Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch Among Hasidim and Amish

Mark L. Louden

Toward the beginning of the 1985 film directed by Peter Weir, Witness, the 8-year-old Amish protagonist, Samuel Lapp, is in a Philadelphia train station with his mother. At one point Samuel approaches a man from behind whom he believes to be Amish based on the man’s dark clothing and broad-brimmed black hat, only to discover that he is not Amish, but a Hasidic Jew.

There are obvious similarities between Hasidim, members of Orthodox Jewish sects (often described as “ultra-Orthodox”) whose strong faith infuses their daily lives, and the Amish. The spiritual descendants of a Jewish revival movement in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, Hasidim, like their Amish counterparts, marry only within their communities, have large families, and maintain a measure of distance between themselves and outsiders, a distance that is marked outwardly through distinctive practices of daily living, including how they dress and groom themselves. Aside from the fact that Hasidim are Jewish and Amish are Christian, there are many differences between the two groups. Hasidim, for example, submit to the spiritual authority of a dynastic leader, a rebbe, and observe strict, biblically based dietary laws. In Amish congregations, bishops wield much less authority and there are no restrictions on the food Amish may eat or how it is prepared. The ways in which Hasidim and Amish educate their children differ as well. Hasidic children are segregated by gender in schools, with boys receiving a mostly religious curriculum in Yiddish. Amish-run schools, which are conducted exclusively in English, do not separate girls and boys and teach secular subject matter only.1

Hasidic family in Borough Park, Brooklyn, NY
(Adam Jones, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

A presumed linguistic connection between Hasidim and Amish is depicted, this time humorously, in another Hollywood film, The Frisco Kid (1979). The film’s main character is Avram Belinski, a hapless Polish-Jewish immigrant rabbi played by Gene Wilder who is making his way from Philadelphia to San Francisco. At one point, Belinski mistakes a group of Amish people for Hasidim and addresses them in Yiddish, which the (standard) German-speaking Amish do not understand, prompting one of them to ask Belinski, “Dost thou speak English?” (Click here to see the clip of this scene.)

A notable similarity between Hasidim and Amish has to do with language. Most members of both groups speak languages that are related to German, but only distantly, Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch. In what follows I will compare Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch with respect to language structure as well as how they are used.2

Amish family at Niagara Falls
(Gilabrand, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Although Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch are not mutually intelligible with German (or each other), both descend historically from varieties of southern German and diverged from German mainly through emigration. Yiddish is by far the older of the two languages. Its roots extend back to the ninth century, while Pennsylvania Dutch developed in the eighteenth century. Due to the lack of historical documentation for the oldest forms of Yiddish (the earliest written evidence for the language dates to the late thirteenth century), how it emerged as a distinct language is speculative. There is also a lack of scholarly consensus as to which southern German dialects Yiddish is most closely related to. A common view is that Yiddish developed in Jewish communities in the Central Rhine Valley, part of the West Central German dialect area, the regions marked 20 and 21 in the map below.3 Others place the Yiddish linguistic homeland farther east and south, in Bavaria (regions 33, 34, and 35), which belongs to the Upper German dialect group.

Continental West Germanic languages, not including Afrikaans, Pennsylvania Dutch, and Yiddish
(Rex Germanus, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Another complicating factor in identifying the German roots of Yiddish is the considerable variation across the varieties that were spoken historically in Central and Eastern Europe. Yiddish dialects fall into two major groups, Western and Eastern. Western Yiddish, which has been moribund for some time, was spoken mostly in German-speaking Central Europe. Eastern Yiddish, which was the native language of most Jewish immigrants to the US in the late nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries, including the Hasidim, was coterritorial with non-Germanic languages, mostly Slavic languages, Hungarian, Romanian, and Lithuanian. Within Eastern Yiddish there is considerable dialectal variation.4

The early history of Pennsylvania Dutch is much better understood, mainly because of its shorter time depth. The language developed through the immigration of German speakers to colonial Pennsylvania, most of whom hailed from the Palatinate, which is located partly in the Central Rhine Valley, hence there are many similarities between Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch. The German dialects that Pennsylvania Dutch most closely resembles today are in the region marked 20 in the map above.

