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Benuel S. Blank, “What Is in a Language?” (1986)

Near the end of chapter 7 in my book, I quote an excerpt from a longer article on language by an Amish writer, Benuel S. Blank, which appeared in the February 1986 issue of the Amish publication Family Life (pp. 12–16). The excerpt is included in The Amish in Their Own Words, edited by Brad Igou (Herald Press, 1999; pp. 57–58). The full original is given below. In his essay, Blank discusses the practical and symbolic importance of both German and Pennsylvania Dutch for the spiritual health of Old Order sectarians, as well as the place of English in their community. His comparison of the contemporary sociolinguistic situation of the Old Orders with that of Jews and early Christians in Jesus’s time is illuminating.

When the church services are over in our plain churches, the hymn books that were used that day are gathered together and put back into a box to be kept there until the next church service.

In more than just a few of those book boxes somebody thought it necessary to write a line of instruction for the packing of the books, “Please lay the books flat.”

It is unknown who the first person was who marked a song book box with that line. Whoever he was, he evidently felt that the books should be laid down flat for the jostling over rough roads on a steel-wheeled wagon to the next house. And he was right – the books do stand the rough trip much better packed flat than they do standing on edge.

Now someone could come along and say that those lines penciled or painted on the inside of the book boxes are a contradiction. The line is printed in the English language and yet those song books are printed in the German language.

But it is not a contradiction at all. We are bilingual – a people of two languages. We use both languages with about equal ease. As such we are like the familiar Puerto Ricans who use both Spanish and English, or like some of Canada’s people who are as much at home with the French language as with the English.

English is the language of our country.

But we, the descendants of immigrants from the German-speaking parts of Europe, have clung to a language which has become largely our own. Over the years that our people have lived alongside our English-speaking neighbors, we have without even trying, gradually accepted numerous English words into our German dialect. The Pennsylvania Dutch we speak is really a slowly changing language. It is somewhat different now from a hundred years ago, and is not even exactly the same in different parts of the country.

Our case is very much like that of the Jews in New Testament times.

The Old Testament was first written almost entirely in the old Hebrew language. Hebrew was the language of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was the language of the Jews on down through the times of Moses and King David until the time of their captivity in the far-off land of Babylon.

Those years of living among the strange people in Babylon who talked a different dialect did something to the language of the Jews. In that land they kept their faith better than they did in any other time in their history, but by the time they returned to their homeland again most of the people talked a different dialect called Aramaic. This was then the language of the Jewish people when Jesus was on earth some five or six hundred years later, even though they still used the ancient Hebrew in their temple worship. We know that Jesus talked the Aramaic language because several of His statements are recorded for us exactly as He pronounced them. Some of these are the “Talitha kumi” of Mark 5:41, the “Ephrata” of Mark 7:34 and the “Eli, Eli, lama asabthani,” 27:46 and Mark 15:34; all words which language scholars recognize as being Aramaic words.

Then later, by the time the books were written which now make up the New Testament, roughly between the years 50 A.D. and 100 A.D., another language had worked its way up to become the chief language of commerce in the land of the Jews and in most of the lands in that part of the world. That language was Greek.

Then instead of writing in the Hebrew of the Old Testament or in Aramaic, the language that was spoken by Jesus and His apostles, the New Testament writers used the Greek in nearly all that they wrote. The four Gospel writers were like interpreters of Jesus’ words into the Greek before they wrote down the words He had spoken. The letters of Paul and the other apostles to the churches, and the rest of the New Testament, were also written and then read in Greek.

Thus the case of the people at that time was very much like ours today. They had the traditional Hebrew for their worship just like we use the German Bible in our homes and churches.

They had the Aramaic, a language that was spoken in their homes, but hardly very popular as a written language at that time; very much like we use our everyday Pennsylvania Dutch. Then they had the Greek, the easy-to-write language of world commerce and business, for their writings and correspondence, somewhat similar to the way we use the English language in our day.

Now why do we keep on using more than one language? Couldn’t we find out if there is a language more holy or sacred than the other languages and use only that language?

To begin, we do not even know what the original language was. We have no way of finding out what language God used to speak to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It could have been any one of the hundreds of languages now used throughout the world, or it could have been altogether different from any of those.

