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“What the Pennsylvania Dutch Dialect Has Meant in My Life” (1968)

Gehman_imageBorn in a progressive Mennonite family in Ephrata Township in northern Lancaster County, PA, Henry S. Gehman (1888–1981) was a native speaker of Pennsylvania Dutch who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Franklin and Marshall College and his doctorate in Indo-European Philology at the University of Pennsylvania. He was for many years on the faculty of the Princeton Theological Seminary, where he was the William Henry Green Professor of Old Testament. In the article below, which appeared in the Summer 1968 issue of Pennsylvania Folklife magazine, Gehman offers a fascinating firsthand account of the changing sociolinguistic situation of Pennsylvania Dutch, German, and English in Lancaster County in the early twentieth century. The subheadings have been added.

Pennsylvania Dutch Not a Uniform Language

It is well known that Pennsylvania German is not a uniform language any more than are other tongues, but that there are dialectal differences which were brought to this country in colonial days by our forefathers, who came from various parts of South Germany and Switzerland. These variations in the language were perpetuated with numerous localisms developed in different areas of Pennsylvania; some normalization, however, in the direction of the speech of the Palatinate took place in this country, and accordingly despite minor local linguistic divergences we may regard Pennsylvania German as a distinctive dialect spoken over an extensive geographical area. We may moreover observe that it has left a more or less similar impress upon those who spoke it as their daily vernacular.

Naturally there are differences of intonation in various counties, which are carried over into regional English, but some accents undoubtedly are individual and are due rather to the fact that some people do not hear phonetic distinctions and have difficulty in imitating the sounds of another language. The writer has observed that the English spoken in various Pennsylvania German sections is not uniform in pronunciation and idiom, and accordingly we cannot generalize by saying that all Pennsylvania Germans speak English with the same accent.

It is also apparent that they cannot be called a solid ethnic group; European origins, geography, regionalism, and religion have kept them sufficiently diverse and saved them from becoming an exotic people bearing the same monotonous stamp; yet at the same time there are charac­teristics that the Pennsylvania Germans have in common. Most of all the writer resents the advertising by tourist agencies and commercial interests that picture the typical Pennsylvania German as an Amishman and do not permit that religious group to follow unmolested the tenor of their way. Furthermore it should be noted that the majority of the Pennsylvania Germans belong to the historic churches of the Reformation and look like other Americans.

Growing Up with Pennsylvania Dutch

The writer comes from Ephrata Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and grew up in the atmosphere of the dialect, and his observations for the most part are based on his local experiences. His native habitat may be described as a triangle with Hahnstown (Hohneschteddel) at the eastern end of the base and the Bergstrasse Evangeli­cal Lutheran Church at the intersection of the Hahnstown road and Route 322 at the western end; that apex is at Hinkletown (Hinkelschteddel) on the Conestoga to the south. The writer was born a short distance north of the base of this triangle, and he spent his childhood and youth as well as his vacations from college and graduate school on his parents’ farm. The names of the two towns, Hohneschteddel (Rooster Town) and Hinkelschteddel (Chicken or Hen Town) occasionally caused merriment among Pennsylvania Germans not from our area, but we always took the names for granted and never thought anything strange about them.

The daily vernacular of my home and the surrounding section was Pennsylvania German, and we could spend weeks without hearing a word of English spoken, unless we went to Ephrata about three miles to the northwest or to Lancaster, the county seat. My great-grandfather Snyder was educated in both English and German; in school he read Lindley Murray’s English Reader, but he subscribed to the German weekly published at Lancaster and had hanging on the kitchen wall a German almanac. His accounts, however, were carefully kept in good English. My maternal grandfather had received a good English education for his day and was taught by Scotch-Irish school masters. He told me that one of his teachers in passing the farmhouse early in the morning would call out the words: “Buwwele, boy,” and then the lad accompanied the master to school.

This grandfather had no German instruction, but pre­ferred to speak the dialect, although all his reading and writing were in English. My paternal grandfather was a farmer and schoolmaster, who taught both languages at the public school in the Lincoln Independent School Dis­trict about a mile north of Martindale. He preferred to read German and was a calligrapher of German script, in which he copied the family records in his German Bible.

In the home I always spoke Pennsylvania German, and I am thankful that it was the only vernacular used in the household. In some homes the parents spoke the dialect to each other, but English to the children. The result was that many of my playmates spoke an abominable English, which in thought patterns and idiom was German with a decidedly foreign cadence of the sentences. Unfortunately some of those children would not attempt to speak German, but in many cases their English jargon was worse than the dialect. Strange as it may seem, some of us on the way home from school discussed even English grammar in Penn­sylvania German. It often happens that a person in a period of linguistic transition loses the one culture without being at home in the other.