As with Yiddish, there are dialects of Pennsylvania Dutch, though the differences across them are not nearly as great as within Eastern Yiddish. Pennsylvania Dutch dialects differ from one another mostly in vocabulary; the grammar and pronunciation are remarkably uniform. The original variation within Pennsylvania Dutch was geographically determined. In the heartland of the language, the counties located in the so-called Dutch Country of southeastern Pennsylvania, the clearest differences were between the varieties in Lehigh and eastern Berks counties and those used in Lancaster and western Berks counties. Amish and Mennonite sectarians, who collectively comprised only a small minority of the Pennsylvania Dutch founder population, came to be concentrated in Lancaster County. Today, most Amish Pennsylvania Dutch speakers live in the Midwest and their form of the language differs somewhat from what their coreligionists speak in Lancaster-affiliated communities, a natural consequence of change over time, however all Amish varieties of Pennsylvania Dutch are completely mutually intelligible.5

There are no absolute criteria according to which linguistic varieties are called “languages” or “dialects” and there is often disagreement among linguists and native speakers alike as to how to label specific varieties. Coincidentally, the most famous comment on the difference between languages and dialects was popularized by the linguist Max Weinreich, whose work on the history of the Yiddish is unparalleled. The quote, which Weinreich heard from a Yiddish speaker who attended one of his lectures, is “a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot” (A language is a dialect with an army and navy). What this essentially means is that when two linguistic varieties sharing a common ancestor have become autonomous from one another (e.g., administratively), it is reasonable to classify them as separate languages. And certainly, if it is difficult for speakers of the varieties in question to understand one another due to differences in vocabulary and grammar, that would move the needle further away from calling them dialects of a common language. In the case of Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch, their external (sociolinguistic) and internal (structural) distance from German is clear: both are best regarded as languages separate from German, as, for example, Dutch and Luxembourgish are.6

The linguistic distance between Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch and German can be shown by comparing how the same text is rendered in all three languages. Below are translations of the first five verses of Genesis. The Yiddish version is transliterated; written Yiddish uses the Hebrew alphabet. The Pennsylvania Dutch version is based on the Midwestern Amish variety of the language and is written in an orthography similar to English.

German (Luther 1545)7

1Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde. Und die Erde war wüst und leer, und es war finster auf der Tiefe; und der Geist Gottes schwebte auf dem Wasser. Und Gott sprach: Es werde Licht! und es ward Licht. Und Gott sah, daß das Licht gut war. Da schied Gott das Licht von der Finsternis 5und nannte das Licht Tag und die Finsternis Nacht. Da ward aus Abend und Morgen der erste Tag.

Standard Yiddish (Solomon Blumgarten 1941)8

1in onheyb hot got bashafn dem himl un di erd. 2un di erd iz geven vist un leydik, un fintsternish iz geven oyfn gezikht fun thom, un der gayst fun got hot geshvebt oyfn gezikht fun di vasern. 3hot got gezogt: zol vern likht. un es iz gevorn likht. 4un got hot gezen dos likht az es iz gut; un got hot fanandergesheydt tsvishn dem likht un tsvishn der fintsternish. 5un got hot gerufn dos likht tog, un di fintsternish hot er gerufn nakht. un es iz geven ovnt, un es iz geven frimorgn, eyn tog.

Pennsylvania Dutch (Di Heilich Shrift 2013)9

1Am ohfang hott Gott da himmel un di eaht kshaffa. 2Nau di eaht voah gans veesht un leah. Es voah dunkel ivvah’s deef vassah, un Gott sei Geisht voah ivvah’s vassah. 3Un Gott hott ksawt, “Loss di helling gmacht sei,” un’s voah hell. 4Gott hott ksenna es di helling goot voah, un hott di helling fadayld fumm dunkla. 5Gott hott di helling “dawk” kaysa, un hott’s dunkla “nacht” kaysa. Un’s voah ohvet un meiya, da eahsht dawk.

