Skip to content

“‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ … Or ‘Pennsylvania German’?”

yoderThis article by Dr. Don Yoder (Professor Emeritus of Folklife Studies at the University of Pennsylvania) originally appeared in
The Pennsylvania Dutchman on May 1, 1950.

My book, Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language, is dedicated to Don, who passed away on August 11, 2015, at the age of 93.

Two hostile camps have raised opposing banners throughout the fair Pennsylvania Dutch country. The question that divides them is even more grave than the controversy over the relative merits of “Sauerkraut” versus “Potpie.” Relations have become so strained that one had best petition for diplomatic immunity if he plans in the near future to visit the enemy’s country.

Despite the fact that to the outsider this dispute is about as significant as the Lilliputian quarrel of “Big-Endians” versus “Little-Endians” in Gulliver’s Travels—we feel it is important to go into the background of the two terms for the benefit of our DUTCHMAN readers.

The Battle of 1891

In the year 1891 a group of scholars from eastern Pennsylvania met in Lancaster to found a society which after some debate they named the “Pennsylvania German Society.” Why “German”? Because by 1891 the bookish term “German” was finally supplanting the popular term “Dutch” to designate the people of the country we now call Germany.

And that’s just the point. By 1891 Germany was a united nation, a world power, the great German Empire. Nineteenth-century emigrants from Germany spoke proudly of the German “Fatherland,” they gloried in their “German-Americanism.” Now that Germany was politically united, the term “German” made its way into almost universal usage, supplanting the ancient and honored term “Dutch.”

That was 1891. But in the eighteenth century, when our peasant forefathers huddled in the emigrant ships sailing from the Rhine ports, there was no proud, united Germany. They had no German “Fatherland” to boast to their descendants of, as did the nineteenth-century emigrants. They were not called primarily “Germans,” that is, citizens of a united “Germany,” but they were Palatines, Alsatians, Swabians, or Swiss, depending upon the principality of their birth.

An Ancient English Term

When they stepped off the boat at Philadelphia, they were called by English-speaking people “Dutch” and “Dutchmen.” This term was not, as you often erroneously hear, invented in America as a mispronunciation of the German word “Deutsch” which means “German.” No, “Dutch” was in 1750 already an ancient and well-established term. It has been traced by the Oxford English Dictionary as far back as the late Middle Ages.

Occasionally the distinction was made between (1) the “Low Dutch” or North Germans (including what are now the “Holland Dutch”) and (2) the “High Dutch” or South Germans—who included the ancestors of the “Pennsylvania Dutch.” Finally, in the nineteenth century—after our people were safely established in America and were already calling themselves “Pennsylvania Dutch,” the time-honored word “Dutch” came in literary work to be restricted to the people of Holland rather than to Germany as a whole.

Despite the fact that to most people “German” now means “German” and “Dutch” means “Holland Dutch,” the usage of “Dutch” for “German” is not and never will be obsolete, as long as it used in the historically American term, “Pennsylvania Dutch.” The Dictionary of American English admits the ancient lineage of this term, and it is the most common designation that our people give themselves, so why give it up for the more bookish “Pennsylvania German”?

What About “Scotch-Irish”?

Yes, why should we change a term that is historically fixed? A good parallel is the term “Scotch-Irish.” Many scholars object to it on the ground that the people involved only lived in Ireland, but were Scotch by blood. Yet the term is historically fixed, and understandable when you know the background.

Another parallel is the word “American.” The citizens of the United States think they have a monopoly on that term, yet aren’t Canadians and Brazilians “Americans” too? Should we change it to the more restricted “United Statesian,” to pay homage to the broader usage that “American” now holds? That would be as foolish as to give up the historically fixed “Pennsylvania Dutch” for the parvenu “Pennsylvania German.”

Not Obsolete Here!

The people of the Pennsylvania Dutch country, with the good sense of the Volk, have preserved, nay conserved, the historic term “Dutch,” with all of its time-honored overtones. The term “Dutch” meaning “German” may be obsolete in England, but it is certainly not obsolete in America. Ask a Berks County farmer what he is—and he will reply, “A Pennsylvania Dutchman.” “We’re Pennsylvania Dutch,” or “We’re Dutch,” will be his reply. You will insult him to call him a “German,” for that still means a nineteenth-century German emigrant “foreigner” rather than a person of native Pennsylvania Dutch stock.

The word “Dutch” in America still means “German” not only in the combination “Pennsylvania Dutch” but also in the phrases, “Dutch cupboard,” “Dutch oven,” “Dutch cheese,” “Dutch cake.” Need I say more?

Scholars versus People

The present situation represents a conflict between the established usage of the people, who prefer the term “Pennsylvania Dutch,” as over against a small group of the scholars, who prefer “Pennsylvania German” and are trying to impose their late and less historical term upon the people themselves. The scholars have adjusted themselves to the changed status of Germany and the Germans, and they expect the people to follow suit, giving up a terminology that has held its own since the Middle Ages.

But when scholars battle the people, when the “gown” attempts to reform the “town,” it’s a losing battle. As for me and my house, I choose the side of the people!