“I’m likin’ Pennsylvania Dutch”

Mark L. Louden 

A decade ago, my wife, daughter, and I lived in Freiburg, Germany, for a year. Our daughter, who turned five that year, attended a wonderful preschool there, but had some adjustment problems at first and often cried at drop-off. I would smile, wave good-bye, and tell her I loved her, at first in English, and then, after a few weeks, in German. We soon settled into a comfortable routine, and I continued to say Ich liebe dich to her, until one day the mother of another child turned to me and, with a hint of consternation in her voice, asked me where I was from. When I told her we were American, she said that although she also loved her child, she would never say Ich liebe dich at drop-off. It was too emotional or serious an expression to be used in such an everyday situation, she informed me.

mEven though I felt a bit defensive at the time, I realized that the woman was right, lieben-related words are marked by more linguistic gravitas in German than their love counterparts in English. When McDonald’s introduced their “I’m lovin’ it” branding campaign in 2003, Germans were notably uncomfortable with the sound of Ich liebe es. If they feel awkward telling their children they love them, imagine the problem they would have directing that expression toward burgers and fries. It is no accident that McDonald’s restaurants in all other European countries with linguistic sensibilities similar to those of Germany, including Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, and the Nordic countries, avoided the problem by simply using the English slogan.

Although Pennsylvania Dutch speakers have essentially been cut off from German-speaking Europe since the eighteenth century, and conversational routines from English have been adopted into their heritage language, many patterns of German speech endure in the varieties spoken by Amish and traditional Mennonites today, including how the verb liewe ‘to love’ and noun Liewi ‘love’ are used. Their meanings are rooted in the Christian notion of agape rather than romantic or even brotherly love. Gott liebt sei Kinner ‘God loves his children’ is perfectly fine, but Plain parents, in speaking of their own children, are more apt to say, Mir gleiche unser Kinner literally ‘We like our children’, using a native German verb, gleiche, that originally meant ‘to resemble’ but under the semantic influence of English now means ‘to like’. Just as the German mom who called me onto the linguistic carpet at my daughter’s preschool, Amish and traditional Mennonite parents do not love their children any less than other parents do. Pennsylvania Dutch speakers, like their distant linguistic cousins in Europe, are simply inclined toward understatement relative to their English-monolingual neighbors.

sis addlich waarm heit

The Plain Anabaptist tendency toward verbal humility is clearly reinforced by a concern to always aim to speak the truth. Expressions such as I’m starving, I died laughing, or even It’s hot outside today that are commonplace in English are all but nonexistent in Pennsylvania Dutch. Acceptable equivalents would be Ich kennt esse ‘I could eat’, Ich hab hatt glacht ‘I laughed hard’, and S’is addlich waarm heit ‘It’s quite warm today’, even if the temperature were well above ninety degrees. The concern with using the adjective hees ‘hot’ in reference to the weather has to do with wanting to avoid a comparison, even unintentionally, between the world and hell. Boiling water or a hot stove can be called hees; in fact, for safety reasons, hot objects must be identified as such (Geb acht, sell is hees! ‘Watch out, that’s hot!’). In such cases, however, there is no risk of making unwanted comparisons.

Exercising verbal caution is reflected in another way that Pennsylvania Dutch is used by Amish and Mennonites, namely with regard to pregnancy. It may come as a surprise that in the language used in communities whose birth rates are between triple and quadruple that of the U.S. general population there is no native word for ‘pregnant’. In the monumental Comprehensive Dictionary of Pennsylvania German compiled by the late C. Richard Beam, there is an entry for schwanger, which is also the German word for ‘pregnant’, yet Beam notes that it is “not used much anymore but up until 1960, it was used.”1 It is probably no coincidence that it was around that time that Plain (sectarian) speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch came to outnumber their “Fancy” (nonsectarian) counterparts, who were more likely to describe pregnant women as schwanger. So what do Amish and Mennonites say? In general, people avoid talking openly about pregnancy, but when they do, the most common expression is an ekschpeckte sei ‘to be expecting’, as in Sie is an ekschpeckte ‘She is expecting’. This is a doubly indirect turn of phrase since it is both a euphemism and a borrowing from English.

Out of curiosity, I consulted the equivalent of Beam’s Comprehensive Dictionary for Palatine German, the Pfälzisches Wörterbuch, which documents the European source dialects of Pennsylvania Dutch. Schwanger is listed, yet with the comment that the word is usually avoided in favor of euphemisms, such as aufgebündelt sein ‘to be bundled up’ and die Täsche voll haben ‘to have full pockets’. Intriguingly, the first synonym listed in the dictionary for schwanger is pattersch, a word borrowed from Yiddish that refers to animal pregnancies.2 This is neither humorous nor disrespectful, but similar to the double indirectness involved in the borrowed euphemism an ekschpeckte sei.

