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.