"Voll nice!" How to get the hang of Berlin Slang

Article published on July 22, 2014
Article published on July 22, 2014

Hav­ing barely just ar­rived in Berlin, every new­comer will quickly learn to choose their words. In the trendy Ger­man cap­i­tal, you won't just have to nav­i­gate be­tween the Berlin di­alect and a plethora of for­eign lan­guages, but you will also have to fa­mil­iarise your­self with Berliner slang. With this small lex­i­con in hand, get­ting off to a good start won't seem so daunt­ing. 

Whether or not you are cool in Berlin de­pends largely on one seem­ingly unim­por­tant word. As of re­cently, it is not cool in German to say 'cool' any­more. In­stead, every­thing that seems in­ter­est­ing, novel or praise­wor­thy is now 'nice'. In re­sponse, one would as­sume that this has to do with the con­stantly grow­ing num­ber of Eng­lish-speak­ing for­eign­ers who call Berlin home, and who con­fine them­selves to speak­ing only Eng­lish as they me­an­der through Kreuzkölln and Friedrichshain. But that seems rather im­plau­si­ble, con­sid­er­ing that there doesn't seem to be a Re­nais­sance of the word 'nice' in in­ter­na­tional Eng­lish. In­stead, the unim­pres­sive word is ut­tered al­most ex­clu­sively by young Ger­mans who seem to be get­ting slowly bored with the ridicu­lously overused term 'cool'.

Berlin is cute... or what? 

Even though Berlin­ers have rather lit­tle to do in com­par­i­son to their friends in cities like Lon­donNew York and Bei­jing, they don't lose time over words and pre­fer every­thing to be short, quick and catchy. That is why only tourists and the unini­ti­ated say Schle­sis­ches Tor, Görl­itzer Park or Kot­tbusser Tor. Out of the mouths of Berlin­ers, you will only hear things such as "Schlesi", "Görli" or "Kotti". The same ap­plies to many other fre­quently used words: The fa­mous Spätkauf (cor­ner shop) — it­self a pretty bizarre word con­struc­tion — turns into "Späti", the "öffentliche Verkehrsmit­tel" (pub­lic trans­port) into "Öffis", while the widely drunk "Stern­burger beer" be­comes a "Sterni". If you want to sound cool in Ger­man, you def­i­nitely won't get around these ab­bre­vi­a­tions, but you should also be care­ful not to use too many in one sen­tence. 

Once you have mas­tered the lan­guage of hip self-des­ig­nated Berlin­ers, you will have to grap­ple with the cheer­fully brash "au­then­tic" Berlin di­alect, which across Ger­many is known pe­jo­ra­tively as the "Berliner Schnauze," or Berlin muz­zle. Most of us have prob­a­bly al­ready heard that in Berlin, "Brötchen" (bread rolls) are called "Schrip­pen". Even the shift in end­ing con­so­nants that turns words such as "ich" (I) into "icke", "was" (what) into "wat" and "das" (that) into "dit", is some­thing you can quickly adapt to. But when ini­tial sounds sich as G are changed to J, and when verbs are com­petely ex­changed for oth­ers, new­com­ers will def­i­nitely need a few weeks to cope: "Kiek doch, wo de hin­jehst!" (Look out where you're going!) 

My Kiez, your Kiez, our Kiez? 

An­other term, which sys­tem­at­i­cally jumps at you in Berlin, is the fa­mous "Kiez". What is known in other places as "Stadtvier­tel" (city dis­trict), is af­fec­tion­ately des­ig­nated in north­-eastern Ger­many - above all in Berlin - as "my Kiez". In the past, very few dis­tricts be­longed to the true "Berlin Kieze", but today al­most every­one calls their neigh­bor­hood a "Kiez", char­ac­terised by their fa­vorite bar and their local "Späti". If you have only just moved to Berlin, you shouldn't of course use the term after the first two days be­cause the ob­ses­sive overuse of the word is one of the most ob­vi­ous signs of a "wannabe Berliner". 

Now, ma­li­cious tongues might claim that the de­gree of being "cool" isn't de­pen­dent on word choice. Be that as it may, you can still quickly be des­ig­nated as a tourist or a new­comer in the Berlin party scene if you use the wrong words. The re­quest "Komm rum!" (Come round!) doesn't mean that you should fol­low some­one around the cor­ner, but rather that you should stop by some­one's house or join them at a party. If you order a "Pf­effi" at the be­gin­ning of a long club night, you have a bil­ious green pep­per­mint liqueur in mind. All those, how­ever, who still say "disco" when talk­ing about "clubs", are un­likely to re­ceive a warm wel­come in the Ger­man cap­i­tal. If there is one thing to take a men­tal note of, it is the fact that in Berlin there's no such thing as "Party machen" (par­ty­ing, lit­er­ally "mak­ing" a party). Here, every­one will use the term "feiern" (cel­e­brat­ing) in­stead. After all, par­ties are less of an or­gan­ised ac­tiv­ity and more about the he­do­nis­tic pur­suit of pure fun. And that is, lan­guages bar­ri­ers or not, ex­actly why Berlin is "voll nice".