The caution surrounding discussions of pregnancy characteristic of the Old Orders is not as common today among younger Central Europeans, however certain traditions connected with pregnancy that distinguish both Germans and Plain people from mainstream Americans endure. The most obvious one is the relative rarity of baby showers in Germany (and many other countries around the world), which are nonexistent in Old Order culture. For traditional Anabaptists, to assume that all will go well with a pregnancy, which is implicit in baby showers, is understood as prideful thinking, a serious transgression from a Christian perspective. Germans, as members of a highly secular culture, are more inclined to view a baby shower as just a “bad omen.” However, in recent years, among younger German women, at least, the baby shower – called a Babyparty in German – has joined McDonald’s, Halloween, and cheerleaders in the array of American popular cultural imports.

Another way that Plain people’s views on events that have not yet occurred are encoded into their Pennsylvania Dutch is in the expression, so mir lewe un’s der Harr sei Wille is ‘if we live and it is the Lord’s will’, a turn of phrase that is certainly not unfamiliar to other Americans, including Johnny Cash in his song If the Good Lord’s Willing (lyrics by Jerry Reed) with its signature line, “If the good Lord’s willing and the creeks don’t rise.” Amish and Mennonites, like their English-monolingual neighbors, cannot avoid planning for the future, but there is always a contingency that is encoded linguistically. Interactions such as this are the norm: Sind dihr an figgere mit noch Indiana geh? — Ja, sell is was der Plaen is ‘Are you (pl.) figuring on going along to Indiana? – Yes, that’s the plan’.

The fundamental open-endedness of what may lie ahead among traditional Anabaptist speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch makes their use of future tense verb forms interesting. Older varieties of the language, especially those spoken by the historical nonsectarian majority (people of mainly Lutheran and German Reformed background), resembled European German in the lack of a distinct future tense. A simple expression like Ich geh mit (Ich gehe mit in German) could mean either ‘I go along’ in a habitual sense (e.g., every time my friends go to Indiana, I accompany them), ‘I’m going along’ (right now), or ‘I will go along’ (next week). English differs from German in this regard by typically drawing a clear verbal line between present and future time, e.g., I go along vs. I will go along (or I’m going to go along). Modern sectarian Pennsylvania Dutch, almost certainly due to the influence of English, has developed two auxiliary (helping) verbs that mark future time (similar to English will/be going to), both of which are derived from metaphoric uses of counting or calculating verbs with reference to future events: zeele or (zelle) from the verb zaehle ‘to count’ and figgere, which is derived from English to figure. The difference between the two is largely regional/generational, with younger Midwestern Amish using figgere more frequently than older Midwesterners or sectarians of any age from a Lancaster-affiliated community.

That a group of speakers who are averse to speaking with certainty about the future would actually develop (albeit unconsciously) dedicated future tense forms is, on the face of it, anomalous. How are zeele and figgere used? In sentences like Sind dihr an figgere mit noch Indiana geh?, when the auxiliary is used in a progressive expression (marked by an), it has the meaning of to intend to (do something). If figgere (or zeele) is used as a normal helping verb, the future becomes more definite: Ich figger noch Indiana geh means ‘I will go to Indiana.’ Such sentences are problematic, as I myself learned many years ago. My first exposure to Pennsylvania Dutch was through Lancaster-affiliated speakers, thus I was unfamiliar with the use of figgere. After moving to Texas and living in an Amish community there, I acquired Midwestern Pennsylvania Dutch. On one occasion, I was discussing plans to drive an Amish couple to Oklahoma and made the mistake of saying Ich figger ken Accident hawwe, by which I meant to say ‘I’m not planning on having an accident’ but was understood by my friends as ‘I won’t have an accident’. The wife immediately corrected me by saying, Du HOFFSCHT, du hoscht ken Accident! ‘You HOPE you don’t have an accident!’

Examples of the acceptable uses of the future tense in Pennsylvania Dutch can be found in Di Heilich Shrift, the Pennsylvania Dutch translation of the Bible, which was completed in 2013. The first instance of a zeele form (spelled zayla) is in Genesis 2:16-17:

Un Gott da Hah hott em mann en gebott gevva un hott ksawt, “Du kansht essa funn awl di baym im goahra; avvah fumm bohm funn di eisicht funn goot un evil solsht du nett essa. Fa im dawk vann du esht difunn zaylsht du gevislich shteahva.”

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (NRSV)

It is, of course, entirely appropriate for God, who has perfect knowledge of what will or could come to pass, to employ a future tense form when quoted in Pennsylvania Dutch.

The status of the future tense in sectarian Pennsylvania Dutch connects to a very interesting area of inquiry linking linguistics with psychology and economics. In general, human languages fall into one of two groups as far distinguishing the present from the future time goes in their grammars. English and sectarian Pennsylvania Dutch, in which there is a clear distinction between the present and the future in the verbal system, are “strong future languages.” German, on the other hand, is a “weak future language” because the difference between the present and the future tenses is blurred.

