Samuel Ernst and the German Language

Mark L. Louden

Two years ago I was reading through a fascinating publication that appeared irregularly between 1943 and 1946. Der Pennsylvanisch Deitsch Eileschpiggel (The Pennsylvania Dutch Eulenspiegel [<Till Eulenspiegel, a prankster in German folklore]) was brought out by by J. William Frey (1916–1989), who was for many years a professor of German and Russian at Franklin and Marshall College. Frey was a native speaker of Pennsylvania Dutch who wrote his doctoral thesis on the language at the University of Illinois and became a pioneer in the field of Pennsylvania Dutch studies. The Eileschpiggel, which bore the subtitle En Zeiding, Schwetzbrief un Blauderschtick far die Deitsche (A newspaper, newsletter, and chat-sheet for the Pennsylvania Dutch), included Pennsylvania Dutch prose and poetry along with many other items of interest for both “scholars and laymen.”

In the first issue of the Eileschpiggel, Frey printed a short piece in Pennsylvania Dutch by a fellow native speaker and German professor at Lehigh University, Ralph Charles Wood, who expressed his support for Frey’s enterprise. Wood wrote:

This is not the first time that people have tried to publish a Pennsylvania Dutch newspaper to talk a little about the language in the language itself. Around 1860, Samuel Ernst of Millwood, Gap, [PA], published a newspaper in three languages – High German, Pennsylvania Dutch, and English . . .

My curiosity was piqued, since I had never heard of Samuel Ernst and his trilingual publication. After a little sleuthing, I learned that Ernst was an “old” Mennonite who was born in Lancaster County in 1825, moved to Olathe, Kansas, in 1884, and died there in 1909. The newspaper Wood was referring to actually began in 1870 and was titled The Acorn and Germ.image1-17

According to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, The Acorn and Germ was published by Ernst and his son, Eleazar Israel (known as “E. Z. Ernst,” the “Z” referring to his mother’s maiden name, Zimmerman) from July until December 1870, at which time it was succeeded by Der Waffenlose Wächter (The weaponless watchman), which Samuel edited alone. The Wächter initially appeared monthly and eventually quarterly, continuing until 1888. Through the kind assistance of Iren L. Snavely, the Rare Books Librarian at the Pennsylvania State Library in Harrisburg,  I was able to obtain digital copies of several issues the The Acorn and Germ and Der Waffenlose Wächter from September 1870 through April 1871, some highlights of which I will share here.

Ernst’s newspapers were indeed trilingual, with material mainly in English and German, but also Pennsylvania Dutch. In my last post on this blog about Mennonites and Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch, I mentioned that Samuel Ernst is one of just two identified Anabaptists who published Pennsylvania Dutch material in the nineteenth century, the other being John H. Oberholtzer (1809–1895). Both Oberholtzer and Ernst expressed the concern in their respective publications that younger American Mennonites, especially schoolchildren, had insufficient knowledge of High German for the practice of their faith. This concern is shared by many Amish and Old Order Mennonites today, who continue to use the Luther Bible and German-language prayer and hymn books for devotions and worship.

A few words are in order about what kind of German was used by Anabaptists and other Pennsylvania Dutch speakers in Samuel Ernst’s day. Ralph Charles Wood, the German linguist and Pennsylvania Dutch scholar mentioned above, described it as “Pennsylvania High German” to distinguish it from the written German standard used in modern Europe. High German, so-called for the fact that it is based most closely on written dialects used in one part of the High (as opposed to Low) German dialect area (where “high” and “low” refer to the elevation of the Central European landscape), was not widely spoken in the 18th century, when the ancestors of the Pennsylvania Dutch set out for America. At that time and continuing into the 20th century, there was considerable variation in how German was written and even more variation in how it was pronounced when spoken.

