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The True Story of the "Pennsylvania Dutch", Part 2: The Language

(For Part 1, click here)

"How are you?" in Pennsylvania Dutch

During the Middle Ages, there was no German country, language, or national identity. Germans were politically and culturally divided into dozens of states and fiefdoms, each with their own regional dialects. Scholars and church officials wrote in Latin; dialects were not typically written.

This changed after Martin Luther published a German-language translation of the Bible (New Testament in 1522, Old Testament in 1534) based on the dialect of his native region of Saxony. The Luther Bible became very popular and influenced the creation of the modern German language. So, besides starting a theological revolution, Luther began a linguistic revolution as well.

An October 2017 article in The New Yorker explains how this happened: "[Luther’s Bible] was not the first German translation of the Bible—indeed, it had eighteen predecessors—but it was unquestionably the most beautiful…. Luther very consciously sought a fresh, vigorous idiom. He loved alliteration and he loved repetition and forceful rhythms. This made his texts easy and pleasing to read aloud, at home, to the children…. These virtues, plus the fact that the Bible was probably, in many cases, the only book in the house, meant that it was widely used as a primer. More people learned to read, and the more they knew how to read the more they wanted to own this book or give it to others. The three thousand copy first edition of the New Testament, though it was not cheap (it cost about as much as a calf), sold out immediately. As many as half a million Luther Bibles seem to have been printed by the mid-sixteenth century."

By the 1700s, Germans were reading and writing using the standard German vocabulary introduced by the Luther Bible, but they still spoke their regional dialects. As the people from southern Germany, eastern France and Switzerland, where the Pennsylvania Dutch culture and dialect sprung, started to arrive in North America in the late 17th and the early 18th centuries, their regional dialects blended, forming a new, uniquely American language which is now called Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch). While Pennsylvania Dutch borrows some words from English, it is NOT a hybrid language of German and English. Pennsylvania Dutch grammar is applied borrowed words (for example, nouns are assigned a gender). Even though Pennsylvania Dutch is a distinct language, it is particularly close to a regional dialect which is still spoken in southwest Germany, called Pfälzisch.

As a result of the linguistic differences, a Pennsylvania Dutch speaker would have difficulty conversing with a speaker of standard German. This was evidenced as early as 1777 when, during the American Revolution, Johann David Schöpf, a German who served as chief surgeon to a regiment of Hessian troops, wrote "the language used by our German-speaking countrymen (in America) is a pitifully broken mish-mash of English and German."

The majority of Pennsylvania Dutch people, especially the non-sectarian "Fancy Dutch" Lutherans and Reformed immigrants, wrote, read and worshipped almost exclusively in standard German until 1834, and they did not entirely abandon its use until the early 1900s. Reading, Pennsylvania was an important center for the printing of German language broadsides, books, and newspapers. This was a challenge since Pennsylvania Dutch has primarily been a spoken dialect throughout its history, with very few of its speakers making much of an attempt to read or write it. Writing in Pennsylvania Dutch can be a difficult task, and there is no spelling standard for the dialect.

In most cases, Pennsylvania Dutch children did not learn English until after the Pennsylvania Public School Act of 1834 required public education in the English language.

By 1900, most Pennsylvania Dutch had abandoned standard German as their language of reading and writing, but more than half a million still spoke Pennsylvania Dutch as their language of daily conversation. It was only in the 20th century, particularly after two world wars fought against Germany, that families stopped teaching Pennsylvania Dutch to their children. The reasons they cited were preventing their children from developing a "Dutch" accent and preparing them for school. Older speakers generally did not see a reason for young people to speak it. Many of their children learned the language from hearing their parents using it and from interactions with the generation older than their parents.

As a result, Pennsylvania Dutch has been in decline amongst non-sectarians for decades. In 1950, author Frederick Klees suggested that "it is clear that Pennsylvania German is in trouble, and in a hundred years it will be dead." In 2011, authors Charles E. Hurst and David L. McConnell stated that it is "one of a handful of minority languages in the United States that is neither endangered nor supported by continual arrivals of immigrants."

Today, the language is spoken mainly by members of Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities, whose total population in the United States and Canada is approximately 300,000. That number is doubling every twenty years due to the large size of the average family and their low attrition rates, which assure the health of Pennsylvania Dutch into the foreseeable future.

I am also adding myself to that number. I have begun to study Pennsylvania Dutch, just like my "Fancy Dutch" ancestors. Hopefully one day I can be as fluent as they were and gain a glimpse into another aspect of their daily lives.

("Take Care/Good-bye" in Pennsylvania Dutch)


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