a stranger?" she asks. "Schnauze is when, instead of muttering it, you say it loudly enough that the person you're commenting about hears it. On purpose."
Not everyone's Berliner Schnauze story comes with a rude bark, however. Rosenberg, for instance, has fond memories of Berliner Schnauze, including one that dates to his time playing on the company football team. Most of the players were "Handwerker" or manual labourers of some kind, and Rosenberg was the only academic on the team. His teammates would often ask him what he did as an academic and finish with the question, "Musst du da morgen wieder hin?" (Do you have to go back there tomorrow?).
Rosenberg explained that this formulation of the question was a Berliner Schnauze way of saying, "What you do is completely superfluous."
Berlin is a highly multicultural city, attracting a mix of international expats as well as other Germans (Credit: ElOjoTorpe/Getty Images)
"It was really nicely packed," smiled Rosenberg. "Nobody said, 'nobody needs linguistics' or 'intellectuals are strange people'. They just nicely asked, 'Do you have to go back there tomorrow?' That's very typical."
Despite the popularity (or notoriety) of Berliner Schnauze, Rosenberg believes that its usage is on a slight downturn. This fall off reflects a general trend among dialects and regional languages. However, in Berlin, it's exacerbated not just by the mix of international cultures in Berlin, but of Germans from around the country moving to the capital city.
Tuschy has noticed this trend as well, saying she seldom hears Berliner Schnauze anymore. If she hears it, it's usually a bus driver, craftsman or someone working at the bakery. Like Rosenberg, she thinks it's due to the increase in residents from outside of Berlin.
"That blends the language," he said. "And so, with that we have a bit of a decline, but it's not gone."
What's happening is that Berliners are using language that will be intelligible to more people. That is, High German with perhaps a regional accent. Though born-and-bred Berliners like Morisse say they'll slip into it from time to time if addressed in the dialect.
"I know Berliner Schnauze can sound extremely rude, but I very much appreciate the honesty that comes with it," she said. "It is such a big part of Berlin's character as a city, and I actually find it kind of endearing most of the time."
It's possible sentiments like Morisse's are keeping the dialect alive. This is, after all, still a young country in the grand scheme of nation-states, and Germany is a highly regional country. Plus, there are those who couldn't possibly remove Berliner Schnauze from their identity, like Rosenberg, who despite relocating to Rio de Janeiro, still uses it with his wife.
"You can't lose it," he said. "It belongs to your language identity."
Lost in Translation is a BBC Travel series exploring encounters with languages and how they are reflected in a place, people and culture.
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