Pennsylvania High German, which is still used by the Old Orders today, was strongly influenced by Pennsylvania Dutch, the vernacular language, as well as English. Its users, being cut off from German-speaking Europe since the 18th century, were unaffected by the increasing standardization of German vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and eventually, pronunciation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The maintenance of High German in devotion and worship was important for generations of Anabaptists, as well as other German-American Christians, especially Lutherans. For contemporary Old Orders, the continued use of their Mudderschprooch (mother tongue), which refers to both Deitsch (Pennsylvania Dutch) and Hochdeitsch (High German), is a salient marker of an identity that connects them to the spiritual heritage they brought with them from the Old World.

image2-19Samuel Ernst’s reverence for German was ardent. At the top of one page in every issue of The Acorn and Germ he printed the aphorism

Wir ströben nicht um zeitlich’s gut,

Obgleich wir lieben Deutsches blut

which may be translated as “We do not strive for temporal goods, but we love [our] German blood.” The spelling and word choice are classically Pennsylvania High German and differ from how the aphorism would be rendered in its normative European counterpart:

Wir streben nicht um zeitliches Gut,

Aber wir lieben deutsches Blut.

Contemporary Old Orders might feel uncomfortable with the second part of Ernst’s aphorism, however they would find the quote below it that he printed from the Luther German Bible (based on 1 John 4 and 12) more in line with their sensibilities: “They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them . . . if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

In the October 12, 1870, issue of The Acorn and Germ, Ernst published an interesting poem in Pennsylvania High German that he composed himself. Giving it the English title “On the German Language,” Ernst noted that the poem could be sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” a fitting expression of the fundamentally American cultural milieu in which he and his fellow Mennonites lived.

Ihr jungen helten wachet auf,
Zum kampf der Deutschen sprache.
Laß nicht der dröchheit gahr den lauf
Durch schlummer, oder schlafe.

Das uns nicht der gute Geist
Die gabe gahr entzühe,
Obgleich in unsern odren flüßt
Daß Deutsche blut zum Ende.

Die ed’le Mutter sprache nun
Laßt nicht so gahr dahinden
Kost’s gleig was muhe, doch ist der lohn
Und nutzen auch zu finden.

In disem freyen Lande
Wo alle Völker wohnen,
Laß selbst den Kindern werden kund
Daß Deutsch, sich nicht läßt höhnen.

In Deutscher sprache war zuerst
Die Bibel Prot[e]stantisch,
Dem guten volke uberreicht
Nun ist sie Vatter-landisch.

Auch fast in allen Sprachen
Wie auch die “Druck erfindung,”
Und auch manch andre gutte Sach’n
Ihr’n uhrsprung Deutsch’r endöckung.

Auch selbst die sprache ist so leicht
Doch deitlicher auch keine,
Daß Man von ihr nun wenich braucht
Zur dämpfung ehrer Feinde.

Wo ihr Man die ehre gibt
Welch ehre ehr gebuhred,
Da zeigt ihr werd im a[u]genblick
Daß sie kein Esel führed.

Ye young heroes, awaken
To the battle for the German language.
Let not indolence run freely
Because of slumber or sleep.

May the Holy Spirit not from us
Take away the gift;
After all, in our veins flows
German blood till the end.

Now, do not abandon
The noble mother tongue.
Whatever effort it may cost, the reward
And utility are to be found.

In this free country
Where all peoples dwell,
Let even the children know
That German will not be scoffed at.

In the German language
The Protestant Bible was first
Passed on to the good people;
It is now a national possession.

Also in nearly every language,
As also the invention of printing
And also many other good things
[Owe] their origin to a German discovery.

And even though the language may be so easy [to learn],
None other is as precise,
Such that one needs to use just a little of it
To quiet its enemies.

Wherever one gives it its honor
That it is due,
It shows its value in that moment
[And] that it is led by no jackass.

The form of German that Ernst used was consistent with that of other Pennsylvania Dutch writers at that time; the poem’s content, however, would likely have struck his fellow Anabaptists as somewhat odd and perhaps a bit too worldly in its tone, bordering on the German-nationalistic.

There is much more fascinating material to be mined from the publications of Samuel Ernst, including on the topic of language, some of which I hope to share in future posts.

Mennonites, Amish, and the Pennsylvania Dutch Language

Mark Louden

When people hear the name “Pennsylvania Dutch,” they often assume it is a synonym for “Amish.” And in the same way that the difference between “Amish” and “Mennonite” is often fuzzy for folks unfamiliar with Anabaptist groups, the meaning of “Pennsylvania Dutch” gets stretched even further.

