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.
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.
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.
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
- 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/..↩
- Called to Mexico, Old Colony Mennonite Support, 2011, p. 318..↩