Neither do we know what language was spoken by Noah and his descendants. They lived before the Tower of Babel, when God changed the speech of the different families so they could not understand each other anymore, and thus couldn’t work together anymore (Gen. 11:7).

Nor do we know which language will be used in heaven. If we would know, we probably would want to learn it here on earth. Even though we read in Acts 26:14 that the voice from heaven to Saul was in the Hebrew tongue, that still does not tell us that Hebrew is the language spoken in heaven. Jesus was just speaking to Saul (later called Paul) in a language that could be understood.

Are then the original Hebrew and Greek as they were used by the holy writers, the holy languages? If they are, we should put away our translated German and English Bibles and get a copy of the Bible in Greek. Then we should learn to read the pure, unadulterated text in the exact words in which it was written.

But that would not be as easy as it may sound.

Before we could ever get any meaning out of reading the Bible we would first have to spend a long time studying those languages. And it would take a lot more than learning the meanings of the thousands of Hebrew and Greek words used in the original text. We would have to learn what those words meant at the time they were written thousands of years ago. Word usages change. Some words used in the Hebrew and Greek of today have different meanings than they used to have at that time. Then there are some words no longer in use.

We would also have to learn to read the Hebrew words from right to left on the pages, just the opposite of the left to right we are used to. We would have to get used to a very different sentence structure. For one instance, the first part of Genesis 50:2 translated word for word would read something like, “And commanded he Joseph servants his, physicians his to embalm father his.”

If you ever do get the idea it would be better to read the original Greek of the New Testament exactly as it was written, ask to see a Greek New Testament the next time you are in a public library. Some libraries do have them. Those ink marks on paper mean nothing until they can be read. Just seeing pages of those strange-looking letters which you do not understand should cause you to appreciate those translators who labored long years to make God’s Word available to us in a speech we can understand. We do find it hard to believe that God wants us all to have a college education in order to read the Bible.

Before the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic church objected to the Bible belng translated into the language of the ordinary people. Only those highly-learned scholars having a university education were supposed to be able to read the Bible. If you were one of the unlearned common people you were supposed to accept the Bible as the learned scholars explained it to you. You were not supposed to worry about learning to read it yourself.

But the people wanted to read and to know the Bible for themselves. There were people who were versed in the different languages who were willing to make the Bible available to them in their everyday language. Some of those translators were cruelly persecuted, and for some it cost them their lives. But they were determined to put the Good Book out in languages the common people could read and understand.

But even then, some of the translations were not accepted right away by all the people. One example is the now-familiar King James version of 1611 which was translated into the everyday English of that time. The “thee” and “thou” of that version, by the way, show us a little how much the English anguage has changed since then. The Pilgrims, a group of the Puritans, who came over here to Plymouth Rock in 1620, never fully accepted this version. They considered it a modern version. They used an older English translation, called the Geneva Bible. They did not trust the King James version, since it was approved by the powerful Church of England which persecuted the Pilgrims.

Even our Anabaptist forefathers did not at first accept the Luther German version, which we now use in our homes and churches. The Anabaptists could hardly be blamed for not trusting Martin Luther’s work, preferring instead Christopher Froschauer’s German printing. Luther was a bitter enemy of those who did not share his beliefs. He believed in baptizing babies into the church soon after they were born. Plus he believed so strongly in salvation by faith only, that he was not afraid to say that he thought very little of the New Testament book of James, which teaches a balance of both works and faith. Like most of the other Reformation leaders he also did not believe in nonresistance. He and his followers were bitter persecutors of the Anabaptists, many of whom gave up their lives rather than accept the faith of their persecutors.

But for all his failures, Luther was a genius who knew his languages. It was not that his translation was perfect and the others were not, but his version was somewhat easier to read than the Froschauer. Many thought he brought out the original meanings more accurately and clearly, even in the book of James that he didn’t like. The result was that the Luther version was gradually accepted over the Froschauer.

Luther’s version was even considered such an accurate translation of the original Hebrew and Greek that some of the men who later worked on different English translations used his German version as one of their sources. At any rate, it has stood the test of time, as there has not been another German version for these 450 years that has become better known, or even come close to taking its place.

But there is no doubt about it, the translators did have a difficult and formidable task to bring out the exact meanings that the original words contained.

