Dialect Literature and Speech, Pennsylvania German

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1959 Article

Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsylvania German) is a dialect spoken widely in southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1950s and in other places to which Pennsylvania Germans have migrated. Fredric Klees estimated in 1950 that probably more than 300,000 Pennsylvania Germans "are more at home in Dutch than in English" and that there were probably more than 400,000 others who habitually spoke English but could make "themselves understood in Dutch if necessity arises." Dr. J. William Frey, author of Pennsylvania Dutch Grammar (1950), stated that there were 500,000 in each of these two groups. The principal area in which the dialect or language is spoken was southeastern Pennsylvania, where at least fourteen counties were distinctively Pennsylvania German. Lying directly west of these were eighteen counties having important Pennsylvania German population. Chief areas were the counties of Montgomery, Bucks, Berks, Lancaster, York, Dauphin, Lebanon, Lehigh, Northampton; and the cities of Reading, Allentown, and Bethlehem. During the 18th and much of the 19th centuries nearly all of the Amish and Mennonites east of the Mississippi River and in Ontario, with the exception of those immigrating directly from Holland or Switzerland, spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, and in the 20th century all Old Order Amish Mennonite communities were still using the dialect as their household language, although they used in their religious services a combination of High German and Pennsylvania Dutch. Those wishing to study the dialect have found Amish communities ideal places for their surveys. For instance, Alfred L. Shoemaker did a doctoral dissertation in 1940 at the University of Illinois on "Studies on the Pennsylvania German Dialect of the Amish Community in Arthur, Illinois," while Ruth Bender did a master's thesis at the University of Iowa in 1929 on "A Study of the Pennsylvania-German as Spoken in Johnson County, Iowa." Certain Mennonite communities which have derived much of their membership from the Amish background have also maintained the dialect as a household language. Chief among these areas are the Johnstown and Springs district in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, the Holmes County, Ohio, community, and Lagrange County, Indiana

When the pressure of American anti-German feeling during World War I forced the discontinuance of the use of German in public programs, nearly all Mennonite churches in Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking areas which had not done so previously began to use English in their services. The Old Order Amish, however, continued the public use of German, while the Conservative Amish Mennonites only generally adopted English in mid-20th century. The continued use of German by the Amish can be explained by their reluctance to accept any changes in religious practices and partly by the fact that since their music and devotional literature were in German they were fearful of losing their religious heritage by dropping the German. The religious use of German has been an important factor in the retention of Pennsylvania Dutch as the Amish household language. An additional factor in assuring the preservation of the dialect in eastern Pennsylvania was its widespread use by their Lutheran and Reformed neighbors who originally came to that state from the German Palatinate. English, Scottish-Irish, Welsh, French, and even African-American neighbors learned the dialect from them so that many of these spoke it fluently in the 1950s.

The renewed American interest in regional culture and the attempt to popularize Pennsylvania Dutch culture will no doubt prolong the life of this dialect in non-Amish circles and will thus indirectly strengthen its position in Amish life. A growing body of literature on Pennsylvania Dutch culture as well as material written in this dialect has given the Pennsylvanians a pride in their heritage. As long ago as 1941 Otto Springer of the University of Pennsylvania Department of Germanic Languages produced a 16-page mimeographed bibliography listing 223 books and articles for the study of the Pennsylvania German language and its sources. In spite of this interest in the dialect, prophets have predicted that the dialect was doomed to disappear as a living language in America, although it was doubtful that this will happen as long as the Amish preserve their "Old Order."

When thousands of Germans came to Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries they brought their dialects with them, the chief one of which was the Palatine (pfälzisch) German dialect, since the majority of these immigrants came from the Upper Rhine Valley. The Palatine dialect was the basic element in the Pennsylvania Dutch. Although immigrants from other German areas such as Hesse, Baden, and Württemberg, as well as from Switzerland, added words to the Pennsylvania Dutch vocabulary, it was still primarily Palatine German. Even in the 1950s Pennsylvania Germans visiting in the Upper Rhine Valley had little difficulty in conversing with the natives of that region. While it is true that the Pennsylvanians adopted some English words into their dialect, these did not comprise more than 5 per cent of the Pennsylvania Dutch working vocabulary in mid-20th century. There were slight variations in the dialect between Berks and Lancaster counties in Pennsylvania, and also between Pennsylvania and the western states; but these groups had no difficulty in understanding each other. Klees characterized the dialect thus: "It is not a language possessing dignity or grandeur; it is not a speech fit for tragedy. But it is one in which humor and homely sentiment can be well expressed." One of the most noted pieces of Pennsylvania Dutch literature is a collection of poems by a Reformed minister, Henry Harbaugh, called Harbaugh's Harfe (Philadelphia, ca 1870). Chief of several newspaper columns was 'S Pennsylvaanisch Deitsch Eck in the Allentown (Pennsylvania) Morning Call. A number of regular radio programs as well as stage plays in the dialect entertained large audiences of Pennsylvania Dutch in eastern Pennsylvania. -- Melvin Gingerich

