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.”

Humility and the Pennsylvania Dutch Language

Mark L. Louden

A German hymn popular among Amish and traditional Mennonites centers on humility, a cardinal virtue in Plain Anabaptist life.

Demut ist die schönste Tugend,
Aller Christen Ruhm und Ehr’,
Denn sie zieret unsere Jugend
Und das Alter noch viel mehr.

Humility is the most beautiful virtue,
The glory and honor of all Christians,
For it adorns our youth
And old age even more so.

It’s fair to say that humility is receding as a lodestar in many mainstream Americans’ lives, as a December 2019 article in the online publication Medium explored.1 Empathy, a hallmark of humility, has, according to the article’s author, lost ground to narcissism, especially in public life. The continued centrality of humility in Plain culture is one of many intangible ways in which Amish and traditional Mennonites stand apart from many of their non-Plain neighbors.

As observers of traditional Anabaptist groups have noted, their identity as people of faith is expressed visibly, most obviously in the ways they dress and groom themselves. Plain people read 1 Peter 5:5, for example, as a literal call to express their humility through what they wear.

… And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’”

Plain humility is encoded linguistically as well. In a manual on Christian (i.e., humble) living directed at Amish youth, there is a section devoted to how one should speak. Seven principles for appropriate speech are laid out, each supported by Scripture.

  1. To speak only the truth
  2. To be simple and straightforward in our speech
  3. To be “slow to speak”
  4. To return good for evil
  5. Sometimes it is better to be quiet
  6. To be consistent in our speech
  7. To be a good witness to non-Christians2

The anonymous editors of this manual do not suggest that any specific language is more or less suited to humble speech. However Pennsylvania Dutch–speaking Plain people, which includes most Amish and Old Order Mennonites, do often perceive a link between the maintenance of their German-related vernacular language alongside standard German for devotional purposes and humility.

Both plain dress and “keeping Dutch” are connected in an interesting quote collected by the Old Order historian Amos B. Hoover and included in his wonderful book, German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage. In a conversation with Hoover, a Weaverland Conference Mennonite minister, Luke N. Good (1928–2015), shared the following thoughts.

Ich meen, es Deitsch as mir hen is ken gschriwweni Schprooch, awwer is genunk fer helfe uns zammehalde. Gott hot die Schprooche verwechselt un es hot gedient zum Gude. Nau velleicht sette mer net schaffe fer en unified Schprooch. Ich denk als oft, glei as ich bei die Gmee war, hot en aldi Fraa grode, “Die Schulkinner sette aa wennig lanne ihre Greiz draage, mit die Gleederdracht.” Un ich meen aa so mit die Schprooch. S’is gut wann sie wennig gschpott warre.3

In my opinion, though the German 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.

Plain people are not the only Pennsylvania Dutch speakers to associate humility with how one dresses and what and how one speaks. So-called “Fancy Dutch,” the descendants of mainly Lutheran and German Reformed immigrants who comprised the great majority of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers into the 20th century, expressed sensibilities much like those of Luke N. Good.

Below is an excerpt from a dialog in Pennsylvania Dutch that appeared in 1841 in a German-language Lutheran newspaper published in Easton, PA. Although the author and most if not all of his readers were native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch, German was at that time the preferred medium for writing. Whenever Pennsylvania Dutch was used in print, it marked a shift to a more direct, colloquial style that connected author and reader closely. The two men in the dialog from which the text below is excerpted were members of the same Lutheran congregation.

Wer sei Schprooch verlaesst, daer schemmt sich noch vun sei Eldre un verlaesst noch sei Religion un watt en Maddedischt. Un is denn die englisch Schprooch vornemmer un schenner as die deitsch? Ich denk net. Unser alder Parre hett immer gsaat dass die deitsch Schprooch die vornemmscht un bescht waer, un sell glaawich aa. Awwer sobald der Hochmut in die junge Leit faahrt, wolle sie englisch sei un schemme sich, Deitsch zu schwetze, as wann’s Sind un Schand waer.

Waar’s Deitsch gut genung fer mich, so denk ich, is’s aa gut genung fer mei Kinner. Sie sin deitsch un solle aa deitsch bleiwe. So viel Englisch wie sie breichte, lanne sie ennihau uf der Schtroos.

Whoever abandons his language is ashamed of his parents and will leave his faith and become a Methodist. And is the English language really loftier and more beautiful than German? I don’t think so. Our old pastor always said that the German language was the loftiest and best and I believe that, too. But as soon as pride enters young people, they want to be English and are ashamed of speaking German, as if that were a sin and scandal.

If German was good enough for me, then I think it is good enough for my children, too. They’re German and should stay German, too. They’ll learn all the English they’ll need in the street, anyway.

In prose and poetic texts in the 19th and 20th centuries, Pennsylvania Dutch writers often lamented the tendency for youth to stray, which aside from preferring English was also reflected in their worldly fashions. One example that appeared in several German-language newspapers in Pennsylvania starting in the 1860s was a reader’s letter titled “Teite Hosen un Ständups mache der Mann net” (Tight Pants and Standup Collars Do Not Make the Man).4 The letter concludes with this verse:

Fer weiti Hupps un teiti Hosse
Nemmt mer besser sich in Acht,
Sie sin graad wie falschi Rose,
Zum Verfiehre yuscht gmacht.
Zwar gucke sie recht fei un schee,
Doch wer kann dehinner seh?

Of wide hoops and tight pants
One had better beware;
They are like fake roses,
Made just to lead astray.
They may look quite fancy and pretty,
Yet who can see through them?

