Berlin in 12 linguistic snippets

This is a newly revised version of 12 mini posts which were first published on my old blog from September 2015 as a weekly series. Images are my own unless otherwise stated. Enjoy!

Berlin is often referred to as the “city that isn’t really Germany”.  Here, I would like to share some of my favourite linguistic gems and absurdities from Berlin. Here goes…


Week 1: Hasenheide: “rabbit moor” [ˈhaːzɘnˈhaidə]

A spacious park in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg/Neukölln that has it all: green spaces, a petting zoo, crazy golf, playgrounds, a rose garden, an outdoor cinema, drug dealers (mostly harmless), a skate park, the legendary “Hasenschänke” where you can enjoy a Berliner beer or two or three – and a May funfair! Internet legend has it that it is called “rabbit moor” because back in the 17th century, the Great Elector Frederick William used the land as a breeding ground for hares. Today, hares are a rare sight and you are more likely to spot the odd red squirrel feasting on birthday party or BBQ leftovers.

Hasenheide Schänke_ink_resized


Week 2: Hinterhaus: “rear house” [ˈhɪntɐhaus]

The bane of postmen all over Berlin. Berlin residential buildings often sport five storeys with three flats on each floor, and can have as many as two or three „rear houses“ attached to the main house (which, in turn, is called the „Vorderhaus“). The rear houses are accessed by entering through the front entrance or gate and typically crossing over a small courtyard. It gets hugely complicated when there are no doorbells or letterboxes outside the main entrance of the Hinterhaus you live in, as was the case at my place. Once, my flatmate and I found ourselves having to retrieve 3 DHL packages from a „trusted neighbour“ in the Vorderhaus (whom we had in fact never met before), left there by a postie too exasperated to try and find our Hinterhaus, never mind our actual flat.

The upside is that you can find all sorts of weird and wonderful things lurking in these endless urban corridors – from tiny subterranean clubs to funky art galleries and – a favourite! – quirky residents‘ flea markets. So, next time you’re in Berlin: remember to look behind the facade!



Week 3: Kiez: „da hood“ [ˈkiːts]

You could be forgiven if the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the word “Kiez” is the Reeperbahn in Hamburg. This famous red-light district has traditionally been called “der Kiez”. But come to Berlin, and all of a sudden you are surrounded by “Kieze”. Surely there can’t be this many red-light districts in Berlin? Breathe easy, the concept of a “Kiez” in Berlin is a much more family-friendly one. It comes down to this: Your Kiez is where you live. And you absolutely love it there. You are loyal to your Kiez. You never leave your Kiez. For anything. Ever. Except perhaps to watch an arthouse cinema show in a neighbouring Kiez. Or to check out that totally-to-die-for vegan falafel place at the other side of town…

But I digress. So you might say: I got it, your Kiez is your neighbourhood. Well, yes. And no. It depends on who you ask. A lot of the time, a Kiez is viewed to be the wider municipal area you live in, e.g. Mitte, Wedding, Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg, Neukölln. But then, you might also find micro-level Kieze within that area. For example, where I lived in Neukölln, I was surrounded by at least 4 Kieze, all of which were areas small enough for me to theoretically fall into them. I spent months trying to work out whether I lived in the Weichselkiez, Reuterkiez, Rollbergkiez or Flughafenkiez (it was the latter, incidentally).

So it is your immediate neighbourhood? In geographical terms, yes. But there are lots more elements to the definition of what makes a Kiez. The one I like best is the prerequisite of a “heterogeneous population living in close proximity to each other within a social framework, and connected by an invisible bond”. Also essential are local shops, pubs and a thriving cultural scene. So – why WOULD you leave your Kiez?


Week 4: Mediaspree [ˈmeːdi̯aʃpreː]

The only thing that’s amusing about Mediaspree is probably the name itself – contrary to what it sounds like, it has nothing to do with the media going on the rampage, but refers to an investment and development project in Berlin-Friedrichshain at the banks of the river Spree.

