The Language Nonproblem of the Old Orders

Mark L. Louden

Fifty years ago, on November 18–20, 1968, a symposium was hosted by the Department of Germanic Languages at the University of Texas at Austin on the topic of “The German Language in America.” As the oldest and most widespread German-American variety, Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsylvania German) figured prominently in three of the five papers read at the symposium, as well as in a sixth paper on the language in Virginia and West Virginia that was added to a 1971 anthology based on the symposium.1

Although today nearly all active speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch are members of Amish and Old Order Mennonites communities, in the 1960s traditional Anabaptist sectarians were not yet on the radar of most students of Pennsylvania Dutch language and culture, including the participants at the Texas symposium. Rather it was the “church people” or “Fancy Dutch,” the descendants of mainly eighteenth-century Lutheran and German Reformed immigrants from southwestern Germany, Switzerland, and Alsace, who were regarded by scholars as the main standard bearers of a distinctive Pennsylvania Dutch folk culture. This made sense, since well into the twentieth century the church people greatly outnumbered their fellow Pennsylvania Dutch speakers who were Amish or Mennonite.

In one of the few references to Plain people at the symposium, one presenter, Heinz Kloss (1904–1987), a German linguist whose disturbing past during the Nazi era has been closely examined in recent years, shared the following thoughts about the possible utility of government-funded Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES) programs for German-American communities.2

In the last two decades over two hundred church schools have come into being among the Amish and Old Order Mennonites. Perhaps the FLES idea could be introduced into such denominational schools. The anemic, mutilated written German of the Amish, garbled and unintelligible as it sometimes is, could thereby be infused with new life so as to render it once again a vital, enduring component of their culture.3

Later in his paper, Kloss described Amish and also Hutterite children as “linguistically handicapped.”4

What was the basis for Kloss’s harsh assessment of the linguistic situation of the Old Orders? He was not referring directly to their Pennsylvania Dutch, but to the variety of standard German that has always occupied an important place in the sociolinguistic identity of not only Pennsylvania Dutch–speaking Amish and Mennonites, but Hutterites and Old Colony Mennonites as well. Maintenance of a vernacular German-based language—Pennsylvania Dutch (Deitsch), Hutterite German (Hutterisch), and Mennonite Low German (Plautdietsch)—in these groups goes hand-in-hand with the continued use of a form of what is known as High German in worship. Kloss compared the High German he encountered in sectarian communities in America with his native language and found it severely deficient for reasons I will discuss here.

A few words about High German are in order. High German takes its name from the dialects spoken in the central and southern regions of Central Europe (including alpine Switzerland) where the elevation is relatively high. Northern Germany is, by contrast, the home of Low German dialects, which are closely related to the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands and parts of Belgium and France.

Today’s High German, the standard variety used in education and media, traces its origins to written dialects from the central and southern German-speaking regions, especially the so-called chancery dialects used in sixteenth-century central-eastern Germany, where the modern states of Saxony and Thuringia are located. Martin Luther, who hailed from this area, is often mistakenly described as the father of modern German, the belief being that his translation of the Bible established the basis for today’s standard variety. Luther drew on the chancery dialects of his native region for his popular Bible translation, which certainly helped advance the spread of “High German” beyond Saxony and Thuringia into regions, particularly northern Germany, where the Reformation was most successful, but he did not actually create the High German standard language.

For the next nearly four hundred years, until the turn of the twentieth century, High German was used almost exclusively in writing and was subject to a high degree of regional variation. Even today, High German is not uniform, with differences in vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, and even grammar found across the three major German-speaking countries, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The situation is, of course, the same with the “World Englishes” spoken in places as far-flung as Delhi, New York, and New Delhi, India.

In the eighteenth century, when the earliest ancestors of today’s Old Orders left Europe for America, their sociolinguistic situation was typical: they spoke regional dialects and read and wrote a form of High German that was strongly influenced by their everyday speech. In America, Amish and Mennonites, along with their Lutheran and Reformed neighbors and members of other groups, developed a language, Pennsylvania Dutch, that resembled the dialects of the Palatinate region, from which most of the founder population had come. High German was the main language of literacy that was used in worship and taught in parochial schools. Historical documents suggest that at least as early as the nineteenth century, original “German” sermons were actually delivered in Pennsylvania Dutch, interspersed with quotations from Scripture in High German. The standard variety was essentially just read, recited, or sung; there is no evidence to suggest that Pennsylvania Dutch speakers could converse in High German, much as their distant cousins in back in Europe basically spoke only Palatine German and other dialects.