Though the author of this poem was almost certainly a Fancy Dutch male, the sentiments he expresses align well with contemporary Plain values. Amish and traditional Mennonite women have never worn hoop skirts and still today males in the most traditional Amish groups, including the Swartzentruber and Nebraska Amish, wear collarless shirts and loosely fitting trousers.

The spirit of the “Tight Pants” text is echoed in the Pennsylvania Dutch poem below from 1870, in which the “poor soul” quoted prefers both stylish clothing and English over her native tongue.

So schteck ich do in meine Hupps
Un bin en aarmi Seel,
Ausse glatt un inne Schmutz,
So simmer unni Fehl.
Un wann ich yuscht drei Sent noch hab,
So muss ich doch in Schtoor.
Datt muss der letschte Kupper fatt,
So geht’s vun Yaahr zu Yaahr.
Schwetzt ennich epper zu mir Deitsch
Un froogt mich, ‘Kannscht du des?”
So saag ich awwer jo net “Ja”,
Ich saag in Englisch, “Yes!’5

That’s how I am in my hoops,
A poor soul,
Smooth on the outside and dirty on the inside,
That’s how we are without fail.
And when I’m down to my last three cents
I still have to go to the store.
That’s where the last copper has to go,
So it goes, year in and year out.
If someone speaks to me in Dutch
And asks, “Can you understand?”
Then of course I don’t say “Ja”,
I say in English, “Yes!”

Just as Plain people ensure the survival of the Pennsylvania Dutch language in the twenty-first century, so too do they continue the tradition once shared by their “Fancy” neighbors of linking both language and modest dress with the time-honored virtue of humility.

1 Brooke Meredith, “Kindness and Humility Have Taken a Nosedive in America,” Medium, December 29, 2019. (Accessible at: https://medium.com/swlh/kindness-and-humility-have-taken-a-nosedive-in-america-67a1d912d53c).

2 1001 Questions on the Christian Life, Aylmer, ON: Pathway Publishers, 1992, p. 113.

3 Amos B. Hoover, German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage, Ephrata, PA: Muddy Creek Farm Library, 2018, pp. 52–54.

4 Ludwig A. Wollenweber, Gemälde aus dem pennsylvanischen Volksleben, Philadelphia and Leipzig: Schäfer and Koradi, 1869, p. 100.

5 Reading Adler, February 25, 1870.

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.

Source: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/123961262/wilma-mullet#view-photo=133313180

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: https://www.welt.de/kultur/article151451531/Rechtschreibung-Martin-Luther-setzen-sechs.html.

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.

A Visit to a Mennonite Community in Germany, 1881

Mark L. Louden

In the history of popular writings about the Pennsylvania Dutch, their culture and language, Phebe Earle Gibbons (1821–1893) occupies a place of importance. Born into a prominent Hicksite Quaker family in Philadelphia, Gibbons received a relatively good formal education for a female of her era. In 1845 she married a farmer and physician, Joseph Gibbons (1818–1883), from Bird-in-Hand, Lancaster County, where they made their home. Among their many activities, Joseph and Phebe brought out an important progressive Quaker periodical, The Journal: A Paper Devoted to the Interests of the Society of Friends. Phebe, in addition to raising five children, became a prolific journalist who in 1869 wrote an essay, “Pennsylvania Dutch,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, garnering national attention. This essay was reprinted along with several others in an anthology that was first published in 1872 and then in two expanded editions in 1874 and 1882. Gibbons’s book was reprinted in 2001 with an extensive introduction by Don Yoder.

In 1881 Gibbons traveled to Europe and spent some time visiting Mennonites in Germany, writing letters home that were published in the Lancaster Intelligencer. Below is one of these letters, describing her visit to the Mennonite community at Kühbörncheshof located near the community of Katzweiler, which is ten kilometers north of Kaiserslautern in the Palatinate. The Kühbörncheshof congregation was founded by Swiss exiles in 1715 and is still active today. Gibbons’s letter appeared in the September 21, 1881, issue of the Intelligencer. The spellings of some of the place names have been amended to reflect how they are written today.

Exterior view of the Kühbörncheshof Mennonite church. Von Sokkok – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25923214

Among the Mennonites
Comparisons of Germany and Lancaster County
Glimpses into the Social Life of the Bavarian Farmer
Kühbörncheshof, near Katzweiler, in the Rhenish Palatinate, Bavaria, Germany
August 28, 1881

It is now Sunday morning, and at about half-past nine there is to be a meeting in the Mennonite meeting house in this small settlement. The people call it Gottesdienst, or God’s service. It holds about an hour.

Like our people in Lancaster County, these were originally of Swiss origin. The names here, or belonging to the community, are Lattschar, Rink, Weber, Koller, Bachmann and Schowalter; of which it will be noticed that the greater part are also found in Pennsylvania.

My last letter to you described my visit to Krefeld, where the Mennonite community are living in that manufacturing town. Here, however, in this little settlement, the people are farmers, living on their own land, and seeming to have prospered, much like our people at home.

I am now tarrying in the city of Speyer, on the west side of the Rhine, in Southern Germany; and hearing of this community, or settlement, I concluded to visit it. First I was to take the rail to Kaiserslautern, and there take the post-omnibus for Katzweiler, a village at a distance of about five miles. I was told to stay there over night on Saturday, and walk out to the Mennonite community in the morning. However, as I remembered the ways of our people at home, I bethought myself that it would be better to make myself known in the evening before, as there might be some distance to go to meeting, or some arrangement to make which it would be more agreeable to have planned over night. And it was fortunate for myself that I did so.

