Uncovering the True Meaning Behind Berlin's Name
The Fascinating Origins of Berlin's Name: A Slavic Legacy
The names we use matter. How we name things, and which names stick, are often the result of folk memory, politics, and wars. You've travelled to Berlin, the legendary capital of Germany, and you might think the city and its name are utterly, completely and forever German to the core.

But, you'd be wrong.

In fact, the word Berlin comes from an old West Slavic language, no longer spoken, called Old Polabian. Yes, that means that the German capital proudly bears a Slavic name. A thousand years ago, there simply were vanishingly few Germans in this neck of the woods. German settlement more or less ended on the River Elbe, where Magdeburg is. Not entirely coincidently, this location nearly mirrors the much later border of the DDR, but that's another story.

So, what does it mean? Well, most tourist guides will tell you that Berlin is related to the German word for bear, which is written Bär and pronounced pretty much like the English. Yes, that's one reason why you'll see statues of bears around town. But it's not correct, sadly. The bear enters the Berlin story early on but relates to emblems of chivalry, which is yet another story.

In fact, we don't know for absolute certainty what the old Slavic word was exactly or what it meant. The leading theory is that it indicated a marsh or a wetland, which is accurate as Berlin sits on very marshy land. So it fits. But it could also have referred to a type of fishing net spread from one river bank to another. But an air of uncertainty remains.

Berlin is a city of constant change, uncertainty and great (and sometimes tragic) experimentation. I think it's somehow fitting that the city is built, literally and by name, on every shifting sandy soil, always a tad uncertain of its origins and where it's going. It's a fascinating thought to hold in your mind as you explore the metropolis.

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