I mentioned above that one difference between the use of Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch among Hasidim and Amish is that the former language is used as a medium of instruction in Hasidic parochial schools. In the teaching of religious subject matter, which is the primary focus in the education of Hasidic boys, pupils study sacred texts in Hebrew and Aramaic but discuss their content in Yiddish. One common way that scripture is taught is by reciting the original Hebrew phrase by phrase, interspersed with literal Yiddish translations.

Below is a recording of a contemporary Hasidic man reciting the biblical passage above in Hebrew and Yiddish. The Hebrew original is given in bold, with the Yiddish in roman script.10 The differences between the Hasidic and Standard Yiddish versions here are due to dialectal variation. The standard variety commonly used when Yiddish is formally taught in non-Hasidic institutions is based largely on the Eastern dialects that were historically coterritorial with Lithuania. Most modern Hasidic varieties of Yiddish derive from dialects that used to be spoken farther south, in an area where Hungarian, among other languages, was also spoken.

Hasidic Hebrew and Yiddish

1berayshes – in unhayb, buru eloykim – hot der aybershter bashafn, es hashumaim – dem himl, veays huurets – in di erd. 2vehuurets – in di erd, hoysu – iz geveyn, soyhi – pist, vuvoyhi – in vist, vekhoyshekh – in tinkl, al pnay sehoym – hekhern upgrint; veriekh eloykim – in der gayst finem aybershtn, merakheyfes – hot geshveybt, al pnay hamoyim – hekhern vaser. 3vayoymer eloykim – in der aybershter hot gezugt, yehi oyr – es zol zaan lekhtik, vayhi oyr – in es iz gevorn lekhtik. 4vayar eloykim – in der aybershter hot gezeyn, es huoyr – di lekhtikayt, ki toyv – az zi iz git, vayavdayl eloykim – in der aybershter hot upgeshaydt, bayn huoyr – tsvishn der lekhtikayt, ibayn hakhoysekh – in tsvishn der tinklkayt. 5vayikru eloykim – in der aybershter hot gerifn, luoyr – tsi der likhtikayt, yoym – tug, velakhoyshekh – in tsi der tinklkayt, kuru – hot er gerifn, loylu – nakht, vayhi eyrev – es iz geveyn uvnt, vayhi boyker – es iz geveyn in der fri, yoym eykhud – deym ershtn tug.

In the past, both Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch were once widely spoken by people not affiliated with Hasidic or traditional Anabaptist groups. So-called secular Yiddish speakers advanced the frontiers of the language during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in many ways. Yiddish became a vital vehicle for communication in several public spheres, including literature, politics, and scholarly research, and there were countless periodicals produced in Yiddish whose content in many cases was not connected to the Jewish faith. The Holocaust dealt a critical blow to the language. Perhaps as much as one-half of the world’s Yiddish-speaking population was murdered by Nazi Germany. Although Yiddish continues to be spoken by non-Hasidic Jews today, many of whom identify as Yiddishists, ardent advocates for the language and culture, the Hasidim far outnumber these more secular speakers.

The counterparts of secular Yiddish speakers in Pennsylvania Dutch–speaking society are known among scholars as “nonsectarians,” or more popularly the “Church People” or “Fancy Dutch.” Nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch are the descendants of non-Anabaptist German-speaking immigrants to rural Pennsylvania during the colonial era who had little contact with Amish or Mennonites from the early nineteenth century on. They became the main standard bearers of a rich folk culture that included several thousand texts, including literary works. But unlike Yiddish, Pennsylvania Dutch was always used almost exclusively by rural dwellers of modest educational background. Among those Pennsylvania Dutch people, sectarian or nonsectarian, who aspired to move “up” socially or who chose to marry non-Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking partners, the shift to speaking English only was in most cases rapid. Today, the vast majority of active speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch are members of Amish and traditional Mennonite groups, who choose to live in rural areas and set limits on the degree to which they interact with the larger society, thereby creating a social space within which their heritage language remains vital.