Having been left by the post-wagon at Katzweiler, at a small public house, the landlord had just consented to send me over in charge of a young girl, when he caught sight of two of the Mennists with a wagon. On the road I had seen a party of market women coming home in a wagon drawn by cows, a common sight in this country, but these Mennonites had good horses and were very polite in arranging a seat for me on a large bundle of straw. Some of the people on my journey who had learned that I am from America seemed to be quite interested in me, while I found persons about as good at asking questions as the Yankees at home. Thus in one of the towns I passed through I went into a shop to get something. I had spoken of being in a hurry for the omnibus, and the man wanted to know “Where are you going?” I said, “to Katzweiler.” “Have you relations there?” “No, sir.” “What did you come from France for?” “I did not come from France.” As I spoke German poorly, or perhaps used some French words, he inferred that I was from France.

I had asked the young Mennonites, of whom I have before spoken, to what house I would better go in the settlement, and when they drew near they said that I should go to their house. The house was good sized and very well built; not, however furnished with rag carpets, like so many of our farmers’ houses at home, but with sanded floors and stone.

Before supper the mother of the family (who had seven daughters and one son) asked me what I would have. I answered a glass of milk, warm from the cow. A noble glass was brought me with cake sprinkled with cinnamon. After while their regular supper was ready, and they seemed to think it not nice enough to invite me to sit down, but I desired to do so, being glad to see the manner of living. Before going to the table all the family stood a few moments as if in silent prayer, and again in the same manner after eating. Besides those already mentioned, there were a widowed aunt and the husband of one of the daughters. The latter was one of those with whom I rode home. The supper was potato soup, this being the only article of food on the table. A deep dish of soup was set at each end, and each member of the family provided with plate and spoon; some of the plates being tin. The soup contained mashed potatoes and bread, butter and herbs, but no meat. It was good. I think that one of the family said to me, “You have meat in America.” I understood that their usual food is potatoes and milk. They seem, however, to have plenty of rye bread. They also had some beautiful white bread, made for Sunday. To read of such simplicity of living it might be supposed that the people are poor. This family has, however, eighty acres, six cows besides calves, and as I have already said, horses. Food is doubtless expensive, however, butter being now about 31 cents a pound. It will be found that where people eat so sparingly they eat more frequently.

The settlement no longer has an unpaid ministry as with us. Until lately they had; but a few years ago they concluded to employ a minister. However, he is not heavily paid. He preaches by turns in three different settlements, and receives a salary of about $180, having too a wife and infant. There are larger communities, however, which pay as much as $250 to $450.

Interior view of the Kühbörncheshof Mennonite church. The inscription on the wall is from Psalm 100:2, “Serve the Lord with gladness.” Von Sokkok – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25923317

There was no organ in the little church which I visited today, and in most respects it seemed as simple as some Mennonite meetings that I have seen in Lancaster County. One marked difference is that all the prayers seemed to be read from a book. I may add that none of the women wore white caps, a few wore black caps or head-dresses, but the greater part appeared without any and with their hair very neatly braided.

The ancestors of these people came from Switzerland in 1715, and there are still small Mennonite settlements in that country.

The first who came from Switzerland to the place I have today visited seems to have built himself a log house; the country being nearly covered with wood with wild animals therein. Others joined him until the little settlement numbered eight families. But counting all in the country round belonging to this church, it is said to have ninety-four baptized persons. They baptize at age of thirteen. They are no longer in this part of Germany allowed to purchase exemption from military service; all who are drawn must serve without any exception.

There was give me today a list of most of the Mennonites communities in Europe. Some of the names in Germany will be very familiar to our people at home, such as Stauffer, Lehmann, Neff, Krehbill, Muselman, Bar and Landes.

Before closing I will add a few words on the language. As spoken in South Germany it is softened as reyer or reschen for regen, rain. Among the Mennonites I caught the sound of moryets for morgens [‘mornings’], and obits or owats for abends [‘evenings’]. It is quite probable that one familiar with the “Pennsylvania Dutch” of Lancaster County would find great resemblance in it to the language spoken among the Mennonites here.


Gibbons, Phebe Earle. 2001. Pennsylvania Dutch and Other Essays, with an introduction by Don Yoder. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Language Shift among Weaverland Conference Mennonites

In a post to this blog last year I discussed the use of Pennsylvania Dutch among Weaverland Conference Mennonites (also known as Horning or Black-bumper Mennonites). Although they are closely connected to the Groffdale Conference (Wenger or Team Mennonites), with whom they share an Old Order affiliation since 1927, when the two conferences divided over the use of the automobile, the less tradition-minded Weaverland Conference has seen a shift away from the use of German in worship in favor of English.

In many Weaverland families, active use of Pennsylvania Dutch as an everyday language continues today, however there, too, the shift to English is evident. For their part, Groffdale Conference Mennonites maintain both German in church and Pennsylvania Dutch as a community language. The gradual transition from German/Pennsylvania Dutch to English within the Weaverland Conference parallels the experience of the Beachy Amish, whose split from their Old Order brethren also dates to 1927. Use of English in worship has become the norm in Beachy congregations and proficiency in Pennsylvania Dutch has declined among younger members.