In the nineteenth century, especially after the founding of the German Empire in 1871, as German speakers became more mobile and came more frequently into contact with people who spoke what often were mutually unintelligible dialects, the need to establish norms for High German increased, affecting vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and eventually also pronunciation. The efforts to standardize High German accelerated in the first half of the twentieth century, when Heinz Kloss was born, and the use of a normative form of the language became an important marker of social status.

Not surprisingly, Pennsylvania Dutch–speaking Anabaptists were largely unaware of the changes affecting High German in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their communication needs were well served by their knowledge of three languages, Pennsylvania Dutch for oral communication within their community, High German for use in worship and some writing, and English, which was vital for their economic survival but also became the dominant medium of active literacy, as it replaced German in schools. The Old Orders’ High German has to this day retained many of the characteristics of the variety their forebears brought with them from eighteenth-century Europe. Outsiders, including European Germans and German Americans, often held “Amish High German” in the same low regard as Heinz Kloss did. Such critical views had little effect on tradition-minded Anabaptists whose ancestors had experienced much worse from the “world” they had always wanted to keep at arm’s length.

There were others who found fault with Amish and Mennonites in America who “kept Dutch” and also High German, namely progressive Mennonites. One of the most prominent critics of his Old Order cousins was none other than Harold S. Bender (1897–1962). In the Mennonite Encyclopedia, of which he was a founding editor, Bender wrote an essay whose title, “Language Problem,”5 suggests its largely negative thesis.

Bender begins his essay by acknowledging that the maintenance of uniquely in-group languages served Anabaptists well historically as a useful expression of “nonconformity to the world.” “On the other hand,” Bender continues,

… the language breach has usually prevented a program of active evangelism and outreach, and has imposed a necessary system of private or parochial schools. As long as the breach with the surrounding culture and language was complete and continuous, problems of adjustment, either of the group with the outside world, or of individuals to individuals within the group, seldom arose. However, when the breach has been only partial, or when individuals or a subgroup within the larger group become wholly or partially assimilated to the “outside” language, serious problems of internal adjustment have arisen. At times this has been a problem of adjustment between the generations, so that youth has come into conflict with age, and usually large numbers of the youth have been lost to the group and its faith and way of life. At other times factionalism has arisen, resulting in serious schisms. Conservative groups attempting to hold the language line have died out because of failure to adjust to the new environment. Successful maintenance of small language enclaves detached from any larger language culture body has resulted in cultural and intellectual impoverishment, frequently with attendant religious losses. The battle to maintain the language has usually been fought with religious sanctions which have at times gone to the extreme of claims of higher spiritual values for the mother tongue as compared with the new tongue and of forfeiture of group principles and even faith in God in case of surrender of the language. Usually the transition from one language to another has required two or more generations of confusion and turmoil with considerable loss of membership en route, as well as the diversion of much energy from constructive work. The effect in literary production and consumption by the group is also usually very detrimental.

Bender’s critical views are understandable from his exceptional biography: he was a forward-looking Mennonite who pursued higher education in both the US and Germany, where he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Heidelberg. His wife, Elizabeth Horsch Bender (1895–1988), was the daughter of Mennonite immigrants from Germany and studied German in college and graduate school, going on to devote her professional life to work as a teacher of German and translator. While not exactly Germanophiles, the Benders clearly shared the prescriptive outlook of contemporary educated speakers of European German and viewed the sociolinguistic situation of their Old Order (and Old Colony) brethren as spiritually deleterious. Bender concludes his 1957 essay as follows:

The language problem has been further complicated for the Mennonites by the maintenance of dialects or sub-languages, e.g., the Plattdeutsch among the Russian Mennonite immigrants in North and South America and the Pennsylvania-Dutch among the Old Order Amish. In such groups where the dialect has displaced the High German, at least relatively, the people have lost almost all touch with the literary German language except Bible reading, and therefore have largely stopped reading serious literature of either religious or secular character, with resulting cultural and religious impoverishment.