Despite their status today as the main speakers of Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch, neither Hasidim nor Amish engage in conscious efforts to cultivate, promote, or celebrate their heritage languages. Language maintenance is a secondary phenomenon of how both groups live out their faith. For their part, Hasidim adhere to a teaching that observant Jews should avoid innovation in their names, language, and clothing, which is derived from a belief that the preservation of these cultural practices by the biblical Israelites contributed to their redemption from slavery in Egypt. The quote below is from a Hasidic man interviewed by a Yiddish-speaking linguist, Isaac Bleaman, and is included in Bleaman’s 2018 doctoral thesis comparing the sociolinguistic situations of Hasidim and Yiddishists in New York.11

The rabbis are always saying you’re not allowed to change your language. It says in Midrash [biblical commentaries] on account of three things the Jews could leave (Egypt) . . . Shem [name], lushn [language], and malbesh [clothing]. Shem is the name, they didn’t make their names goyish [non-Jewish]. Lushn and malbesh . . . So the Hasidim will interpret lushn to mean language, to mean how the way that your parents spoke. So you must continue to speak . . . if your mother speaks Yiddish, you must also speak Yiddish and if you change, then you have a problem.12

An additional important factor underlying the maintenance of Yiddish among Hasidim has to do with Hebrew. Among observant Jews generally, Hebrew, which is a Semitic language unrelated to Germanic Yiddish, has unique significance as the sacred language of scripture that has been a constant throughout the entire history of the Jewish people. Some Jewish thinkers have even declared that Hebrew was the original language of humanity: “The language created by God, which He taught Adam and placed on his tongue and in his heart, is without any doubt the most perfect and most fitted to express the things specified.”13 Most Hasidim feel that Hebrew, as the holy tongue, is unsuited for everyday communication, making Yiddish, which is still a uniquely Jewish language, an appropriate vernacular for in-group communication. Yiddish also serves as a marker of the spiritual-cultural boundary between Hasidim and outsiders, both other Jews and non-Jews.

Amish and other traditional Anabaptists do not subscribe to an explicit, scripturally based ideology that justifies the maintenance of Pennsylvania Dutch, however its continued use is viewed as a tangible connection to their spiritual heritage.14 Amish people affectionately refer to Pennsylvania Dutch as their Mudderschprooch (mother tongue), which evokes that it is the language they first learn to speak at home and what their forebears spoke. The similar affection among Hasidim for Yiddish is reflected in their description of it (but not Hebrew) as their mame-loshn, which also means ‘mother tongue’. Like Yiddish, Pennsylvania Dutch performs a boundary-maintaining function for Amish and other Plain people, as it has now become a language that is effectively their own.

The meaning of Mudderschprooch is extended by the Amish to include German; the Pennsylvania Dutch word Deitsch means either ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ or ‘German’. Just as the Hasidim feel that maintaining Hebrew is essential for the practice of their faith, German has a similar status among the Amish, though the Amish do not believe that German is an inherently holy tongue. They know that German was not the original language of the Bible, yet it is at the center of their devotional life. They use Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible and prayer books and hymnals that are in an archaic form of standard German called by linguists “Amish High German” or “Pennsylvania High German.” The Amish do not proscribe the use of German for non-religious purposes, but their everyday communicative needs are met by Pennsylvania Dutch and English. As members of North American society, the Amish recognize that English is essential for their economic survival and it is the main language they read and write. For their part, Hasidim also speak, read, and write the languages of the larger communities in which they live, however their proficiency in Yiddish as a written as well as an oral medium distinguishes them from the Amish, who rarely read or write Pennsylvania Dutch.

The ideology that calls Hasidim to signal their Jewish identity overtly in names, language, and clothing has a clear parallel among the Amish and other Plain Anabaptists. Although Amish people do not have given names that are different from those of their non-Plain neighbors, their speech and dress and grooming set them apart. The reflections of an Old Order Mennonite minister are apt here, linking distinctive verbal behavior and appearance to the cardinal Anabaptist virtue of humility.

In my opinion, though the Deitsch we have is not a written language, it is enough to help keep us together as a people. God confused the languages, and it served a good purpose. Now maybe we should not strive for a unified language. I often think how an old sister counseled, soon after I had joined the church, that “children should also learn a little something about bearing their cross, with their clothing style.” I think also it is thus with the language. It is good for them to endure a little ridicule.15

Both Hasidim and Amish “endure a little ridicule” for how they live out their faith, but their demographic success – their growth rates are exponential due to large average family sizes and low attrition – is remarkable. And as the Hasidic and Amish populations increase, the futures of both Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch look bright.