An astute witness of the changing language situation among traditional Mennonites is the historian Amos B. Hoover, who together with his wife Nora founded Muddy Creek Farm Library on their farm near Ephrata, Pennsylvania, in 1956. This library is a leading repository of documents related to the history of traditional Anabaptists. As a Weaverland Conference member who was born in 1933, Hoover has had a unique vantage point from which he has observed and written about numerous changes in the life of his church and related groups.

The language question has been of special interest to Hoover. Recently, he has written a fascinating volume that complements wonderfully the scholarship on Anabaptists and their languages. Titled German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage (Ephrata, Pa.: Muddy Creek Farm Library, 2018), Hoover’s book is a rich compendium of primary and secondary resources he has gathered over decades, many of which have not been easily accessible to researchers. Just as important as the documentary material Hoover shares is his analysis of the language trends he has observed. In this way Hoover combines an insider’s perspective with scholarly objectivity, making this an invaluable resource for a range of readers.

The subtitle of the book is “Struggles with Language Change among Mennonites,” which points to the fact that the shift from German/Pennsylvania Dutch to English has not been one universally welcomed among Hoover’s brethren. As Mennonites in this country and Canada have felt the pull of modernity, different opinions on the continued use of German have emerged. Among those groups who sought formal training for their ministers, pursued mission work, and desired to sponsor Sunday schools for their children, the shift to English made sense. Most Old Orders, however, who have preferred to hold the line on these and other changes, are committed to “keeping Dutch.” Interestingly, Hoover himself views the shift to English with regret. As he comments on p. 247 of his book, “… our losses have been great by tossing our native tongue.”

Hoover begins his book with an introductory essay in which he presents six theses about language based on his experience and supported by the documentation in the chapters that follow. I will paraphrase these six theses, which are given on page 15.

  1. Most Old Order Mennonite and Amish groups have successfully maintained some form of German since their arrival in America nearly three centuries ago.
  2. Language is a central part of the religious expression of Old Orders (and certainly many other people of faith as well), therefore the choice of which specific language a group uses will have spiritual implications. Hoover sees the preference of English over German in hymnody (or vice versa) as an especially important example in this regard.
  3. The increasing importance of English as a language of literacy has “opened the door to mainstream Protestant theology.”
  4. Bi- or multilingualism is a good thing for anyone, but brings special benefits to Christians by making multiple translations of Scripture accessible.
  5. Whenever North American Mennonites have experienced divisions over the past nearly two centuries, language has played at least some role, if not the central one.
  6. As a practical matter, knowledge of German (including the old typeface and handwritten script) and Pennsylvania Dutch is important for researchers to be able to engage with many primary historical documents.

Hoover’s book is divided into eight parts. The three main sections of the book, part II “Personal Interviews, and Observations on Language Related Issues,” (35–137); part III “Language Issues Mentioned in Previously Unpublished Documents,” (141–165); and part IV “Language Issues Mentioned in Previously Published Sources,” 169–241), are framed by two essays by Hoover, “Introduction to Language Transition among Mennonites” (15–28) and “The Author’s Summary on PA German” (247–252). The book concludes with brief “Biographical Sketches of Contributors to this Study” (253–275), a list of language-related materials held in the Muddy Creek Farm Library (277­–282), and an index (283–311).

I will share a few gems from part II, which is essentially a journal assembled by Hoover that includes hundreds of entries describing community events and conversations related to language use that he either observed or participated in between 1959 and 2017. One theme that recurs in many of these conversations is the linkage of the preference of English over German with the sin of pride. One illustrative quote is attributed to Bishop Joseph O. Wenger (1868–1956), who led the Groffdale Conference at the time of the 1927 division. (In Pennsylvania Dutch, Groffdale Mennonites are referred to this day as Tscho Wenger ‘Joe Wengers’.) Documenting a conversation that he had with a contemporary of Wenger, David K. Martin (1915–2012), in 1975, Hoover shares the following (p. 59):

[Q]uoting Joe Wenger in Zeigness [commentary after an Old Order sermon]: “Sis nau so weit as es englisch Singes rei komme is an die Singings, aber die Junge sette doch jo net Stimmig singe. Sis nix letz mit die englisch Sproche. Es scheint aber won d[ie] Deutsche leit mohl englisch warre welle, dann dutt der Hochmut sich ei stelle.”

This is such a classic statement and quote of Joe Wenger, that I also write it in English. It is undated but early in the 1920s. This is based on the fact that the singing schools were restarted in 1920 and there was a sentiment among some people that we need to do something for the young people even if they sing some English: “It has now changed to the point that English singing came into use at the young people’s singings, but youth should not sing four-part harmony. There is really no problem with the [English] language, but it appears that when German people make an effort to become English then pride is getting a foothold.”

The connection between the use of English and pride (Hochmut) is a strong one for many tradition-minded Mennonites. In a conversation from 1976 that Hoover records, his interlocutor, Minister Wesley P. Martin (1898–1985), shared the following (pp. 60–61):

We always preached in German. In 1917, we elected a minister and my father Bishop Joseph Martin preached the qualification sermon and he cautioned the congregation that perhaps in this day and age the time is here that we should choose a minister that can preach some English. When he was through old Elias (Eli) Hornberger got up and testified, “Des English predige is nix weder hochmut.” [This English preaching is nothing but arrogance.] They got a real Dutchman too. It was Davy Hornberger.

Other comments linking language use to Scripture are especially interesting. Hoover quotes a conversation he had with a Weaverland Conference minister, Lester B. Martin (b. 1936), in 1978, in which speaking English with a “Dutchy” accent, which is regularly stigmatized, may not be such a bad thing (p. 69):

We should not be ashamed of our [English] language if it contains a PA Dutch accent, and if we cannot speak “as the world.” This may be as a “thorn in the flesh” or even as a means of saving our souls as Peter’s Galilean accent did when he was told “thy speech betrayeth thee,” thus Peter repented.

