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. 

Pennsylvania Dutch and the Horning Mennonites

The Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies, which I direct at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is home to the North American German Dialect archive, a digital repository that includes many recordings of Pennsylvania Dutch. Readers of this blog may recall from an earlier post my discussion of how the language was historically spoken by two major social subgroups, the “church people” or “Fancy Dutch,” the descendants of mainly Lutheran and German Reformed immigrants to colonial Pennsylvania, and the “plain people,” members of Mennonite, Amish, and other Anabaptist and Pietist groups. Into the twentieth century, the “church people” comprised the great majority of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers, but after about 1930, very few children born into Fancy Dutch families acquired the language fully and maintained it into adulthood. Today, there are perhaps several thousand church people, known as nonsectarians, who speak Pennsylvania Dutch, almost all of whom are elderly.

Among the most traditional plain groups, the Amish and most Old Order Mennonites, Pennsylvania Dutch is in a robust state of health. It is the primary everyday language spoken within the community and its maintenance is linked symbolically with the continued use of German as a language of worship. Original sermons are delivered in Pennsylvania Dutch interspersed with quotations from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, and German is the language of hymns and prayers, including in family devotions.

The use of Pennsylvania Dutch declines, however, as groups move away from the Old Orders. This trend can be seen, for example, among the two groups closest to horse-and-buggy–driving Amish and Mennonites, namely the Beachy Amish and the Horning or Weaverland Conference Mennonites (sometimes also known as the Black Bumper Mennonites). Both these fellowships are more outreach-minded than their Old Order brethren, with whom they still have close family ties, which means that they have moved toward using English both in worship and in everyday communication. The continued maintenance of German and Pennsylvania Dutch, in their view, poses a barrier to outsiders to whom they might witness.

Below is an excerpt from an interview made in 1983 with a Horning Mennonite couple from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, both of whom were born in 1916. They were interviewed by Professor Wolfgang Moelleken (now retired from the University at Albany) as part of a project to document variation in Pennsylvania Dutch across multiple states. The full interview is part of the Moelleken Collection in the Max Kade Institute’s North American German Dialect Archive (consultant numbers MOE 012 and 013).

The couple talks about their church and how it resembles and differs from horse-and-buggy–driving (Groffdale Conference or Wengerite) Old Order Mennonites and the Amish. Professor Moelleken, who was born in Germany, poses his questions in a blend of dialectal German interspersed with Pennsylvania Dutch. It is interesting to note that when the topic of conversation turns to matters of the faith, the husband finds it somewhat easier to express himself in English, a reflection of the increasing importance of that language in the spiritual lives of less tradition-minded Mennonite and Amish groups.

PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH
Kannscht mol sage, wie des in de Kerch isch, in der Gmee isch, wenn du dahin gehscht?

Well, mir hen kee Sundaagsschul in unser Gmee … Ya, die Weibsleit un Mannsleit sitze net zamme. Un ich wees aa net … yuscht, du gehscht nei … mir hen, was mer en Schtiwwli heese. Duscht dei Gleeder ab datt, henkscht sie uff, un noht gehscht nei un sitzscht anne un watscht, bis sie schtaerde singe. Sie singe zwee Schticker un noht schwetzt een, der erscht Breddicher, un noht hen sie en Gebet, un noht lese sie der Text, un noht schwetzt der negscht Breddicher. Noh hen sie widder en Gebet un noht widder zwee mol … zwee singe, zwee Songs singe.

Wo hocke die Kinner?

Well, die Gleene hocke bei die Eldre un die Greesere hocke bei sich selwert, but … sie sedde velleicht ebmohls net, sie warre velleicht ebmohls en wennich yachtich.

Sitze sie vorne oder hinne?

Well, sie hen sadde ihr eegene Section, as sie sitze.

Kannscht mol der Unnerschied sage zwische die Fuhreleit un eiere Leit?

Was fer Weg? Ihre Gmee is ebaut s’seem as unseri, meh as die Fuhreleit hen meh German, Deitsch. Yuscht … sie dresse velleicht net gans gleich awer viel gleich. Un ich deet saage, s’is ebaut s’seem.

Der greescht Unnerschitt waer in der Weg vun Faahre, ya.

In de Faahre …

Ya.

Un was is der Unnerschied zwische eiere Leit un de Amische?

Well, der Glaawe is all s’seem, deet ich saage. Yuscht, s’is wie sie dresse sich differnt en wennich un faahre in die Fuhre aa. Un deel … deel vun die Amische hen kee Gmeeheiser, sie hen Gmee in ihr Heiser.

Yuscht, die Amische waere der Baart.

Ya, die Mannsleit waere der Baart, die Amische.

So weit as der Glaawe concerned is, ich denk, mer deet saage, mer glaawe all an Gott, der seem Gott, un mir glaawe as der eensisch Weg, dass mer zum ewige Lewe kumme kenne, is darrich’s Blut vun Yesus Grischdus. Er is gschtarrewe fier uns, sell is der eensisch Weg. Awer noht hen mir, uf course, Schuldichkeite vun datt aan. Weescht, sie saage, es is frei, salvation is free. But discipleship … ich kann’s noh net in Deitsch … discipleship may cost our life. So, ich denk, sell waer was mer all glaawe deete.

Der Differns in die gleene Sache is yuscht as Leit Sache differnt sehne, deet ich saage.

ENGLISH
Can you say how it is in church, when you go there? [WM uses two different words for ‘church’.]

Well, we don’t have Sunday school in our church … Yes, the women and men don’t sit together. And, I don’t know … just, you go in … we have what we call a Schtiwwli (side room). You take your outer garments off there, hang them up, then you go in and sit down and watch for them to start singing. They sing two hymns and then one man speaks, the first minister, and then they have a prayer, and then they read the text, and then the next minister. Then they have a prayer again and then again twice … they sing two, two songs.

Where do the children sit?

Well, the little ones sit by their parents and the bigger ones sit by themselves, but … sometimes they maybe shouldn’t, they maybe get a little noisy sometimes.

Do they sit in the front or the back?

Well, they sort of have their own section where they sit.

Can you tell (me) what the difference is between the horse-and-buggy people and your people?

What way? Their church is about the same as ours, except that the horse-and-buggy people have more German. Just … they maybe dress not exactly the same but very similar. And I’d say, it’s about the same.

The greatest difference would be in the way of traveling, yes.

In travelling …

Yes.

And what is the difference between your people and the Amish?

Well, the faith is all the same, I’d say. Just, it’s that they dress a little differently and drive horse-and-buggy. And some … some of the Amish don’t have church buildings, they have church in their homes.

Just, the Amish wear a beard.

Yes, the men wear the beard, the Amish.

As far as the faith is concerned … I think, one would say, we all believe in God, the same God, and we believe that the only way that we can enter into eternal life is through the blood of Jesus Christ. He died for us, that is the only way. But we have, of course, obligations from then on. You know, they say it’s free, salvation is free. But discipleship … I can’t say it in PA Dutch … discipleship may cost our life. So, I think, that would be what we all believe.

The difference in the small things is just that people see things differently, I’d say.

 

Samuel Ernst and the German Language

Mark L. Louden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wir ströben nicht um zeitlich’s gut,

Obgleich wir lieben Deutsches blut

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

Wir streben nicht um zeitliches Gut,

Aber wir lieben deutsches Blut.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mennonites, Amish, and the Pennsylvania Dutch Language

Mark Louden

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

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

4-2_Oberholtzer_1862-(1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

JH-Oberholtzer

John H. Oberholtzer

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

 

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


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