1. The scholarly and popular literature about Hasidim and Amish is vast. Two book-length treatments of each group to be recommended are Hasidic People: A Place in the New World by Jerome R. Mintz (Harvard University Press, 1992) and The Amish by Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

2. To date, there has been one article devoted to comparing Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch, “A Lexical Comparison of Two Sister Languages: Pennsylvania German and Yiddish,” Pennsylvania Folklife 29: 138–142, by John R. Costello (1980). Thanks to Edward E. Quinter, Allentown, PA, for bringing this article to my attention.

3. Map source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_German_languages#/media/File:Continental_West_Germanic_languages.png.

4. As is true of the scholarly and popular literature on the Hasidim, there are scores of publications on Yiddish. One recent title is Yiddish: Biography of a Language by Jeffrey Shandler (Oxford University Press, 2020).

5. For an overview of the history of Pennsylvania Dutch, including its status among Amish and other Plain people, see Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language by Mark L. Louden (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).

6. See the Wikipedia entry for “A language is a dialect with an army and navy”.

7. Source: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Mose%201&version=LUTH1545. The source of the sound clip is accessible here.

8. Source: Torah, Nevi’im, u-Khetuvim by Solomon Blumgarten (Yehoash Farlag Gezelshaft, 1941). Blumgarten’s translation of the Book of Genesis (Breyshis, in Hebrew) is accessible here. The sound clip is excerpted from a video recording of Samuel Kassow, a native speaker of Yiddish and professor of history at Trinity College. The recording was produced by the Yiddish Book Center, based in Amherst, MA, which is a premier organization for the documentation and dissemination of Yiddish language and culture: https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/. I am grateful to Isaac Bleaman for bringing this video recording to my attention. Note that Kassow pronounces the words es iz ‘it is’ as “shi”, which is a feature of his Northeastern (Lithuanian-Belarusian) Yiddish dialect: es iz > siz > si > shi. He also pronounces oyfn ‘on the’ as “afn”.

9. Source: Di Heilich Shrift, which was produced by a committee of native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch from Ohio who were of Amish background (Wycliffe Bible Translators, 2013). The complete translation is accessible here. I produced the sound clip of this excerpt myself.

10. I am indebted here again to Isaac Bleaman, who is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley and a fluent Yiddish speaker (https://www.isaacbleaman.com/). An anonymous Hasidic friend of Isaac’s kindly created this sound clip for this blog post and Isaac produced the transcription.

11. “Outcomes of Minority Language Maintenance: Variation and Change in New York Yiddish” by Isaac L. Bleaman, Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 2018, pp. 55–61.

12. Bleaman 2018, p. 57. This quote is translated from Yiddish.

13. This quote is from The Kuzari, a seminal philosophical text by the Spanish Jewish poet and thinker Judah Halevi (d. 1141), as cited on p. 71 of “Holy Land, Holy Language: A Study of Ultraorthodox Jewish Ideology” by Lewis Glinert and Yosseph Shilhav, Language in Society 20: 59–86 (1991).

14. A thoughtful essay on the ecology of Pennsylvania Dutch, German, and English in Amish society is “What Is a Language?” (Family Life, February 1986, pp. 12–16), which was written by Benuel S. Blank, an Amish man. The essay is accessible here.

15. Amos B. Hoover, German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage, Ephrata, PA: Muddy Creek Farm Library, 2018, pp. 52–54. The original quote was in Pennsylvania Dutch. See also my post on this blog from January 20, 2021, “Humility and the Pennsylvania Dutch Language.”

1 thought on “Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch Among Hasidim and Amish

  1. Whenever a scholar in whatever discipline puts pen to paper, such effort is invariably commensurated by a silent prayer to strike a perfect balance between instructing and entertaining. This is rarely admitted but simply both fact and true.
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    Jack T.


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