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What is Pennsylvania Dutch?

Pennsylvania Dutch is an American language that developed from the immigration of German speakers to colonial Pennsylvania. Many scholars and some speakers of the language call it Pennsylvania German in order to emphasize its historical connection with German rather than the Dutch (Netherlandic) language. Though it is widely believed that the Dutch in Pennsylvania Dutch is due to a mistranslation of the word Deitsch (or Deutsch, in standard German), that is not correct. In earlier British and American English, both Dutch and German could refer to speakers of what we would today call German. The term Dutch had more of an informal ring than German, so since most active speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch have been rural dwellers of modest social status, they have typically identified themselves as Dutch rather than German when speaking English. Also, very quickly, the Pennsylvania Dutch came to view themselves as distinct from European Germans, as well as German Americans, whom they called Deitschlenner (literally, ‘Germany people’). In Pennsylvania Dutch itself, the word Deitsch can be translated as either ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ or ‘German’. See the 1950 article by Dr. Don Yoder, “‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ … Or ‘Pennsylvania German’?” Dr. Yoder, who was the leading figure in Pennsylvania Dutch studies, passed away on August 11, 2015, at the age of 93.

A man and boy talk in Pennsylvania Dutch dialect at a festival.

G. Gilbert Snyder and a 4-year-old boy talk in Pennsylvania Dutch at the 1952 Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival at Kutztown. © National Geographic Society

In terms of its core structures (i.e., its sound system and its grammar), Pennsylvania Dutch strongly resembles the German dialects spoken in the southeastern Palatinate region (Vorderpfalz), an area extending generally west-southwest from the city of Mannheim. Lexically, Pennsylvania Dutch is also very similar to southeastern Palatine German dialects, though approximately 10%–15% of its vocabulary is derived from English.

There is a difference of opinion over whether Pennsylvania Dutch should be called a language or a dialect. Most Pennsylvania Dutch people, when speaking English, call it a dialect, in part because of its difference from standard German and also due to its use mostly in speech rather than writing. There are no scientific criteria for formally identifying a linguistic variety as a language or a dialect since both are equivalent in terms of their structural complexity (contrary to popular stereotypes). The question is a moot one in Pennsylvania Dutch itself, since the language makes no distinction between a language and a dialect: the word Schprooch means both.

Many outsiders today equate Pennsylvania Dutch with Amish, which is understandable, since the great majority of active speakers of the language are members of Old Order Amish communities. For much of the history of the language, however, the Amish and other conservative Anabaptist groups, including many Old Order Mennonites, comprised only a small percentage of the total Pennsylvania Dutch–speaking population. Of the approximately 81,000 original German-speaking immigrants to colonial Pennsylvania, only about 5% were “sect people” (Sektenleute, sectarians). Most of the other 95% or so were affiliated with Lutheran and German Reformed churches. Into the twentieth century, these “church people” (Kirchenleute, nonsectarians) were still in the majority of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers.

Amish_girls_talking

Amish girls from Lancaster County, PA, chatting in Pennsylvania Dutch. © Ron Bowman Photography

Since about 1930, very few nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch have acquired the language fully in childhood and continued to use it actively as adults. Today, nearly all fluent nonsectarian speakers are elderly. However, Old Order Amish and horse-and-buggy-driving Old Order Mennonites continue to maintain Pennsylvania Dutch actively and pass it on to their children. The total sectarian population currently exceeds 300,000 and is doubling every twenty years, due to large average family sizes and low attrition rates.

An articulate exponent of the significance of Pennsylvania Dutch for its speakers was Henry S. Gehman (1882–1981), a native of Lancaster County who went on to become an eminent scholar at the Princeton Theological Seminary. His 1968 article, “What the Pennsylvania Dutch Dialect Has Meant in My Life,” is well worth reading. For an Amish perspective on the sociolinguistic ecology of German, Pennsylvania Dutch, and English in Old Order society, the 1986 article, “What Is in a Language,” is to be recommended.

Most Pennsylvania Dutch speakers have never learned to read or write in their native language since their literacy needs have been met by English, German, or, in the case of the Old Orders today, both. Going back to the early nineteenth century, however, a number of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers began to write prose and poetry in their native language, creating several thousand texts that offer us a fascinating window on Pennsylvania Dutch history and culture. A small sample of this vernacular literature, which was produced mostly by nonsectarian writers, is featured in Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language and on this website.

Writing Pennsylvania Dutch is no longer as widespread as it once was, but the tradition is carried on by some native speakers, as well as non-native speakers, as on the German website Hiwwe wie Driwwe. There are other institutions devoted to the promotion of Pennsylvania Dutch language and culture, including the Pennsylvania German Society and the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University, which allows students to minor in Pennsylvania German Studies or major in German with a concentration in Pennsylvania German Culture. These efforts, along with the important fact that Pennsylvania Dutch is thriving among Old Order sectarians, point to a very bright future for the language.