For one example, the writers of the New Testament had several Greek words, all of which in the English are translated as “love” (or “charity”), and for which the German has only one word “Liebe.” One of the Greek words could be defined as a self love, such as liking people only because they like us or are interested in what we like. Another meant physical love, the same word that is often used in a shallow way in many romance stories. Then there was the Greek word that stood for the selfless love such as Christians should have for other people, or such as God has for man, a love which gives even when others have not earned it or do not deserve it.

Another interesting example of the difficulties the translators had in getting the exact meaning is that it was not always clear if a verb was meant to be in a past, present or future tense. As in Matt. 25:8 the German translation says of the lamps the foolish virgins were carrying, “Unsere Lampen verlöschen.” One English translation gives it as “gone out” (King James), one as “are going out,” (Revised Standard), while one gives it as “have almost gone out.”

Taking everything into consideration, it is amazing how the translators did get God’s message transferred into other languages as well as they did. It is not always the exact word that is most important and which gives God’s Word power. It is really the wonderful meanings and insights that those words stand for. The Apostle Paul in I Cor. 4:20 says, “For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power.” The best translation of the Bible is when those living words get translated into the changed and bettered lives of people.

So it could really be said there is no language more holy than another. Nor is any language more worldly than any other language. Really, we should not value one language over the other, or condemn one more than another. When the people left the unfinished tower of Babel, some could talk only one language, some only another – probably some of the languages in Acts 2:9,10, 11.

It was God who made all the different languages and tongues. There will be people in heaven from all over the world, “Out of every kindred and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).

Therefore, just as there is no one holy or sacred language, there is also no one holy version of the Bible. Not all new and revised translations are bad, nor are all old translations good. It is the accuracy to the original that counts, so that no words give us a thought that should not be there. It is my feeling that some of the old versions have an air of reverence about them which some of the newer do not have.

If a translation would come out in which the translator would have tampered with the words to make them say what he wanted them to say, there would be many scholars who would detect such errors and the translation would never have wide acceptance.

We do want to remember when we select what we read that there is much Bible-based reading around, but there is only one holy, inspired and sacred Bible. No other writings can be depended to be 100% free from parts that could be misleading. But not so with God’s Word; “They are spirit and life” (John 6:63).

Now we come back to the use that we, as Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking people make of both the English and the German languages.

If you have a family circle letter, or if you wish to write to a married son or daughter living in another community, in what language do you choose to write your letter? If you wish to write to some of your friends to let them know to come to your home when you are planning to have a German worship service, do you write that letter in German? If you write to the “Bots[c]haft,” or to the “Diary” or to Pathway Publishers, in which language do you do that writing? If you are like most of our plain people, you use the English to do most of that writing, although many people do appreciate some German in their letters and in the reading material that gets mailed to their homes. It helps to keep them brushed up in their German, and there are often words or whole lines which can best be expressed in the German or in the Pennsylvania Dutch. But even so, there is no denying that the biggest percentage of the letters written and the books and magazines put out by the Old Order Plain people are in the English language.

English is the language that our government requires to be taught even in our church-supported schools. We are allowed to teach other languages, but we must teach English. Really, it is good that English is compulsory. How else would we talk with and do business with our English-speaking neighbors if we did not learn their language?

Because we can read both the German and English, we have an opportunity to learn the meaning of some Bible passages better than if we would know only one language. Some verses are clearer in one language than the other. By comparing different versions in the two languages we can sometimes get a better idea of the exact meanings of the original text. In some passages we can even discover that the original might have had several different shades of meaning.

One such example is that of the Hebrew word “menuchah,” which is defined as a place of rest. This word as used in Psalms 23:2 is translated by Luther as “frischen,” by Froschauer and King James as “stillen” and “still,” and by some of the other translations as “restful water” (Modern Language) and “quiet stream” (Living Bible).

All of these shades of meaning add to the riches that we find when we dig deep for the full meaning of a Bible verse. Those versions which bring out the meanings as being by still waters make us think of a shepherd leading his tired and fearful sheep to a place of peace, rest and calm. We can just see the shepherd and his sheep resting beside a still pond with the evening moonlight reflected in the still waters. Those versions which bring out the meaning as being by a fresh water give us a picture of a fresh, unpolluted, gushing spring of water to which a shepherd leads his thirsty flock on a hot and tiring day.