In my boyhood days the language of business at Ephrata was both English and German, but at Hahnstown it was exclusively German. Forty-seven years ago, one evening I happened to drop into the general store at this village. A number of boys and young men were sitting there, eating ice cream and conversing in English. The idiom was bad, the accent was harsh and rasping, and the sentence structure was thoroughly German. As I left, I could not help thinking (II Samuel 1:27): “How are the mighty fallen.” In the meanwhile, however, linguistic conditions have changed in that community. The grandchildren of my contemporaries generally no longer understand or speak the dialect. Their English is far better than it was two generations ago, and in my old environment the transition from the old to the new among the Lutherans has prac­tically been made.

In the rural school at Hahnstown all the instruction was in English, but the language of the playground was mainly German. The girls, however, were more inclined to speak English, and once on his annual visit the County Superintendent of Schools asked the pupils who played in German to raise their hands. All the boys played in the dialect. On the other hand, almost all the hands of the girls went up to indicate that English was their preferred language on the playground, and in response to his question one girl maintained that playing in English was “nicer.” The super­intendent, however, who was conversant with the dialect, was not convinced.

Positive and Negative Views on the Value of Knowing Pennsylvania Dutch

In those days an adult in the community who knew only English often was referred to as “Irish,” and a Pennsylvania German out in the country who insisted on speaking only English was regarded as a conceited individual and almost worthy of contempt. There is an obsolete or dialectal use of the English word “common” in the sense of “easy of approach, not reserved,” and this word was borrowed by Pennsylvania German in the expression en commoner Mann (a man without pretense or free from snobbishness, one easy to approach). In my boyhood en commoner Mann, who had succeeded in life and remained free from egotism, was held in high esteem. In such an atmosphere a pre­tender was despised, and by example I was taught at home not to become a snob. Perhaps, however, in trying not to become a snob I may on some occasions paradoxically have become a snob. Whenever I address in our vernacular a Pennsylvania German who is fluent in the dialect and he replies in English, I cannot help resenting his superior attitude, and there comes to my mind a line from Horace (Odes III, 1,1): Odi profanum vulgus et arceo (I abhor the unhallowed throng and hold it aloof).

The question bas been raised whether Pennsylvania Ger­man has been a handicap in school. Personally I think that depends upon the individual. When I started school at the age of six, I could not speak a word of English, but I had no difficulty in learning and speaking it. As I now look back and consider both the advantages and disadvantages of the dialect, I feel that, after having overcome an initial handicap, in many respects it has been a decided asset in my lifework. As a child I noted differences be­tween Lancaster and Berks County German, and frequently I made comparisons between English and German. My philological interests accordingly began in childhood, and I developed a love for languages. This aspiration was eventually fulfilled at Franklin and Marshall College, where I majored in Greek and Latin, and at the University of Pennsylvania, where I took the doctorate in Indo-European Philology, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. The Roman poet Ennius (239-169 B.C.) once said that he had three souls, because he spoke Latin, Greek, and Oscan. In the same way the person who speaks fluently the dialect and English may be said to have two personalities; he has certain in­sights and interpretations of life not available to a monog­lot. In my youth there were a number of older persons who may be called trilingual; they spoke the dialect, read the Bible and devotional books in High German, and spoke and wrote an acceptable English. Many of them preferred to read the New Testament in an edition with German and English in parallel columns on the page.

In many cases the Pennsylvania Germans unfortunately have had an inferiority complex, and frequently I heard the strange and derogatory remark made by men who spoke the dialect as their only daily vernacular that Pennsylvania German is not a real language (ken rechte Sproch). Of course, they did not have a formal education and did not realize that any language is a means of com­municating thought from one person to another. It has moreover to be pointed out that for several centuries the dialect has been an effective vehicle for the communication of thought. In my college days many of my associates felt that the dialect was a liability, and some were ashamed of it. A few who were preparing for the pastorate decided that they would not preach in German, because it might ruin their English. The fact, however, was that it would have been impossible to spoil their pronunciation of the English language. Sad to say, many Pennsylvania Ger­mans have been the severest critics of their own people, and in numerous cases individuals have begrudged the success of those who attained distinction in their chosen field; this failing, however, may be true also of other ethnic groups.

Frequently the Pennsylvania Germans have ridiculed their own kind who spoke with an accent, and occasionally some strange things happened. In the days of my youth some boys who had spent a semester at a normal school or college returned home pretending that they had for­gotten their native dialect; as one fond mother remarked about her illustrious son: “Es Englisch stosst ihm immer vor” (English is always interfering with him). The Rev. Dr. H. J. Rütenik once aptly said: “Was du von [zu] Hause geerbt hast, musst du nie vergessen” (What you have inherited from home, you must never forget).

