It was a few weeks into the pandemic last year, the Berlin supermarket was almost empty and I was trying to get in and out as quickly as possible.
Remembering something I’d forgotten, I began turning the shopping trolley around and was confronted with a small woman with short, grey hair and large eyes.
Rising up with indignation behind her own trolley, she barked: “Block the entire aisle, why don’t you!”
Where the Irish specialise in “sorry”, whether they are or not, Berliners are notorious for what Germans call Berliner Schnauze – Berlin snout – a mix of salty dialect, humour and attitude that make Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas look like choir boys.
That morning in the Berlin supermarket, after tossing insults back and forth each time we passed in the aisles, I approached the woman at the checkpoint.
The Berlin accent's travel companion is a prickly, fatalistic humour that historians and psychologists see rooted in Berliners' history of helplessness
As a native Dubliner, I said the Berliner Schnauze didn’t come naturally to me. Like a hedgehog shedding its spines, the woman shrank and her eyes grew sad: “Ach, you barely get the Berlin Schnauze anymore.”
The origins of the Berlin accent, Berlinerisch, and the accompanying Schnauze attitude, are lost in the mists of time. Linguists see the local language less as dialect than metrolect, spread over a broad regional area and lingering halfway between low and high German. Adding colour are traces of the languages brought by waves of settlers: Yiddish, Polish, French and more.
One rule of thumb is that, the higher class the Berlin visitor, the more traumatised they are by the accent and Berliner Schnauze. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – the poet, dramatist and all-round genius – wrote after visiting that Berliners "need hair on their teeth to keep their head above water".
As Berlin became capital first of imperial Germany and then the inter-war Weimar Republic, the local attitude and accent became as inseparable from the city as the Brandenburg Gate.
In 1921, journalist Paul Schlesinger, who wrote under the pen-name Sling, suggested Berliners cultivated their accent and Schnauze as a two fingers to the rest of the country that hated them.
“With a certain nauseous expression,” he wrote of the local accent, the words are squeezed out and thrown onto the the cobblestones and swept up by the street cleaners.”
Seven years later, in 1928, Berlin-born linguist Agathe Lasch was the first to codify the Berlin accent with its guttural vowels and consonants that remain the same today. For instance the true Berliner never misses an opportunity to turn the word good – gut – into “jut”, pronounced “yute”, or I – ich – into “ick”. Advanced users of the Berliner accent happily mix up accusative, dative and genitive cases to confuse blow-ins.
Agathe Lasch insisted the local German – Berlinerisch – was an organic, learning language and not just the jargon of uneducated people who failed to learn a more upmarket German.
“Unlike most other spoken dialects,” she wrote, “it does not continue calmly from the old ancestral form.”
The Berlin accent’s travel companion is a prickly, fatalistic humour that historians and psychologists see rooted in Berliners’ history of helplessness. Over the centuries, humour has been the last resort of long-suffering locals under Kaisers and dictators, Allied air-raids and nearly four decades of division until 1989.
During those decades, while many west Berlin parents discouraged their children from speaking a dialect they considered low class, Berliner Schnauze survived among east Berliners intact, for many as a badge of honour.
The three decades since unification have brought regular rumours of the demise of Berlinerisch; others say it is just changing again, absorbing new colours: traces of Turkish grammar, hip-hop intonation and English vocabulary.
Through it all the keepers of the Berliner Schnauze flame remain the same: local binmen, shop assistants and bus drivers, worn down by the public and drunk on their little bit of power.
Live here long enough and you learn to give as good as you get. Like the time I brought an old mattress to the local dump and was watched closely by the dump foreman. Leaning out of his cabin, his Berliner accent pouring out of his mouth like used motor oil, he said: “Na, first you screw on it and then you dump it.”
Bristling with indignation, I told him: “My beloved grandmother died on this mattress just 12 hours ago.”
After he apologised profusely, I walked away laughing and shouted back: “Gotcha.”