Indeed, other brethren with whom Hoover spoke extended the equation of the use of English with pride by connecting maintenance of German/Pennsylvania Dutch with the cardinal virtue of Old Order life, humility (Demut). As Hoover recalls from a conversation with another Weaverland Conference minister, Luke N. Good (1928–2015), in 1973 (pp. 52, 54):

Ich mehn es Deutsch es mir hen is ken g’schrivene sproch awwer is genunk für helfe uns zammenhalte. Gott hut die sproche verwechselt un es hut gedient zum gute, nau vielleicht sette mir net schaffe für en unified sproch. Ich denk als oft, glei as ich bei die gmeh war hut en alte fraa grote, “D[ie] schul kinner sette aa wenig lerne ihr kreitz drage, mit die gleder dracht” un ich mehn aa so mit die sproch. Sis gut won sie wenig verschpot warre.” [I believe though the German we have is not a written language, yet 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 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.]

The interpretation of the confusion of tongues after the fall of the Tower of Babel as offering a reminder of the importance of humility, with multilingualism as its tangible expression, is a profound one.

Amos B. Hoover’s contributions to the documentation of Old Order history are many, as German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage attests.

Anabaptists and Minority Languages

Mark L. Louden

Recently a sobering report was released by the United Nations stating that as many as one million of the roughly eight million animal and plant species on Earth – about 13% – are threatened with extinction. On the human cultural front, the statistics are even grimmer. Of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken around the globe today, at least half, probably many more, are predicted to die out, that is, they will no longer be spoken natively by the turn of the next century. While the loss of biodiversity is likely to initiate a negative cascade effect on our natural world, the extinction of a language deals a critical blow to the cultural heritage with which it is associated.1

Most of the world’s languages, including all those that are endangered, are spoken by small minority populations. In the United States and Canada, for example, all indigenous languages are threatened to some degree, including Navajo in the US, which has the largest number of native speakers at around 150,000, and Cree, which is spoken by about 117,000 in Canada. Among the descendants of immigrant populations in North America, only English and French (in Canada) are considered “safe” languages. Contrary to popular opinion, Spanish as a heritage language in the US is not in a robust state of health among those who were born in this country. The vast majority of fluent native speakers of the language are first-generation immigrants from Latin America. Were the migration of Spanish speakers to the US to cease tomorrow, within a generation the language would be just as critically endangered as, say, Mandarin, Hmong, Somali, Arabic, and a host of other languages brought to the North American continent by immigrants.

There is a small group of languages spoken in North America and elsewhere that are successfully resisting the threat to minority languages worldwide. These include the native tongues of hundreds of thousands of traditional Anabaptists and Orthodox Jews, languages that are coincidentally all members of the Germanic language family. The primary vernacular of most Hasidic Jews is Yiddish, while members of Amish and many traditional Mennonite groups speak languages that descend from regional dialects of German.

Amish family at Niagara Falls (Photo credit: Gila Brand)

The two largest Anabaptist heritage languages are Pennsylvania Dutch, spoken by most Amish and many Old Order Mennonites in the US, Canada, and Belize; and Plautdietsch, a form of Low German used by the descendants of Russian Mennonites, most of whom live in North and South America, especially Mexico, Paraguay, and Bolivia. Pennsylvania Dutch and Plautdietsch each have about 400,000 native speakers. Other Germanic heritage languages spoken by Anabaptists include Hutterite German (Hutterisch) and the languages of the so-called Swiss Amish (Shwitzer) subgroup within the Old Order Amish, most of whom live in Adams and Allen counties in Indiana. The Swiss Amish, who descend from nineteenth-century immigrants from France and Switzerland to North America, speak either a variety of Bernese Swiss or Alsatian German.

These five Anabaptist minority languages, along with Yiddish, are in a robust state of health. Despite being mostly oral vernaculars, they are acquired by children without formal instruction and actively used in a range of informal and formal settings. Four key factors promote the health of these languages.

First, each of these languages has become an important external symbol of group identity and a way of marking the socio-religious distance between their speakers and the larger societies in which they live, a distance that for the Anabaptists is explicitly grounded in their understanding of separation from the world. It should be pointed out, though, that all speakers of these Germanic heritages languages are bilingual and in some cases multilingual, for example, knowing both English and Spanish in addition to their mother tongue.

Hasidic family in Brooklyn, New York (Photo credit: Adam Jones)

A second crucial factor is that these traditional faith communities are strictly endogamous: marrying outside the faith – which would mean marrying someone who does not speak their heritage language – is not an option for those seeking to formally join or, in the case of the Hasidim, remain within the community, which the overwhelming majority do. This high retention rate is the third factor.

Finally, another important plus-point for groups like the Amish, traditional Mennonites, Hutterites, and Hasidim, and not only with respect to language, is their exceptionally high birth rates, which are between three and four times the national averages in the US and Canada. No other human populations anywhere are increasing more rapidly, which means that minority languages like Pennsylvania Dutch, Plautdietsch, and Yiddish are not only surviving but in fact now have the distinction of being fastest growing languages in the world.