Yet even for those with some familiarity with Amish and Mennonite groups in North America and their history, it may come as a surprise to learn that the primary language used in many Old Order communities, which is also known as Pennsylvania German, was once spoken mainly by non-Anabaptists.


“Vom naus Heira” by John H. Oberholtzer, from “Das Christliche Volks-Blatt,” April 2, 1862.

The roots of the Pennsylvania Dutch language extend back to the migration to Pennsylvania of around 81,000 German speakers from central and southwestern Germany, Alsace, and Switzerland during the eighteenth century.1 At that time, Germans and Swiss of all social classes spoke regional dialects that in most cases differed quite substantially from the emerging written dialect known today as “High German.” Since Pennsylvania Dutch strongly resembles the German varieties spoken in the region known as the Palatinate (Pfalz), we can presume that a critical mass of those 81,000 immigrants to colonial Pennsylvania came from that region.

Though we often have little precise information on where immigrants came from, we do have good information on the religious affiliations of the Pennsylvania Dutch founder population. The great majorityaround 95%were members of Lutheran and German Reformed churches. Only about 3,000 were associated with Anabaptist or Pietist groups, including Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren.2 The relations across denominational lines into the early nineteenth century were, however, sufficiently close that all varieties of Pennsylvania Dutch, those spoken by the “church people” (“Fancy Dutch,” i.e., Lutherans and Reformed) and those of the “plain people” have always been mutually intelligible with one another.

The maintenance of Pennsylvania Dutch as a vital language among church people and plain people alike has, since the eighteenth century, correlated with a number of important external characteristics. One important one is ruralness. Pennsylvania Dutch has always been a language of people who live outside of cities and towns in relatively ethnically homogeneous communities. Not surprisingly, as rural dwellers, active speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch traditionally pursued modest levels of formal education and earned their living mainly through agriculture, crafts, and other forms of manual labor. Moving off the farm, literally and figuratively, usually meant a shift away from Pennsylvania Dutch to speaking mostly or exclusively English.

Looking at today’s situation, Pennsylvania Dutch is now essentially only spoken by Amish and horse-and-buggy-driving Old Order Mennonites, who have very consciously maintained a lifestyle, grounded in their strong faith, that promotes the continued use of a distinctive language without special effort. In contrast, Pennsylvania Dutch has been moribund among the church people for at least two generations. The same is true for most Anabaptists who are less traditional than their Old Order brethren, including conservative groups who in some cases may still live in rural areas and limit their children’s formal education. Unlike the Old Orders, however, members of these conservative Mennonite communities, often pursue active mission work, which in their view makes more practical the use of English only.

At the center of my research program is documenting the history of Pennsylvania Dutch, which includes locating and interpreting texts that were written in the language. Already around the turn of the nineteenth century we find the first evidence of Pennsylvania Dutch, which were generally short texts that appeared in German-language newspapers serving rural southeastern Pennsylvania. Eventually, especially after the Civil War, Pennsylvania Dutch speakers began writing longer prose, poetic, and dramatic texts that gave rise to a body of folk literature that is a precious resource for students of American history and culture.


John H. Oberholtzer

It is noteworthy that the vast majority of identified Pennsylvania Dutch writers were not affiliated with Anabaptist groups, the likely reason being the relatively small numbers of Mennonites and Amish in North America into the twentieth century. I have looked closely at two exceptional writers, both Mennonites who hailed from southeastern Pennsylvania, John H. Oberholtzer (1809–1895) and Samuel Ernst (1825–1909). Oberholtzer’s name is likely most familiar to readers of this blog, as he was a prominent figure in the progressive movement that eventually led to the founding of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church in North America in Iowa in 1860. Ernst was an “old” Mennonite from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, who later moved to Kansas and edited what were likely the only trilingual periodicals of the time, newspapers that included material in German, English, and Pennsylvania Dutch.


In future posts I will share some of the Pennsylvania Dutch writings of Oberholtzer and Ernst, which have been untouched by scholars until now.

  1. Marianne Wokeck, Trade in Strangers: The Beginnings of Mass Migration to North America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 44–47. 
  2. Aaron Spencer Fogleman, Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America, 1717–1775 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), 102–103.