In some versions then, we get the understanding that if we let Him, the Good Shepherd will lead us to places of peace and calm where we can rest from the confusion and the strain and tension, most of which is of our own making. But as Luther’s version also brings out, He can also show us the way to a renewal of life where we can get a new and refreshing start when we are discouraged and about ready to give up. Both insights are helpful and both meanings are accurate.

Still another passage in which the German and the English bring out a slightly different thought is in Numbers 11:21 where Moses speaks of ‘the people among whom I am.” The German, which is translated in both the Luther and Froschauer as “darunder ich bin” (under whom I am) gives us an insight into the humble nature of the man Moses who felt himself as being of a lower rank than the people God wanted him to lead into the Promised Land.

It has been said that the German has more words for the different shades of meaning than many other languages have. One English-speaking pastor of a large church says he has spent a long time learning to read the German. He thinks its expressions are more beautiful and likes it because of its different shades of meaning. Here he has spent a lot of time and effort to learn what we too often take for granted. Knowing two languages is a privilege God has provided for us that we can put 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 heritage our forefathers left for us.

This is one thing that is threatening to get lost in some of our homes. Our forefathers kept the German language alive for us down to our time by daily using it. We should all appreciate that we have been left richer because of their efforts. Let us pass it on to the next generations.

So often when the mother tongue gets dropped, many other good things get dropped with it. It is not the German language in itself that will keep us from drifting into the world. Yet it is a well­-known fact that losing our mother tongue and drifting into the world usually go together.

It would be good for any one of us to become even better acquainted with the German than we are now. Using an English-German edition of the New Testament or of the Bible is a little like having a German and English dictionary on facing pages. If you come across a word you do not know the meaning of, make it a habit to look up that word right away in a good dictionary. If you do so, you will recognize that word the next time you read it. When parents talk to their children, when a teacher talks to her school, and when a minister of the church talks to the people are good times to include the definition of a hard-to-understand word.

Some people who are ready to drop the German say they can’t understand the German anyway. It would be more accurate if they were to say they have no appreciation for the heritage passed on to them and thus are not interested in making the efforts that it takes to understand it. Nobody was ever born knowing a language. It has to be learned.

Our German will become a dead language to us unless we use it. There is no other way. The inspiring reading in some of our old German books will be lost if we don’t appreciate what we have. The singing out of our German songbooks, and especially in the slow tunes, will be but relics of the past, unless we have convictions that we want to keep them alive. Many of those songs come from our persecuted forefathers, who were living out their last days in prison. Here some people go to hear what is called “inspired and talented gospel singing and playing” to get “rich spiritual experiences.” They do not realize that such is only a weak counterfeit when compared to what we can get out of a church service, or a young people’s gathering with everybody there singing together from their hearts, each to his or her own ability.

Those school board members who insist that our parochial schools have some sessions to German are doing our churches and schools an immense favor. Those teachers who supplement the German being taught at home by parents, with German lessons and singing in their schools are helping to slow the drift of the churches into the world.

Those parents who have convictions on keeping the mother tongue alive and who insist that their children talk Pennsylvania Dutch at home, and those young people who talk the dialect when they visit and work together are doing their descendants a favor. Of course there are times when the Pennsylvania Dutch is proper and there are also times when it is improper; and also so with the English. If you were to have the men of the neighborhood in to help build a machinery shed some day, and several of your English-speaking neighbors came with the others to help, it would be highly out-of-place and discourteous to them if you were to speak Pennsylvania Dutch when giving explanations or while visiting among them.

But if all the neighbors who showed up were Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking neighbors it would be just as out of place to be speaking English. Useful as the English is to us, we have to keep English speaking in its proper place. That place is not in our homes nor in our church services.

There are two extremes. One is to think of English as being too worldly to learn and to read. The other is the sad case of too many of our people who come along and think it is demeaning or beneath them to use the German or to talk Pennsylvania Dutch. Really nobody seems to be able to explain why it is more proper and smart to talk English.

We now have some teenage groups who talk very little Pennsylvania Dutch when they are together and do very little German singing at their singings. As can be expected, the result could soon be whole families who will be talking English in their homes. There will soon be a generation of people who will have lost the German altogether.

Anybody who speaks English around home when just family members are around, or while working or visiting with others who know Pennsylvania Dutch, is putting in a vote to drop a rich heritage that will never again be brought back if we lose it.

The value of that heritage is so great that we can’t afford to lose it.