Sometimes the theory of the cultural value of using two languages has been propounded to support retention of the “mother tongue.” Actually, it is probable that only highly intelligent persons who diligently pursue both languages on a literary level profit from this dualism. More common outcomes are the failure to master either language adequately, confusion of vocabulary and ideas, undesirable carryover of idioms from one language to the other (Germanisms in English and Anglicisms in German), and undesirable foreign accents which handicap individuals in their speaking and other expression as they move in public life.

The language problem has often become acute in the pulpit. Without diligent effort few preachers acquire the ability to preach well in a second language after middle age is reached, and they may be unwilling to pay the necessary price to do so. Consequently congregations have suffered in pulpit leadership because of preachers able to use only the older language. With the older generation of members unable or unwilling to accept a new language in the pulpit, they have denied their children and youth the privilege of religious teaching and worship in the new language, the only one which the latter fully comprehend.

Language problems are characteristic of all immigrant religious groups who find themselves in a new and strange language-culture situation. But these problems have been intensified among Mennonites by their distinctive emphasis upon nonconformity and nonresistance.

Time has proved Bender’s fears of spiritual impoverishment among tradition-minded Anabaptists largely unfounded. It is not correct to say that dialects like Pennsylvania Dutch “displaced” High German, since the latter language was always used mainly in the receptive (passive) domains of reading and writing. It is true that groups such as the Amish and Old Order Mennonites have indeed “lost almost all touch with the literary German language except Bible reading.” Yet Bender overlooks the fact that sectarians are actively literate in English, meaning that the charge that they “have largely stopped reading serious literature of either religious or secular character, with resulting cultural and religious impoverishment” is not supported.

Bender’s negative views on Old Order verbal behavior are reinforced by the notion that the mutual influence of languages on one another, a universal linguistic phenomenon, is a symptom (or cause) of cognitive dysfunction. He implicitly believes it is possible to be “doubly semilingual,” that is, having incomplete knowledge of two languages. Semilingualism occurs in only highly exceptional situations, such as among profoundly deaf people who are not exposed to a manual language (such as American Sign Language) in childhood. Traditional Anabaptist sectarians have never been doubly semilingual.

It is true that past generations of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers were often less proficient in English than their monolingual neighbors, and their knowledge of High German was always limited to certain specific domains of use, however their vernacular language is just as robust and grammatically complex a means of communication as any of the other roughly 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. Borrowing from one language into another (e.g., from English into Pennsylvania Dutch) does nothing other than enrich the receiving language’s expressive power. And in any case, the percentage of English-derived vocabulary in Pennsylvania Dutch is relatively modest, about 15%–20%. Compared to contemporary High German, whose lexicon contains between one-quarter and one-third “foreign” words (mainly from Latin, French, and Greek), and English, in which about 75% of its words have been borrowed from other languages, Pennsylvania Dutch is actually lexically “purer” than both the languages with which it is regularly negatively compared.

I’ll close with my favorite quote on Old Order language use, taken from the essay “What Is a Language?” by Amishman Benuel S. Blank (1933–2009).6

Knowing two languages is a privilege God has provided for us, and we can put them to good use. Although we have a knowledge of two languages, it would be wrong not to make an effort to express ourselves better in the English language. But it would be just as wrong to fail to keep and pass on the German to our children—that rich language our forebears left for us. It is a well-known fact that losing our mother tongue and drifting into the world usually go together.

Any time we speak English around the home when just family members are around, or while working or visiting with others who know Pennsylvania Dutch, we put in a vote to drop a rich heritage that will never be brought back if we lose it.

The value of that heritage is so great that we can’t afford to lose it.


  1. Glenn G. Gilbert (ed.), The German Language in America: A Symposium, University of Texas Press, 1971 
  2. See Christopher M. Hutton, Linguistics and the Third Reich: Mother-Tongue Fascism, Race and the Science of Language, Routledge, 1999, chapter 6, “‘A complicated young man with a complicated fate, in a complicated time’: Heinz Kloss and the ethnic missionaries of the Third Reich,” pp. 144–187; Cornelia Wilhelm, “Nazi Propaganda and the Uses of the Past: Heinz Kloss and the Making of German America,” Amerikastudien/American Studies, 2002, pp. 55–83. 
  3. Gilbert (1971, 123) 
  4. Gilbert (1971, 126) 
  5. Harold S. Bender, “Language problem,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1957, http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Language_problem&oldid=141204 
  6. Benuel S. Blank, “What Is a Language?”, Family Life, February 1986, pp. 12–16 

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