Standard German among Traditional Anabaptists

Mark L. Louden

In an earlier post to this blog, I explored how speakers of the standard German that is written and spoken in Central Europe have often been critical of the language situation among traditional Anabaptist sectarians who live in predominantly non-German-speaking societies like the United States and Canada. And some English-monolingual modern Mennonites in North America struggle to understand how bilingualism is not a cognitive impairment that endangers speakers’ spiritual health. They consider vernacular languages like Pennsylvania Dutch, Mennonite Low German (Plautdietsch), and Hutterite German (Hutterisch) as inadequate for communicating anything beyond everyday needs. Many also assume that bilingualism is a subtractive intellectual condition: if you know one language well, that must mean you can’t speak a second language with equal facility.

The belief that Pennsylvania Dutch, Plautdietsch, and Hutterisch are impoverished linguistic vehicles is contradicted by the fact that the Bible has been successfully translated into the first two languages, and translators are currently working to produce a version in the vernacular language of Hutterites. And for those who think that bilingualism is unnatural or unhealthy, well, it is no secret to psychologists and other researchers that the cognitive, social, and emotional benefits to knowing more than one language are manifold.

Another point of linguistic criticism directed at traditional Anabaptists is one that I will focus on here, and that has to do with their knowledge of standard or High German. Consider the image below.


This is the memorial marker for an Amish woman who passed away in Bonduel, Wisconsin, in 2002. The inscription at the top of the stone, “IN DER HIMMEL ISHT RUHE,” translates as “In Heaven there is peace.” Speakers of standard German would have no difficulty understanding this. Nevertheless, the sentence is at odds grammatically and orthographically with how it would ordinarily be written: “IN DEM HIMMEL IST RUHE”. The preposition in requires here the dative form of the masculine article, dem, and the verb ist is spelled without an “h”. Although some German speakers pronounce ist with an “sh” instead of an “s” sound, in German the “sh” sound is rendered as “sch”.

When European German speakers see examples like this memorial inscription, they are inclined to shake their heads at the producers of such texts for their supposedly faulty command of their “mother tongue.” One such critic is a prominent German professor of American studies at the University of Munich who shared his negative assessment of written standard German among Plain people in a three-volume reference work titled (translated) The History of North American Culture.

[T]he mother tongue of [German-speaking] immigrants is overwhelmed by the power of English. … This even applies to groups of speakers who live relatively isolated from the English-speaking majority. The publication Herold der Wahrheit of the Amish sect in Iowa is written in a strange mishmash of English syntax and Mennonite German. (Raeithel 1992, vol. 2, p. 403)

It is true that Anabaptist varieties of High German are at odds with how the language is used by Central Europeans, and the German professor quoted here is actually correct in attributing this divergence in the North American context to two sources, namely the German-derived vernacular languages spoken by groups like the Amish, and English, which most sectarians speak with native proficiency. In the gravestone inscription, for example, the lack of a dative marking on the article is due to the absence of that case in modern Pennsylvania Dutch; and the “sh” spelling is a carryover from English. Where critics like the German professor err, however, is in presuming that such forms of German represent a fall from an earlier state of linguistic grace.

To understand why North American Anabaptist varieties of standard German differ from what is used in contemporary Europe, a historical perspective is necessary. As I wrote in my earlier post, the descriptor “High” in High German has its origins in linguistic geography. The German spoken in northern Central Europe is called “Low” because of the flat landscape; as one proceeds south toward Bavaria, Switzerland, Austria, and northern Italy, the dialects in these regions comprise “High German.” The reason why the standard variety used in schools, media, and other relatively formal settings is also called High German is because it derives historically from the written dialects used in the High German dialect area, especially the east-central regions of modern Saxony and Thuringia. Contrary to popular belief, German dialects are not descended from the standard; if anything, it is the other way around.