For linguists and community members who seek to revitalize endangered languages, there are few practical lessons to be learned from groups like the Amish. Forbidding intermarriage and expecting couples to have at least a half-dozen children are not likely to be popular strategies for even the most ardent members of minority linguistic communities. But speakers of all languages, large and small, safe and endangered, can appreciate the emotional value that traditional Anabaptists and Hasidim attach to tongues that are a tangible connection to a treasured spiritual heritage.

Mennonite family in Campeche, Mexico (Photo credit: Adam Jones, Ph.D.)

When people who grew up speaking the Germanic languages discussed here leave their heritage communities, the shift to English monolingualism is usually swift, typically within one generation. But there are exceptions. In my own experience, I have found that people of Amish background living in Holmes County, Ohio, are more likely to maintain Pennsylvania Dutch than folks in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, or the Elkhart-LaGrange area of northern Indiana. And in places like Mexico and Bolivia, the continued use of Plautdietsch among people no longer affiliated with Old Colony groups is not uncommon. The Ekj Ran (I Run) ministry based in Bolivia is one excellent example.

I will close with the thoughtful reflections of an Amish schoolteacher from Pennsylvania who taught in Mexico as part of the Old Colony Mennonite School Project and whose experience living among Plautdietsch speakers deepened her appreciation of her own native language.

Learning Plattdeutsch allows you to feel more connected with the Russian Mennonite culture. It also opens the door to a very fascinating language. My impression is that Plattdeutsch is somehow more colorful and descriptive than either High German or English. For example, the Plattdeutsch poem and song that the first graders learned one Easter were so alive with meaning. The clear word pictures, the powerful way the emotions of Good Friday and Easter were portrayed in the poetry, seemed singular to me. I have grown to appreciate the beauty of the language.

Speakers of Plattdeutsch seem also to be aware of this beauty and therefore treasure it enough not to lose it. To us, as conservatives from the States, this stands out because of the trend towards English and away from Pennsylvania German in our circles. Among our people, one of the first things lost in a more liberal move is the German language. In Mexico, even the most liberal of the Russian Mennonites retain the speaking of their mother tongue. There are many beautiful Plattdeutsch songs and hymns, and recently Plattdeutsch Bibles and dictionaries are available. Plattdeutsch is still their favorite language to speak, even for those who know High German, Spanish, and English.2

  1. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) maintains excellent resources in endangered languages: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/atlas-of-languages-in-danger/..
  2. Called to Mexico, Old Colony Mennonite Support, 2011, p. 318..


Reading the Signs of Nature in Traditional Pennsylvania Dutch Culture

This past Saturday, people across the country focused their attention on a groundhog named Phil who crawled out of his hole near Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, at dawn. Unable to see his shadow, Phil “predicted” that spring will be coming early this year. For those of us just emerging from our burrows in the Upper Midwest, this is welcome news.

Groundhog Day, an event now celebrated in many communities across the US and Canada, takes place annually on February 2nd, which is the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox. February 2nd is also Candlemas, an ancient Christian holy day whose roots go far back in pre-Christian Europe (cf. the Celtic festival of Imbolc). There are parallel spring-heralding traditions in Native American cultures, with which early German settlers in Pennsylvania very likely became familiar.1

By the turn of the twentieth century, the groundhog came to be adopted as a cultural symbol by nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch (church people, Fancy Dutch). As an antipode to greater America’s soaring bald eagle, the groundhog evokes humility, common wisdom, and proximity to nature, classic Pennsylvania Dutch virtues, including among the Plain people. Amish and traditional Mennonites, however, have kept their distance from celebrations involving the groundhog, including Pennsylvania’s Grundsow Lodge movement, which has become an important vehicle for nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch culture. The “seriously nonsensical” worship of King Groundhog at lodge meetings, which are also overtly patriotic, is out of sync with Plain sensibilities.2

Even though one was unlikely to have spotted any beards or bonnets at Gobbler’s Knob last Saturday morning, contemporary Amish and Plain Mennonite culture does have elements of traditional Pennsylvania folk astronomy.3 A common sight on the book table in many a Plain home, alongside the Bible and prayer and song books, is the farmer’s almanac.4 The almanac goes back to the beginning of Pennsylvania Dutch history and is deeply interwoven with the Christian faith and folk spirituality of sectarians and nonsectarians alike.

Julius F. Sachse (1842–1919), a keen observer of Pennsylvania Dutch culture, wrote this about the farmer’s almanac in a 1907 essay titled “Prognostics and Superstitions.”5

The Aberglaube (superstitions) of the early Germans may be said to have been divided into at least a hundred different forms, the scale running all the way from a simple belief in the efficiency of Bible verses promiscuously selected down to demonology itself. Perhaps the most common of these superstitions was what was known as Kalender-Aberglaube, or a belief in prognostics based upon the almanac. This was again subdivided into various departments, based upon the phases of the moon and other celestial bodies. This, however, is not to be confounded with the custom of astrology or the casting of the horoscope. To any person schooled in the art, the almanac became the guide and mentor for almost every function of daily life. First, it told us of the state of the weather for every day of the coming year; then it informed us what were to be the prevalent diseases, gave us the proper days for felling timber, taking purgative medicine, for bleeding and blood-letting, for cutting the hair, for weaning calves, children, etc. It gave the lucky days for sowing grain, the proper days for a merchant to speculate, and for other daily avocations.

Plain people today take special care not to allow superstitions into any aspect of their life. Young folks don’t ask each other what their signs are when they meet. However, deciding when it is auspicious to plant certain crops and cut one’s hair and nails, depending on the situation of the moon and constellations, for example, is understood as aligning one’s behavior to the cycles of a natural world that is created by God and therefore fundamentally good.

The nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch poet, Harvey M. Miller (1871–1939), lyrically recounts the wisdom contained in the pages of “Mother’s Almanac” (Der Mammi Ihre Kalenner), which is given here, first in English translation, and then in the Pennsylvania Dutch original, along with a recitation of it.6

Mark L. Louden reciting “Mother’s Almanac”

“Mother’s Almanac”

Faith has much to do
With our human life;
The lawyer believes in big pay,
The minister believes in praying;
The young girls get a lot of joy
From their faith in men;
Mother takes the good old way,
And believes in the almanac.

Sie always observes the signs,
Before we dig the garden;
And goes by the moon, you can bet on it,
For that is her faith.
In order to grow well, everything must go in
During the waxing of the moon;
Thus she plants in that sign,
As others do, as well.

Potatoes you plant in Libra,
Then they get nice and big;
You might think that’s a joke,
But I’m not so narrow-minded.
That’s why I wish they would not slip
Down so deep into the ground,
And if there were no such sign,
They would not be so round.

So if you don’t watch the sign,
Just as it is in the almanac,
Then your potatoes will be ruined,
And we’ll have nothing to sell;
I tell you now, don’t plant in Cancer—
They crawl down too deep,
And get as warty as a toad
And also taste bad.

Cucumbers, really, you may not
Plant in the sign of Gemini,
Otherwise they just go ahead and bloom
And creep around like roaches;
That sign is not for a good crop,
They just don’t form on the vine—
Whoever wants cucumbers, doesn’t plant
In the sign of Gemini.

But now, whoever likes flowers,
This sign is the best;
The blossoming virgin is also good
For planting flowers.
In spring here, in Virgo, that is,
You let the hens out,
Whoever goes by this sign then gets
Better chicks from them.

When bees swarm in Libra,
Honey becomes plentiful in the hive;
If a cat drowns in a water trough,
At least it won’t die of thirst.
When fruit trees are in full bloom
While the moon waxes, there’ll be fruit;
But if the trees blossom during the waning,
There’s not much you can do.

In the setting moon you roof a house,
That keeps the shingles down;
And whoever doesn’t build according to the almanac,
His shingles will be down right away.
To roof during the waxing of the moon,
That’s the wrong thing;
The shingles curl right up,
And you get a ragged roof.

You make the post fence according to the moon,
But just when it is setting;
The posts will not stay in the ground
In any other sign.
So, don’t laugh, and take heed,
I’ll tell you that in advance,—
Whoever makes fence in the waxing of the moon,
His posts will creep out.

Some poke fun, there are such people,
Especially among the menfolk,
Yet they are in no way as smart
As Mother’s almanac.
“An old wives’ tale, ha!”
That’s what they always say,
But faith will still save,
And it rules digging in the garden.

Libra is supposed to be good for planting,
But some also put in potatoes
In the Aries waxing moon,
That’s just testing.
And for good luck with radishes
Seeds have to be planted in Pisces,
That means that radishes will be tender and thick
And plenty on the table.

In the fall apples have to be put away,
And so that they don’t rot
You have to do this in the dark moon, you bet,
Even if the men-folk complain.
To get vinegar you need to tap the cider
In the sign of Leo, definitely:
That makes you as strong as ginger pop,
And as crusty as an old grouch.

But winter meat should not be
Hung up in the sign of Leo,
Otherwise it will get as “lively” as a lion—
One definitely wouldn’t think that!
White worms will move right in,
If no one goes fishing,
That way you get fresh meat, too,
If you don’t understand the sign.

A board left out in the weather
Often gets quite warped,
But one doesn’t consider the reason
As being the influence of the moon;
In the waxing of the moon the board turns up,
In the waning down,—
It all depends how the moon shines on it.
Isn’t that amazing?

You don’t clean your house in a full moon,
That’s the wives’ tale,
For if you do, the house will fill up 
Terribly with moths;
That just goes to show, moths go
By the moon sign in the almanac,
Apparently they are sharper
Than our clever menfolk.

The signs have the world in order,—
Capricorn, Pisces, and Aries,
Leo, Libra, Aquarius,
Taurus, he’ll knock you down;
Sagittarius, he shoots, Aquarius pours,
We have Cancer and Gemini,
Scorpio stings, Virgo speaks,
That’s how you find it in the almanac.

“Der Mammi Ihre Kalenner”

Der Glaawe hot doch viel zu duh
Mit unserm menschlich Lewe;
Der Lawyer glaabt an grooser Luh,
Der Parre glaabt an Bede;
Die yunge Meed hen groosi Freed
Fer Glaawe an die Menner;
Die Mammi nemmt der gut alt Weg,
Un glaabt an der Kalenner.

Sie watscht die Zeeche immer uff,
Eb mer als Gaarde graawe;
Un geht beim Muun, verloss dich druff,
Fer sell is ihre Glaawe.
Fer waxich sei, muss alles nei
Im Zunemmede vum Muun;
So blanst sie als in selre Sign,
Wie aa noch annri duhn.

Grummbeere blanst mer in der Woog,
Noh duhn sie schee grooss warre;
Du denkscht verleicht sell is en Joke,
Awwer ich bin net so narrow.
Also ich wett, sie schluppe net
So dief nei in der Grund,
Un wann’s ken so en Zeeche hett,
Waere sie net so rund.

So wann mer net des Zeeche watscht,
Graad wie’s is im Kalenner,
Dann sin Grummbeere glei verbatscht,
Un Marrick hen mer kenner;
Ich saag dir yetz, blans net im Krebs—
Sie graddle zu dief nei,
Un warre waarzich, wie en Grott,
Un schmacke schlecht debei.