As a mere (non-Berlin) mortal, I can’t claim to know the ins and outs of it, but basically the project has been in the pipeline for a good few decades and does not look like it will ever be completed, due to the indomitable spirit of Berlin residents who have seized on the plans as an opportunity for one of their most favourite pastimes: democratic protest. There have been numerous protest campaigns and citizens’ initiatives over the years, one of which managed to trigger a referendum on the Mediaspree plans with a voter turnout so high it is classed as the most successful Berlin citizens’ movement to date. Needless to say, a clear majority of people voted against commercial plans and in favour of alternative proposals.

So even if we’re still in the dark about what Mediaspree actually is, or who ever came up with the name, one thing we can be certain about is that it is a prime example of Berlin-style grassroots resistance. See photo. Parental guidance is advised.



© “Former GASAG offices, 2013” by FoxyOrange – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –,_2013.JPG#/media/File:Former_GASAG_offices,_2013.JPG 


Week 5: Spätkauf: “Late Buy” [ˈʃpɛːtkauf]

There is a “Späti” at every corner in Berlin, and they quite literally keep the metropolis going. These corner shops are open till late, so in a country where shops and supermarkets traditionally close quite early, the average Berliner relies on their Späti for everything from out-of-hours loo roll emergencies to that cheeky nightcap. When there was talk of actually enforcing a national law which governs the hours of trading and under which Spätis would need to stay closed on a Sunday, riots in the streets and picket lines with banners saying “Hands off my Späti!” didn’t seem an unlikely prospect.

What you have to understand is that Spätis are much more than just shops: they are social meeting places, often equipped with chairs and tables outside for on-the-spot drinking and socialising. Some of them have acquired something akin to cult status – like the legendary “Späti International” on Weserstraße, which has been termed “the party corner shop in North Neukölln” on Berlin’s official tourist website, and even has its own facebook page. Na dann: Prost!



Week 6: Stolpersteine: “stumbling blocks” [ˈʃtɔlpɐʃtainə]

Little memorial plaques set in amongst the cobbles on the pavement to look like cobblestones to the undiscerning eye. The first 50 of these “stumbling blocks” were laid in Berlin in 1996 by an artist called Gunter Demnig to commemorate former residents of Berlin who were killed in Auschwitz under the Nazi regime. This being Berlin, the whole thing was initially done without permission from the authorities. Ever since then (and after obtaining permission to do so), Gunter Demnig has laid over 5,000 Stolpersteine in Berlin, and you can now find more than 38,000 Stolpersteine in 12 European states and 800 German cities and municipalities.

So next time you’re in Berlin – remember to look down… (Good advice on more than one front, trust me.)



Week 7: Pfannkuchen/Berliner: Pancakes vs. Doughnuts [ˈpfanˈkuːxn̩] / [bɛɐˈliːnɐ]

A “Pfannkuchen” is a pancake virtually everywhere in Germany, except in Berlin, where it’s a jam-filled doughnut. In the South of Germany, a jam doughnut would be called a “Krapfen”, whereas in the North you would ask for a “Berliner” – obviously! So the question is: Can John F. Kennedy actually and reasonably be accused to have claimed to be a jam doughnut when he famously proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner”, when this very foodstuff is not even called a Berliner in Berlin? Well, I guess so – if he had been from Northern Germany.

Oh, and by the way: If you would actually like to order a pancake in Berlin, ask for “Eierkuchen” (“egg cake”). Guten Appetit!


Week 8: Querstadtein: “cross city” [ˈkveːɐ̯ʃtatˈain]

Fancy a guided tour around Berlin that is a bit different? Off the beaten track, as it were? Sort of “cross country”, but in the city? Well, you can now go “cross city”, thanks to the social and linguistic entrepreneurial spirit of “querstadtein”, who have taken the German word “querfeldein” (cross country) and adapted it to describe the not-so-well-trodden path they encourage you to take through the urban landscape. This non-profit organisation offers guided tours around Berlin, looking at what it means to be homeless in this bustling city. The tours are led by people who used to be homeless themselves and who will open your eyes to what it is like to be out on the streets, constantly on the move to find food, drink and shelter.

