Mennonites, Amish, and the Pennsylvania Dutch Language

Mark Louden

When people hear the name “Pennsylvania Dutch,” they often assume it is a synonym for “Amish.” And in the same way that the difference between “Amish” and “Mennonite” is often fuzzy for folks unfamiliar with Anabaptist groups, the meaning of “Pennsylvania Dutch” gets stretched even further.

Yet even for those with some familiarity with Amish and Mennonite groups in North America and their history, it may come as a surprise to learn that the primary language used in many Old Order communities, which is also known as Pennsylvania German, was once spoken mainly by non-Anabaptists.

4-2_Oberholtzer_1862-(1)

“Vom naus Heira” by John H. Oberholtzer, from “Das Christliche Volks-Blatt,” April 2, 1862.

The roots of the Pennsylvania Dutch language extend back to the migration to Pennsylvania of around 81,000 German speakers from central and southwestern Germany, Alsace, and Switzerland during the eighteenth century.1 At that time, Germans and Swiss of all social classes spoke regional dialects that in most cases differed quite substantially from the emerging written dialect known today as “High German.” Since Pennsylvania Dutch strongly resembles the German varieties spoken in the region known as the Palatinate (Pfalz), we can presume that a critical mass of those 81,000 immigrants to colonial Pennsylvania came from that region.

Though we often have little precise information on where immigrants came from, we do have good information on the religious affiliations of the Pennsylvania Dutch founder population. The great majorityaround 95%were members of Lutheran and German Reformed churches. Only about 3,000 were associated with Anabaptist or Pietist groups, including Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren.2 The relations across denominational lines into the early nineteenth century were, however, sufficiently close that all varieties of Pennsylvania Dutch, those spoken by the “church people” (“Fancy Dutch,” i.e., Lutherans and Reformed) and those of the “plain people” have always been mutually intelligible with one another.

The maintenance of Pennsylvania Dutch as a vital language among church people and plain people alike has, since the eighteenth century, correlated with a number of important external characteristics. One important one is ruralness. Pennsylvania Dutch has always been a language of people who live outside of cities and towns in relatively ethnically homogeneous communities. Not surprisingly, as rural dwellers, active speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch traditionally pursued modest levels of formal education and earned their living mainly through agriculture, crafts, and other forms of manual labor. Moving off the farm, literally and figuratively, usually meant a shift away from Pennsylvania Dutch to speaking mostly or exclusively English.

Looking at today’s situation, Pennsylvania Dutch is now essentially only spoken by Amish and horse-and-buggy-driving Old Order Mennonites, who have very consciously maintained a lifestyle, grounded in their strong faith, that promotes the continued use of a distinctive language without special effort. In contrast, Pennsylvania Dutch has been moribund among the church people for at least two generations. The same is true for most Anabaptists who are less traditional than their Old Order brethren, including conservative groups who in some cases may still live in rural areas and limit their children’s formal education. Unlike the Old Orders, however, members of these conservative Mennonite communities, often pursue active mission work, which in their view makes more practical the use of English only.

At the center of my research program is documenting the history of Pennsylvania Dutch, which includes locating and interpreting texts that were written in the language. Already around the turn of the nineteenth century we find the first evidence of Pennsylvania Dutch, which were generally short texts that appeared in German-language newspapers serving rural southeastern Pennsylvania. Eventually, especially after the Civil War, Pennsylvania Dutch speakers began writing longer prose, poetic, and dramatic texts that gave rise to a body of folk literature that is a precious resource for students of American history and culture.

JH-Oberholtzer

John H. Oberholtzer

It is noteworthy that the vast majority of identified Pennsylvania Dutch writers were not affiliated with Anabaptist groups, the likely reason being the relatively small numbers of Mennonites and Amish in North America into the twentieth century. I have looked closely at two exceptional writers, both Mennonites who hailed from southeastern Pennsylvania, John H. Oberholtzer (1809–1895) and Samuel Ernst (1825–1909). Oberholtzer’s name is likely most familiar to readers of this blog, as he was a prominent figure in the progressive movement that eventually led to the founding of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church in North America in Iowa in 1860. Ernst was an “old” Mennonite from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, who later moved to Kansas and edited what were likely the only trilingual periodicals of the time, newspapers that included material in German, English, and Pennsylvania Dutch.

 

In future posts I will share some of the Pennsylvania Dutch writings of Oberholtzer and Ernst, which have been untouched by scholars until now.


  1. Marianne Wokeck, Trade in Strangers: The Beginnings of Mass Migration to North America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 44–47. 
  2. Aaron Spencer Fogleman, Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America, 1717–1775 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), 102–103. 

2 thoughts on “Mennonites, Amish, and the Pennsylvania Dutch Language

  1. Your blog is very interesting as I am ethnicly Menonite. I am from the more modern sect. My parents could speak fluent Platdeutch. My mom and others in our area called it Low German. t was her first language. It may have been my dad’s too although I think he lost it later in his life since he was no longer living around Menonite areas any more. Unfortunately my brothers and sisters and I never learned it. Which Menonite churches are a part of the General Conference of the Menonite Church? I grew up in Buhler Kansas where at the time I lived there there was the first Menonite Church which has since changed to a different name and the Menonite Bretheren Church.

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  2. Thank you very much for sharing your comments. The language of your parents is a form of Low German known as Plautdietsch or Mennonite Low German. Low German refers to dialects of German originating in northern Central Europe, where the elevation is low (hence the name). Low German and Dutch (spoken in the “Low” Countries) are quite similar to one another. Plautdietsch is derived from Low German dialects once spoken in the far northeastern reaches of the German Empire. Today, it is spoken by Mennonites whose ancestors lived in Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries. There are still Plautdietsch speakers in Russia and former Soviet Republics, but most live in the Americas, especially Latin America. The language’s main active speakers are members of the highly traditional Old Colony groups, who are concentrated in Mexico and Bolivia, but live in other Latin American countries and Canada, also. In the US, most Plautdietsch speakers have shifted to English. In the same way that Russian Mennonites are of a different ancestry than their Swiss/German counterparts, so are the languages Plautdietsch and Pennsylvania Dutch quite different from one another. Many Russian Mennonites were affiliated with the General Conference Mennonite Church (GC), while the Mennonite Church (MC) had a stronger Swiss/German influence. The two bodies merged to form Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA in 2000 and 2002, respectively.

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