Pennsylvania German: a dying language?

An Amish Family

Pennsylvania German, or Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch, is a variety of West Central German, spoken by at least 83,700 in the United States, with numbers that are increasing. The ethnic population estimate is at least 300,000[1]. Blending of several German dialects, primarily Rhenish Palatinate (Pfalzer) German, with syntactic elements of High German and English, it is largely incomprehensible to modern Germans. It was brought to America by speakers from Southern Germany, Eastern France, and Switzerland. Today, speakers are largely found in communities of Amish and Mennonites in America and Canada. There is also a group of Mennonites who fled America in the 20th century to South America in order to maintain their unique culture. This community speaks a very distinct dialect of Pennsylvanish called Plautdietsch[2].

There are multiple varieties of Pennsylvania German. For example, the orthographies differ between speakers from Ohio and Pennsylvania. They are a plain community, not shifting to English due to cultural reasons. Part of their culture is the refusal of modernization. Preschoolers are almost exclusively monolingual, while almost every adult is bilingual in Modern English. Their language does evolve, however, by integrating some English words, such as “bet”, as in “Ich bet, du kannscht Deitsch schwetze” (I bet you can speak German), or “depend”, as in “Es dependt en wennig, waer du bischt” (it depends somewhat on who you are). Other words include “tschaepp” for “chap” or “guy”; and “tschumbe” for “to jump”. Today, many speakers will use Pennsylvania German words for the smaller numerals and English for larger and more complex numerals, like “$27,599.”[3]

There are fears of loosing Pennsylvania German, since many of the older speakers have grandchildren who only speak English. The language was once a regional dialect, but now seems to be largely contained within religious communities. It is associated with “horse-and-buggy” Old-Order Mennonite and Amish. To counter this, Kutztown University offers a minor program in Pennsylvania German studies[4] as well as a BA in German Studies[5] with a focus on PA German Culture in America[6].

The numbers of speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch/German are unclear. Some suggest there might be over 300,000 speakers today, taking into account the number of Old Order Amish at over 200,000 and the number of Old-Order Mennonite in the 10s of thousands. There are also some Pennsylvania German speakers who are neither Amish nor Mennonite. One reason why the numbers of speakers are increasing is the fact that the Amish population doubles every 20 years. Ethnologue puts the number at around 83,700 speakers, based on the 2000 census records. It is inaccurate to take records from the Census, however, since the 2000 census does not have a category for Pennsylvania German under languages. Thus, many speakers simply put that they spoke German or English. Further, in Anabaptist churches, including Amish and Mennonite, they only consider baptized members to belong to the group, meaning that only adults around 25 years or older will be counted as belonging to the category[7]. That is, an Amish church might claim to only have 20 members, which means that there are only 20 “Amish” in the community. They ignore in their count the 40-60 children who also live in the community and attend church every Sunday.

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7 comments on “Pennsylvania German: a dying language?

  1. Fascinating! I live very close to Pennsylvania Dutch Country (when I am in the US) and I never knew they had their own dialect of German. I’m so glad to have found another linguistics nerd! I am heavily considering moving to Berlin in September, so I will need to learn some version of German by then! 😉

    • Yes! I study linguistics at UCSD! This is actually a part of a research paper I had to write. Their language came over with the protestants, many of whom were religious refugees fleeing persecution. I will one day write another post on that!!

      OO Berlin! I have always wanted to go! I love German! Fortunately, there is plenty of English spoken, so without any German knowledge you can get around fine. Unfortunately, their English is so good that if you know some German (like me when I went to Austria in 2006) they refuse to speak it to you, since their English is better than your German :(. But, the more you learn, the easier (and funner!) your time will be! What are you doing in Berlin?

  2. Wow! Amish & Mennonites fascinate me.

    I love languages even though I’m not very good at learning them! My older daughter picked up a lot of German when she went to Austria for the Summer, 2 years ago.

    The language closest to my heart is Cymraeg/Welsh 🙂

    • Wow! How well do you know it? Yes, it is amazing how much of a language you learn when you just live someplace. Where in Austria did she live? I was in Vienna in 2006! Beautiful city! Wish I had time to see more of the country!

      • I know a fair amount of Welsh but I’m nowhere near fluent! I’ve been studying it for ages but get frustrated with the mutations, masculine/feminine & plurals. I think their are 12 different ways to form plurals, something insane like that!! So I take time off of studying. Sometimes too long a time!

        My daughter volunteered at Schloss Heroldeck in Millstatt (sp?). Absolutely gorgeous! http://www.schlossheroldeck.com

      • What fun! Yes, some languages can have such rich components that it blows your mind trying to study! Of course, that is what makes those languages so rich in the first place! Wow, what a beautiful castle! Is it now owned by Calvary Chapel?

      • It helps to have friends who speak Welsh, too! It’s one of those things, they speak English so well that they don’t use Welsh with English speakers.

        Calvary Chapel now owns the castle & uses it for conferences & retreats. I’d like to volunteer there some day soon!

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