The beginnings of a movement to develop a more or less unified standard variety of German go back to the fifteenth century, when Johannes Gutenberg’s development of movable type in 1439 revolutionized the production of written texts. The Protestant Reformation accelerated the standardization process through the dissemination of a variety of writings, many religious, including Martin Luther’s popular translation of the Bible, which appeared in 1534. Broader access to formal education led to higher rates of literacy, which also promoted the need for a standard variety of German, as did the increasing mobility of users of the language, especially merchants during the nineteenth century.

Yet standard German has never been monolithic, even today. In Austria, for example, a potato is called an Erdapfel, while in Switzerland people purchase a Billet to ride the train. In Germany, the words for these objects are Kartoffel and Fahrkarte. Differences in pronunciation and grammar (as well as spelling, a secondary linguistic phenomenon) can also be found across German-speaking Europe. In many instances, these differences are due to the twin reasons that account for the “mishmash” used by Amish-Mennonite writers in Iowa: Erdapfel derives from the dialects indigenous to Austria, and Billet is borrowed from French, a second language spoken by many Swiss Germans.

The further back in the history of standard German we go, the less standardized it was. Recent scholarship has begun to look closely at the features of regional High German varieties (landschaftliches Hochdeutsch) in earlier eras, especially the nineteenth century (cf. Ganswindt 2017). The legacy of regional High German can be found across German-speaking Europe today in so-called “regiolects,” oral forms of the standard language used by German speakers everywhere that are marked by regionalisms, especially in pronunciation and vocabulary.

When the ancestors of today’s traditional Anabaptist groups left Central Europe in large numbers in the eighteenth century, migrating eastward to Eastern Europe and Russia and westward to North America, the standard German they brought with them in their devotional literature, especially the Bible, hymnals, and prayer books, reflected the contemporary diversity across the varieties of regional High German. At that time, when German speakers put quill to paper, they usually had little concern for uniformity in the way they wrote as long as they were understood by their readers. Going back to the early sixteenth century, even Martin Luther was inconsistent in the way he wrote German. For example, in his 1522 translation of the New Testament he spelled the words for ‘time’ and ‘and’ alternately as both zeyt and zeytt and vnd and vnnd. And Luther spelled the name of the city of Wittenberg in at least 14 different ways over the course of his life (Heine 2016). The early modern English-speaking world was no different. The family name of William Shakespeare, for example, was spelled in multiple ways, including by the Bard himself (e.g., Shaksper, Shakspere, Shakspeare). The variation in how traditionally Anabaptist names have come to be spelled (e.g., Stoltzfus, Stolzfus, Stoltzfoos, Stolzfoos, Stolsfus, Stollzfus, and Stollzfos) is reminiscent of this linguistic flexibility.

By using forms of standard German that are relatively free of strict norms, groups such as the Old Orders, Old Colony Mennonites, and Hutterites are thus heirs to a linguistic tradition with deep roots in Central Europe. That is not to say that traditional Anabaptists in North America are not aware that the High German they read, sing, recite, and on occasion write is different from what speakers of European German use. Recognizing that difference, some will express opinions similar to that of a Hutterite who once remarked to a visitor from Austria, “Mir sein jå kolla Teitschverderber” (We are just German-spoilers; Lorenz-Andreasch 2004). Yet in the same way that traditional Anabaptists are content with living lives that are different from those of outsiders, they are just as satisfied with how they use the German language. In that respect, they are not unlike Swiss, Austrians, and Germans who speak and write their mother tongue in ways that are also uniquely their own.


Ganswindt, Brigitte. 2017. Landschaftliches Hochdeutsch. Rekonstruktion der oralen Prestigevarietät im ausgehenden 19. Jahrhundert. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner.

Heine, Matthias. 2016. “Rechtschreibung – Martin Luther setzen, sechs!” Die Welt, 26 January 2016. Accessible online at:

Lorenz-Andreasch, Helga. 2004. Mir sein jå kolla Teitschverderber“: Die Sprache der Schmiedeleut-Hutterer in Manitoba/Kanada. Vienna: Edition Praesens.

Raeithel, Gert. 1992. Geschichte der nordamerikanischen Kultur (3 vols.). Cologne: Parkland.

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