I admit that for a while I may have been overly con­scious of an initial handicap on account of a German accent and German patterns of thought in English, but I also recognize that I have certain advantages over those who had come from a solely English environment. From my school days I constantly studied Webster’s dictionary, and on many occasions my English colleagues asked me about the correct pronunciation of certain words. A firsthand knowledge of agricultural life later on gave me an understanding of the Old Testament references to rural life, which I could not have acquired in town or in the city. On numerous occasions in my boyhood I felt that some of my contemporaries with less formal education felt superior to me socially because I preferred to speak in the dialect. In the end, however, a person’s life may be compared to a ledger with the debit and credit columns. As I leisurely review my career of teaching in universities and theologi­cal seminaries, I have come to the conclusion that in my particular case the command of Pennsylvania German and its influence must be placed in the credit column.

Shift from Pennsylvania Dutch and German to English

We may look back with nostalgia to the era when both German and English were preached in the churches of Eastern Pennsylvania. Three generations ago there were few public high schools, and a college education was uncommon in the rural areas. In this connexion it may fur­thermore be noted that the Lutheran and Reformed Churches exerted even a cultural influence in the Pennsyl­vania German farming communities. At the Bergstrasse Lutheran Church until about 1913 services in German were held on Sunday mornings, while those that fell in the afternoon were in English. The pastor preached an idiom­atic German which was grammatically correct and as simple as that of Luther’s Bible and Catechism, and his English was excellent. At that time, however, the adults no longer could read German, since all their education had been in English. Most of them still understood the German ser­mons, but to the younger generation it was a foreign tongue. Obviously the adults in the period of linguistic transition received a better understanding of the Gospel by hearing it proclaimed in two tongues, and in this re­spect the Church also contributed to the culture of the community. German was preached in the rural churches for about two centuries, and this is an eloquent testimony to the vigor of the Pennsylvania German dialect and the linguistic conservatism of our people.

The language situation, however, was changing, and by the time of World War I the writer was the only person in the Bergstrasse congregation who could read, write, and speak High German. By about 1915 Baer’s Agricultural Alamanac in German was no longer available in the coun­try stores. At that time the future growth of Bergstrasse and the spiritual needs of the younger generation demand­ed that all the services should be conducted in English.

Travels to Brazil and Germany

Ten years ago when the writer visited the two southern­most states of Brazil, Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina, he encountered a situation similar to what once prevailed in Eastern Pennsylvania. The members of the Evangelical and Lutheran Churches are bilingual, speaking German and Portuguese. The younger generation, however, prefers to speak Portuguese, and the leaders of the Church now admit that eventually the language of worship will be Portuguese. In that country the Church is now in a linguistic transition similar to what took place in Eastern Pennsylvania two generations ago. The Pennsylvania Germans of the past era recognized that German is a vigorous medium for preaching, and many felt that a German sermon is more powerful than one in English. I found a similar attitude in South Brazil on the part of those who are per­fectly bilingual. I may, however, have an inherited pre­judice in this matter, but I cannot help feeling that there is much truth in this opinion, even though the Gospel can be preached effectively in all tongues.

The respectability of Pennsylvania German as a dialect is obvious to anyone who visits Germany and Switzerland. When I was in Basel in 1950, a department store in that city regularly had advertisements in the Swiss dialect of the canton, and they read more like our vernacular than High German. While I lived in Heidelberg, I heard Ger­man spoken with the same inflexion as we used in the Conestoga Valley. I spoke the dialect on the street, and when I made purchases in my native tongue, nobody seemed to regard it strange. In 1950, when I was at an ecumenical conference at Treysa, a professor from Göttingen read a paper. The moment he began to lecture, my reaction was: “Seller Mann kummt von Hohneschteddel” (That man comes from Hahnstown). In a conversation with him I found out that his home had been near Stuttgart, and then I understood how he happened to have such a familiar accent. On that occasion my wife, who does not speak High German, lived with a family in that place and had no difficulty in communicating with our friends. Such experiences prove that Pennsylvania German is a respect­able German dialect and not a combination of bad English and worse German, as some have imagined. From my own experience Pennsylvania German was no hindrance in acquiring literary German; it gave me an initial extensive vocabulary and a Sprachgefühl, which was an advantage. It should also be noted that some of the dialectal words and antiquated expressions which I had to discard had a sound philological basis in German dialects and in the history of the language. In reading the works of Luther I frequently met familiar words which are not cur­rent in modern usage.

