Amish Language: German or Dutch?

Amish Language

The Amish are a Christian sect that adheres to the teachings of Jacob Ammann, a Swiss Mennonite bishop. The Amish group first appeared in Switzerland in the 1600s but moved to North America in the 1700s, establishing in Pennsylvania. Amish communities can be found in Canada, Europe, and the United States. You may wonder if they are Amish German or Dutch because they are descended from Swiss Mennonites. Let’s begin by looking at their background.

While the majority of Amish and Old Order Mennonites are of Swiss descent, they almost always speak Pennsylvania Dutch. This American language originated in rural parts of southeastern and central Pennsylvania during the 18th century. Many Amish people continue to speak Pennsylvania Dutch, a German dialect.

History of the Pennsylvania Dutch

The Pennsylvania Dutch are descended from early German-speaking immigrants who landed in Pennsylvania throughout the 1700s and 1800s, having fled religious persecution in Europe. They were composed of German Reformed, Mennonite, Lutheran, Moravian, and other religious sects from the Holy Roman Empire.

Unable to openly practice their religion in their own homes, these pioneers found hope in William Penn and his new state of Pennsylvania, which offered religious freedom and economic opportunity. As a result, in the 18th and 19th centuries, they abandoned their homes in the Rhineland and Palatinate regions of Germany and parts of Switzerland and went on the long and perilous trek.

Many of these settlers believed that a traditional way of life, devoid of modern amenities and comfort, was required. The Amish and Mennonites are two well-known groups who still embrace these beliefs.

Why Are They Referred To Be Pennsylvania Dutch When They Are Germans?

Not only do Pennsylvania Dutch not speak Dutch, but they also have no historical or linguistic ties to the Netherlands. So, where did the deceptive name come from? It may appear natural to believe this is due to a simple mistranslation or butchering of the word Deutsch (German) by English-speaking Pennsylvanians. The true answer, however, appears to be in the initial use of the word “Dutch” in the English language.

The term “Dutch” was used in 18th and 19th-century English to refer to the vast Germanic territory comprising modern-day Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Austria, and Switzerland. It hence could quite legitimately refer to these people in Pennsylvania.

Furthermore, when the Pennsylvania Dutch departed Europe, Germany was a patchwork of duchies, kingdoms, and states rather than a unified nation. As a result, referring to the Pennsylvania Dutch as German is inaccurate because they were never citizens of a unified Germany.

As a result, the moniker Pennsylvania Dutch appears to be as acceptable as any when referring to this population of Deitsch speakers. To differentiate themselves from the European Germans they had left behind and the subsequent waves of German immigrants who became German Americans, the Pennsylvania Dutch adopted the name in the nineteenth century. 

‘Dutch’ Doesn’t Mean Dutch

The name of the language is a wonderful indication of its shift and evolution. The “Dutch” in “Pennsylvania Dutch” refers to “Deutsch,” which is German for “German,” rather than the flat and flower-filled Netherlands. In the same way that “Plattdeutsch” is a German dialect, “Pennsylvania Dutch” is a German dialect.

Most of today’s Amish ancestors moved from the German Palatinate region between the early 18th and 19th centuries. The German Pfalz region encompasses Rheinland-Pfalz and Alsace, which was German until World War I. The emigrants sought religious liberty and the opportunity to establish and earn a living. Until the early twentieth century, “Pennsylvania Dutch” was the de facto language throughout the state’s south. As a result, the Amish kept their unique, essential way of life and their accent.

This resulted in two remarkable changes over the years. The first goal is to preserve the ancient Palatinate dialect. Listeners in Germany can often infer a speaker’s regional background because local dialects are prevalent and used daily. Older folks, particularly in little communities, who can still discourse as their forefathers did years ago, are examples of such speakers.

“Pennsylvania Dutch” is a lucky survival of historic Palatinate dialects. The Amish, particularly the older generation, talk like their forefathers in the 18th century. This acts as a one-of-a-kind link to the past.

The Pennsylvania Dutch Way Of Life, Values, And Traditions

We all know that the Pennsylvania Dutch are split up into several different subgroups, each with its own set of values, beliefs, and religion, ranging from the strict Old Order adherents who maintain a very traditional and austere way of life to the more progressive groups who have largely adapted to 21st-century American culture.

The Amish are the most well-known members of the “Old Order,” which includes the Mennonites and the Brethren. Based on the same faith simplicity as the early Christian Church, the Anabaptist religions advocate for a traditional, low-tech way of living. They are called “plain people” or “plain Dutch” to differentiate themselves from other groups, sometimes known as “fancy Dutch.”

The Amish place a high value on family and a close-knit community structure, and they are wary of anything jeopardizing that. Most people wear handcrafted, traditional attire with no jewelry. Unmarried men are often clean-shaven, whereas married men are recognizable by their beards. Some Amish people forego things like electricity, indoor plumbing, and schooling beyond the eighth grade – yet each community has its own set of laws regarding clothes, hair length, buggy fashions, and farming techniques.

Pennsylvania Dutch Settlers Today

In the years following World War II, the Pennsylvania Dutch language faced extinction. Speaking German did not get you any favors in America at the time, and the language began to fade in favor of English, except in Plain settlements comprised of Old Order Amish and Mennonites.

These days, Amish people make up most Deitsch speakers (300.000 out of the 400.000 in the Pennsylvania Dutch community). They, along with other speakers, have protected the survival of this unique language for generations through traditional lives and minimal contact with the outside world.

Pennsylvania Dutch is the most rapidly expanding small minority language in the United States because of its high birthrate and low attrition rate. The number of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers is growing exponentially despite a lack of government support, suggesting that the language will remain alive for as long as the Plain people do.

Read Also: How to Nail the Look of a WW2 Paratrooper