In 2013, an economist from Yale published the results of a fascinating study that showed a significant correlation between the use of strong future or weak future languages and personal economic and lifestyle behaviors.3 Specifically, speakers of weak future languages like German were more likely to save more of their income, smoke less, and generally maintain their health better than speakers of strong future languages like English. The conclusion that the Yale researcher drew was that speakers of weak future languages, such as Germans, for whom the future is in a real sense “closer” to the present, are more likely to invest, literally, in their futures, than British, Anglo-Canadians, and Americans, who speak a strong future language.

Lest one think that Germans’ overall healthier outlook on their futures might be due to cultural or historical factors independent of the grammar of their language, the Yale researcher looked closely at two European countries in which both strong future and weak future languages are spoken, namely Switzerland and Belgium. He found statistically significant personal economic and lifestyle differences between speakers of German and Flemish Dutch (which is also a weak future language), on the one side, and those who spoke French, Italian, and Romansh, which are strong future languages like English. The German and Flemish speakers saved more and smoked less than their Romance-speaking counterparts, even in the same city, Brussels.

How might the historical development of Pennsylvania Dutch from a weak future language to a strong future language reflect sectarian faith and culture? A major distinctive of Plain thought is the recognition that life in this world is fleeting; traditional Anabaptists hold that eternal life is much more important than worrying about one’s earthly legacy. Plain sectarians’ de-emphasis of materialism, in line with I John 2:15-17, as well as their inclination to be more accepting of death than what is found in mainstream American culture, could well be interpreted as fitting for speakers of a strong future language. The relatively clear distinction between the present and future for sectarians and monolingual English speakers alike may indeed be connected to certain attitudes and behaviors, albeit radically different ones. For Plain Pennsylvania Dutch, the focus is on the one half of the divide – a hoped-for future in heaven – while mainstream Americans are more concerned with the other half, making the most of the here and now.

One of the most astute observers of the relationship between language and worldview was the linguist Edward Sapir (1884–1939), who noted, “It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection.”4 Amish and traditional Mennonites have inherited a language with roots in German-speaking Europe, yet use it and have even altered its structure to fit a reality, spiritual and material, rooted in their abiding faith.


  1. Beam, C. Richard and Jennifer L.Trout, The Comprehensive Pennsylvania German Dictionary, Vol. 9: S, Center for Pennsylvania German Studies, 2006, p. 313. 
  2. Christmann, Ernst, Julius Krämer, and Rudolf Post, Pfälzisches Wörterbuch, Franz Steiner Verlag, 1965–1998. (Entry on schwanger accessible here: http://woerterbuchnetz.de/cgi-bin/WBNetz/wbgui_py?sigle=PfWB). 
  3. Chen, M. Keith, “The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets,” American Economic Review 103 (2), April 2013, pp. 690–731. (Accessible here: https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.103.2.690.) 
  4. Sapir, Edward, Culture, Language and Personality, University of California Press, 1958, p. 69. 

4 thoughts on ““I’m likin’ Pennsylvania Dutch”

  1. You are writing about Pennsylvania German, not Dutch. There are actually very few Dutch words in Pennsylvania German. Florentine Italian is Italian not French, Castilian Spanish is Spanish not Romanish, and Masovian Polish in Polish, not Hungarian and Pennsylvania German is German, not Dutch.

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  2. Thanks for this very interesting article. Though I claim no expertise in this field, I see languages as living organic things and I think I sense a ‘conservative’ bias here, favouring traditional over ‘modern’ language use, even if that is not your intent. Is that accurate?

    My Swedish American elders, first generation English speakers, Lutherans and Pietists, had a similar aversion to openly expressing strong emotion, and were particularly resistant to praising children, lest they become ‘proud.’ I had always thought of that as a generational, cultural, or ideological thing (I don’t think they were at all exposed to Anabaptism), but your article makes me wonder about possible linguistic roots.

    Re weak and strong future languages, the Arabic expression, insha’allah, God willing, comes to mind. Though this is probably changing, quite independent of individuals’ piety, or whether they are Muslim or Christian, speaking of the future without at least token reference to the divine is avoided, probably perceived as sounding arrogant. (Of course, insha’allah can also be used as an out, allowing the speaker to say s/he might do something in the future that s/he has little intent of actually doing.) Thanks again for the thought-provoking article.

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    • I appreciate your thoughts and am glad to hear you found the post of interest. I’m not sure I understand what you are referring to about a “conservative bias,” namely whether that has to do with the attitudes of Amish and traditional Mennonites or with me. Speaking for myself, I’m not intending to express any personal taste here, though I guess I do personally feel more comfortable being relatively understated, e.g., by avoiding expressions like “I’m starving” (in any language I speak). As a linguist, however, I aim to be a dispassionate observer. All linguists would agree with you that languages are, figuratively speaking, organic, meaning that all languages change as the circumstances of their users change. To take the example of PA Dutch, Amish and traditional Mennonites today are, in terms of their everyday lives, both similar to and different from their ancestors 100 years ago, and their language reflects that: preservation in some respects, change in others. The same is true for monolingual English speakers, of course, also. If you’d like to continue the discussion offline, please feel free to email me: mllouden@wisc.edu. Thanks for your interest!

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