Superstitions and the Pennsylvania Dutch

It has been said that the Pennsylvania Germans are a superstitious people, and it is well known that superstitions were handed down for centuries. Powwowing, however, may be almost extinct, and agricultural lore connected with the moon and the signs of the zodiac probably is a thing of the past. A discussion of superstitions, however, would go beyond the limits of this article, but in passing, it may be observed that the customs and beliefs of a remote past have kept alive the romance of living in a bygone age. Moreover it should be noted that superstitions are universal and do not belong only to a particular ethnic group; they did not originate in Pennsylvania, but were brought by our forefathers to the new world. In fact, the writer has found superstitions among all nationalities, and some per­sist even in so-called respectable society. There is still prevalent the ridiculous custom of touching wood when a person speaks of his health; it may be treated as a joke, but probably the one who does it may have a sneaking suspicion that there is something to it. By the way, the writer never met that superstition among the Pennsylvania Germans of the Conestoga Valley. Belief in witchcraft is not confined to Pennsylvania, but superstitions go back to a distant past. Henry Harbaugh wrote:

“Ich glaab net viel an Hexerei,Mag sei(n) ‘s is eppes doch dabei.

(I do not believe much in witchcraft, yet it may be that there is something to it.)

Over half a century ago, when the writer read the Atharva-Veda in seminars at the University of Pennsylvania, he observed many resemblances between ancient Vedic customs and superstitions in Eastern Pennsylvania. When he was ten or twelve years old, he was often entertained by old men who told him ghost stories until the chills went down his back and he was almost afraid to go out in the dark. Later, when he studied Pali and read selections from the Peta-Vatthu, a Buddhist work on the punishments suffered by the spirits of the departed, he was struck by the similarity of the Buddhist ghost stories to what he heard in his boyhood days. Thereupon the memories of his child hood and youth returned, and accordingly he rendered the Peta-Vatthu into English; this happened to be the first translation of this book into a Western language.

Pennsylvania Dutch the Soul of a Rural American Culture

The Pennsylvania Germans were essentially a rural folk, and the dialect betrays this limitation. lt is well adapted for home life and agricultural pursuits. Its vocabulary, while quite extensive, is restricted in its range, and it is difficult to discuss a learned theme in the dialect without introducing technical words from literary German or bor­rowing from English. It has been cut off from its roots in the home base and developed as a linguistic island in Eastern Pennsylvania, whence it was transplanted to various communities in the Midwest. The philologist, however, recognizes its historical background and its relations to definite geographical areas in Germany. It has a rightful claim to be classified as a respectable German patois, and it can be placed in the same category with other South German dialects, as e.g., Bavarian and Swabian. It is still used effectively in the writer’s native county in religious services by conservative groups such as the Amish and the Old Order Mennonites, who have remained successful farmers without seriously disturbing the historical con­nexions with the customs of the forefathers. It may be well· that there have remained some nonconformists who can resist the encroachments of the modern era and have not made rural life conform to a monotonous and standardized pattern.

Anyone who is bilingual knows that there are certain expressions which are more vigorous in one language than in another and that in translation frequently the spirit of the original is lost. In most cases a dialect is closer to the soil than a literary language, and this is especially true of Pennsylvania German, which is essentially a Volks­sprache and reflects the spirit of the people. It can be the vehicle for expressing tender emotions, and on the other hand it can be the channel of bitter invective and violent abuse. It is capable of conveying serious thoughts, and the most personal problems can be discussed in a heart­-to-heart conversation. Coarse expressions and profanity can be expressed also in other tongues and are not the sole possession of the Pennsylvania Germans. To a native it appears that the dialect is well suited to narrate humorous situations, but when amusing stories are translated into English, the point is lost, the humor is gone, and they be­come meaningless. Generally it is not the words alone, but the facial expression and the inflexion of the voice that produce the desired effect. Since the dialect can be used very effectively to depict humorous situations, un­fortunately some people have supposed that humor is the chief asset of Pennsylvania German. This, however, is only one phase of the language of our forefathers.

For over two centuries the dialect served as an adequate medium to express the thoughts, the hopes, and the aspirations of a sturdy people that have taken their place in the stream of American life. For reasons of language the Pennsylvania Germans have often been regarded by some as an exotic group. They were considered for many years by their English neighbors as “dumb Dutch” or “ignorant boors” because they spoke a foreign tongue or merely broken English in addition to their native dialect. In the meanwhile, some of their young men have studied natural science, philosophy, philology, and theology in German universities, but for this people as a group the ties with the land of the forefathers long ago have been allowed to lapse. Their contributions to culture, education, the Church, and the State have been recognized, and in recent years an interest in their arts and crafts has been aroused and developed. The Pennsylvania Germans are a native American people, and are as American as the descendants of the Pilgrims of Massachusetts and the Cavaliers of Virginia. Much remains to be studied in their history, folklore, and language, and in these areas the ambitious young scholar will find awaiting him many fertile fields to be investigated.