When I took the tour earlier this year, I learned that there are different ways of categorising park benches for a good or bad night’s sleep, depending on how many slats they have or how hard or soft a material they are made of. And that you can use the River Spree as a fridge. But on a more serious note, I also learned that the German government keeps no records or statistics on homelessness. Which made me think: You can’t solve what you can’t measure, right? It strikes me as alarming that there appears to be so little political interest in what is clearly becoming more and more of an issue, as increasing amounts of people struggle to get by. Let’s not be this complacent ourselves. Next time you’re in Berlin, take querstadtein up on their offer to show you what it is really like to be homeless.



Week 9: Trümmerberg: “rubble mountain” [ˈtryːmɐbɛɾk]

Berlin on the whole is pretty flat. So you might rightly wonder where some of those hills come from that can be found in various parks and green spaces across the city. Chances are you are looking at one of 14 “rubble mountains” – literally created from the ruins of World War II. With so many destroyed buildings and bunkers, there was rather a lot of rubble to be got rid of, so what better way to do so than pile it high and cover it all up.

My favourite “Trümmerberg” was the one in Volkspark Hasenheide: Called “Rixdorfer Höhe”, it is 69 metres high and was created from 700,000 cubic metres of rubble. It’s the highest point in the park – which gives you some idea of just how flat Berlin really is!

Trümmerberg Rixdorfer Höhe_ink


Week 10: Schwangere Auster: “Pregnant Oyster” [ˈʃvaŋɐrə ˈaustɐ]

I doubt anyone has actually ever seen a pregnant oyster, but this is clearly what first sprang to mind for Berliners bestowing this loving nickname on what is now the House of World Cultures in Berlin-Mitte: A remarkable listed building constructed in 1957 by US-architect Hugh Stubbins. It was built in a design meant to invoke the idea of complete freedom – hence the characteristically curved roof reminiscent of a pair of wings. Or of an oyster shell, as it were.

Either way, whether you view the building as pertaining to the air or the sea: Do visit the pregnant oyster when you’re in Berlin, there is always something fabulous going on within its walls – excuse me: shell!


© holger doelle [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Week 11: Retourkutsche: “return carriage” [reˈtuːɐˈkʊtʃə]

This refers to the horse-drawn chariot atop the Brandenburg Gate (Quadriga of Victory) and is a bit of a complicated one, so hold on to your hats: The German word “Retourkutsche” was originally used to describe a horse-drawn carriage making a return journey. Over time, the term came to mean a quick and witty comeback to a slur or rude remark, which is how it is still used today.

When Napoleon occupied Berlin in 1806, he reportedly took the Quadriga back to France with him. It was only returned to Berlin in 1814 after the European allies defeated Napoleon. Ever since then, it has been dubbed the Retourkutsche– literally the carriage that has come back (and figuratively inferring that the Germans got their own back by reappropriating it).



Week 12: Neukölln: “New Cologne”? (Almost, but not quite) [ˈnɔʏkœln]

Neukölln, a vibrant and multi-cultural district in the south of Berlin, derives its name from what was in medieval times known as the twin city of Berlin-Cölln. The district comprises a rather large area which used to be called Rixdorf and was renamed Neukölln (“New-Cölln”) in 1912. Why the renaming? Well, this seems to have been something of a rebranding exercise: The city of Rixdorf, with its quarter of a million inhabitants, enjoyed a bit of a dubious reputation during the time of the German Empire. It was viewed as a place of poverty, a socialist hotbed and a breeding ground for vice and debauchery. This didn’t sit well with a small political elite of Rixdorf property owners and investors who, even back then, knew a thing or two about effective lobbying. So in one fell swoop, Rixdorf was rebranded Neukölln in an effort to boost its reputation – and property values to boot.

Since then, Neukölln has seen its fair share of ups and downs, of poverty and prosperity, of people flowing in and others being crowded out.

And today? I will let the images below do the talking.

 Neukölln I Neukölln II