Die Gummere, waerklich, darf mer net
Im Zeeche Zwilling blanse,
Sunscht bliehe sie yuscht graad ahead,
Un graddle rum wie Wanse;
Die Sign is net fer en guder Crop,
Sie henke gaar net aa—
Wer Gummere hawwe will, geht net
Im Zeeche Zwilling draa.

Awwer nau, wer scheeni Blumme suit,
Des Zeeche is am Beschte;
Die bliehend Yungfraa is aa gut
Fer Blumme naus zu setze.
Es Friehyaahr do, Yungfraa also,
Setzt mer die Glucke naus—
Wer geht beim Zeeche, grigt dernoh
Die Yunge besser raus.

Wann Ieme schwaerme in der Woog,
Watt Hunnich schwer im Kaschte;
Wann die Katz versauft im Wasserdroog,
Dutt sie ennihau net verdaschte.
Wann Obschtbeem recht am bliehe sin
Im Zunemmede, gebt’s Frucht;
Wann awwer die Bliet ins Abnemme kummt,
Gebt’s net viel zum Versuch.

Im Unnergehnde deckt mer’n Haus,
Sell halt die Schindle drunne;
Un wer net beim Kalenner baut,
Sei Schindle sin glei hunne.
Im Iwwergehnde Deckes duh,
Sell is en letzi Sach;
Die Schindle ringle sich graad uff,
Un’s gebt en schtruwwlich Dach.

Mer macht die Poschtefens beim Muun,
Awwer yuscht im Unnergehnde;
Die Poschte bleiwe net im Grund
In ennich annrer Zeeche.
So, net gelacht, un geb doch acht,
Ich saag der’s vannenaus,—
Wer Fens im Iwwergehnde macht,
Sei Poschte graddle raus.

Deel mache Gschpass, es hot so Leit,
Abbadich bei die Menner,
Doch sin sie uf ken Weg so gscheit
Wie die Mammi ihre Kalenner.
“En alder Weiwerglaawe, huh!”
Sell’s was sie immer saage,
Doch macht der Glaawe selig noch,
Un regiert Gaardegraawe.

Die Woog soll gut fer blanse sei,
Awwer deel duhn aa Grumbeere
Im Iwwergehnde Schteebock nei,
Sell is yuscht im Browiere.
Un fer gut Glick im Reddich-Schtick
Muss Suume naus im Fisch,
Sell bringt die Reddich zaart un dick
Un blendi uff der Disch.

Im Schpootyaahr misse Eppel weg,
Un dass sie net verfaule
Geht’s draa im Dungelmuun, you bet,
Wann aa die Menner maule.
Fer Essig zappt mer Cider ab
Im Sign vum Leeb, net letz:
Sell macht en schtark wie “ginger pop,”
Un groozich wie der Gretz.

Awwer Winderfleesch, des soll mer net
Im Zeeche Leeb uffhenke,
Sunscht watt’s lewendich wie en Leeb—
Mer deet’s gewiss net denke!
Es ziehe glei weissi Warrem nei,
Wann niemand fische geht,
So hot mer aa frisch Fleesch debei,
Wer net die Sign verschteht.

En Board das draus im Wedder is
Watt oftmols arrick grumm,
Doch denkt mer net die Ursach is
Der Eifluss vun em Muun;
Im Iwwergehnde dreht sich uff,
Im Unnergehnde nunner,—
S’is nochdem wie der Muun scheint druff.
Is sell nau net en Wunner?

Mer butzt ken Haus am Vollmuun rum,
Sell is der Weiwerglaawe,
Fer wann mer dutt watt’s Haus gans rum
Gaar hesslich voll mit Schaawe;
Des weist doch pleen, die Schaawe gehn
Beim Muun-Sign im Kalenner,
Sie sin yo scharfer, sell’m nooch,
Dass unser gscheite Menner.

Die Zeeche hen die Welt in Hand,—
Der Schteebock, Fisch un Widder,
Der Leeb, die Woog, der Wassermann,
Der Ox, daer schtoost em nidder;
Der Schitz, daer schiesst, der Wassermann giesst,
Der Grebs un Zwilling hen mer,
Der Schkorpion schticht, die Yungfrau schpricht,
So findt mer’s im Kalenner.

  1. Don Yoder, Groundhog Day, Stackpole Books, 2003.
  2. William W. Donner, Serious Nonsense: Groundhog Lodges, Versammlinge, and Pennsylvania German Heritage, Penn State University Press, 2016.
  3. Louis D. Winkler, “Pennsylvania German Astronomy and Astrology I: Almanacs,” Pennsylvania Folklife 21.3, Spring 1972, pp. 24–31.
  4. See this 2004 Mennonite Weekly Review article on the popularity of almanacs among the Amish: http://www.mennoworld.org/archived/2004/1/12/amish-almanacs-help-keep-year-order/?print=1.
  5. Julius F. Sachse, “Prognostics and Superstitions [Current in Pennsylvania],” Historical Papers and Addresses of the Lancaster County Historical Society VII, pp. 75–101, 1907, accessible at http://www.lancasterhistory.org/images/stories/…/vol7no5pp75_101_682506.pdf
  6. Solly Hulsbuck (Harvey M. Miller), Pennsylvania-German Stories, Prose and Poetry, Hawthorne Press, 1911, pp. 3–6.


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 

“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.