The Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, which I direct at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is home to the North American German Dialect archive, a digital repository that includes many recordings of Pennsylvania Dutch. Readers of this blog may recall from an earlier post my discussion of how the language was historically spoken by two major social subgroups, the “church people” or “Fancy Dutch,” the descendants of mainly Lutheran and German Reformed immigrants to colonial Pennsylvania, and the “plain people,” members of Mennonite, Amish, and other Anabaptist and Pietist groups. Into the twentieth century, the “church people” comprised the great majority of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers, but after about 1930, very few children born into Fancy Dutch families acquired the language fully and maintained it into adulthood. Today, there are perhaps several thousand church people, known as nonsectarians, who speak Pennsylvania Dutch, almost all of whom are elderly.
Among the most traditional plain groups, the Amish and most Old Order Mennonites, Pennsylvania Dutch is in a robust state of health. It is the primary everyday language spoken within the community and its maintenance is linked symbolically with the continued use of German as a language of worship. Original sermons are delivered in Pennsylvania Dutch interspersed with quotations from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, and German is the language of hymns and prayers, including in family devotions.
The use of Pennsylvania Dutch declines, however, as groups move away from the Old Orders. This trend can be seen, for example, among the two groups closest to horse-and-buggy–driving Amish and Mennonites, namely the Beachy Amish and the Horning or Weaverland Conference Mennonites (sometimes also known as the Black Bumper Mennonites). Both these fellowships are more outreach-minded than their Old Order brethren, with whom they still have close family ties, which means that they have moved toward using English both in worship and in everyday communication. The continued maintenance of German and Pennsylvania Dutch, in their view, poses a barrier to outsiders to whom they might witness.
Below is an excerpt from an interview made in 1983 with a Horning Mennonite couple from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, both of whom were born in 1916. They were interviewed by Professor Wolfgang Moelleken (now retired from the University at Albany) as part of a project to document variation in Pennsylvania Dutch across multiple states. The full interview is part of the Moelleken Collection in the Max Kade Institute’s North American German Dialect Archive (consultant numbers MOE 012 and 013).
The couple talks about their church and how it resembles and differs from horse-and-buggy–driving (Groffdale Conference or Wengerite) Old Order Mennonites and the Amish. Professor Moelleken, who was born in Germany, poses his questions in a blend of dialectal German interspersed with Pennsylvania Dutch. It is interesting to note that when the topic of conversation turns to matters of the faith, the husband finds it somewhat easier to express himself in English, a reflection of the increasing importance of that language in the spiritual lives of less tradition-minded Mennonite and Amish groups.
Kannscht mol sage, wie des in de Kerch isch, in der Gmee isch, wenn du dahin gehscht?
Well, mir hen kee Sundaagsschul in unser Gmee … Ya, die Weibsleit un Mannsleit sitze net zamme. Un ich wees aa net … yuscht, du gehscht nei … mir hen, was mer en Schtiwwli heese. Duscht dei Gleeder ab datt, henkscht sie uff, un noht gehscht nei un sitzscht anne un watscht, bis sie schtaerde singe. Sie singe zwee Schticker un noht schwetzt een, der erscht Breddicher, un noht hen sie en Gebet, un noht lese sie der Text, un noht schwetzt der negscht Breddicher. Noh hen sie widder en Gebet un noht widder zwee mol … zwee singe, zwee Songs singe.
Wo hocke die Kinner?
Well, die Gleene hocke bei die Eldre un die Greesere hocke bei sich selwert, but … sie sedde velleicht ebmohls net, sie warre velleicht ebmohls en wennich yachtich.
Sitze sie vorne oder hinne?
Well, sie hen sadde ihr eegene Section, as sie sitze.
Kannscht mol der Unnerschied sage zwische die Fuhreleit un eiere Leit?
Was fer Weg? Ihre Gmee is ebaut s’seem as unseri, meh as die Fuhreleit hen meh German, Deitsch. Yuscht … sie dresse velleicht net gans gleich awer viel gleich. Un ich deet saage, s’is ebaut s’seem.
Der greescht Unnerschitt waer in der Weg vun Faahre, ya.
In de Faahre …
Un was is der Unnerschied zwische eiere Leit un de Amische?
Well, der Glaawe is all s’seem, deet ich saage. Yuscht, s’is wie sie dresse sich differnt en wennich un faahre in die Fuhre aa. Un deel … deel vun die Amische hen kee Gmeeheiser, sie hen Gmee in ihr Heiser.
Yuscht, die Amische waere der Baart.
Ya, die Mannsleit waere der Baart, die Amische.
So weit as der Glaawe concerned is, ich denk, mer deet saage, mer glaawe all an Gott, der seem Gott, un mir glaawe as der eensisch Weg, dass mer zum ewige Lewe kumme kenne, is darrich’s Blut vun Yesus Grischdus. Er is gschtarrewe fier uns, sell is der eensisch Weg. Awer noht hen mir, uf course, Schuldichkeite vun datt aan. Weescht, sie saage, es is frei, salvation is free. But discipleship … ich kann’s noh net in Deitsch … discipleship may cost our life. So, ich denk, sell waer was mer all glaawe deete.
Der Differns in die gleene Sache is yuscht as Leit Sache differnt sehne, deet ich saage.
Can you say how it is in church, when you go there? [WM uses two different words for ‘church’.]
Well, we don’t have Sunday school in our church … Yes, the women and men don’t sit together. And, I don’t know … just, you go in … we have what we call a Schtiwwli (side room). You take your outer garments off there, hang them up, then you go in and sit down and watch for them to start singing. They sing two hymns and then one man speaks, the first minister, and then they have a prayer, and then they read the text, and then the next minister. Then they have a prayer again and then again twice … they sing two, two songs.
Where do the children sit?
Well, the little ones sit by their parents and the bigger ones sit by themselves, but … sometimes they maybe shouldn’t, they maybe get a little noisy sometimes.
Do they sit in the front or the back?
Well, they sort of have their own section where they sit.
Can you tell (me) what the difference is between the horse-and-buggy people and your people?
What way? Their church is about the same as ours, except that the horse-and-buggy people have more German. Just … they maybe dress not exactly the same but very similar. And I’d say, it’s about the same.
The greatest difference would be in the way of traveling, yes.
In travelling …
And what is the difference between your people and the Amish?
Well, the faith is all the same, I’d say. Just, it’s that they dress a little differently and drive horse-and-buggy. And some … some of the Amish don’t have church buildings, they have church in their homes.
Just, the Amish wear a beard.
Yes, the men wear the beard, the Amish.
As far as the faith is concerned … I think, one would say, we all believe in God, the same God, and we believe that the only way that we can enter into eternal life is through the blood of Jesus Christ. He died for us, that is the only way. But we have, of course, obligations from then on. You know, they say it’s free, salvation is free. But discipleship … I can’t say it in PA Dutch … discipleship may cost our life. So, I think, that would be what we all believe.
The difference in the small things is just that people see things differently, I’d say.