1990 Update

Pennsylvania German is popularly known as "Pennsylvania Dutch," even though it is a German dialect rather than Netherlands Dutch. Mennonite historian Melvin Gingerich, (see article above), predicted that the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect would die out soon except where it was retained for religious reasons. As of 1987 this had already become a reality.

Many areas in eastern Pennsylvania where people used the dialect at home, in community social events, and even in school-board meetings, have dropped it almost entirely. Older people may still enjoy using it when they get together. Younger people respond in English if addressed in the German dialect. In many homes only one parent knows the dialect, and consequently the children do not learn it. The auctioneer at farm sales, and the public speaker at social events will often use some colorful Pennsylvania German words or expressions to arouse interest. Many of the so-called Pennsylvania German events are conducted entirely in English. Many churches are still featuring an annual Pennsylvania German worship service; but it is becoming increasingly hard to find people who can conduct the service in Pennsylvania German with naturalness and spirituality. Lacking this it loses its appeal to the worshiper and becomes a cultural attraction.

The Amish and Old Order Mennonites try hard to retain Pennsylvania German in their homes and in their worship. They are likely to continue speaking it longer than the other speakers of the language described above. To Amish and Old Order Mennonites, Pennsylvania German represents obedience to a principle of God and His holy Word: to remain separate in language and practice (nonconformity). Their zeal and dedication merit a lot of admiration. One young Amishman expressed it by the statement, "It is always best not to have too much to do with the English." But even with this serious intent they have their problems. Nobody has ever standardized the Pennsylvania German dialect. More and more English words are being accepted into day-to-day use of the dialect. This is the inevitable result of living in an English-speaking community and with constant pressures to accept English words, even if said with German prefixes and endings and in German sentences. Most of the Amish and Old Order Mennonites speak to each other in dialect, but if they write a letter to one of their own people it will be in English. Only a few of their more talented church leaders would write in German or Pennsylvania German today.

Gingerich mentioned the strong social pressure against the use of German during the wars with Germany. This pressure was so strong that many who spoke English poorly and with a very obvious "Dutch accent" denied knowing any German. Since then it has become popular to identify with the Pennsylvania German. Many who did not learn the dialect wish their parents had taught it at home. Adult classes in colleges, a few high schools, and historical societies are offered in Pennsylvania German. There is a widespread feeling that we have lost, or are about to lose, something that was too beautiful to lose so lightly. This nostalgia is illustrated by a recently published text for use in Pennsylvania German classes, in study groups who make tape recordings of conversation by people who speak the dialect at home, by local columnists who publish items written in the dialect and sent in by readers, and by several radio programs which invite listeners to call in items of interest relating to the dialect. -- Noah Good

See also Acculturation; Folklore; Humor; Mennonite Studies; Rhymes; Dialect Literature and Speech, Low German; Pennsylvania - German Culture; Swiss German Dialects


Buffington, Albert F. and Preston A. Barba. A Pennsylvania German Grammar. Allentown, PA, 1954.

Frey, J . William. Pennsylvania Dutch Grammar. Lancaster, 1950.

Gehman, Ernest G. Schwetz Deitsch, tape recordings in Pennsylvania German, including poetry and stories. Harrisonburg, Va.: Eastern Mennonite College.

Haag, Earl C. A Pennsylvania German Reader and Grammar. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State U. Press, 1982.

Horne, A. R. Pennsylvania German Manual. Allentown, PA, 1896.

Klees, Fredric. The Pennsylvania Dutch. New York, 1951: 277-285.

Kyger, Ellsworth M., comp. An English-Pennsylvania German Dictionary: A Working Manuscript, Russell W. Gilbert Series of Pennsylvania German Dialect Publications, vols. 2-4. Birdsboro, Pa.: Pennsylvania German Society, 1986.

Lambert, Marcus. A Dictionary of the Non-English Words in the Pennsylvania-German Dialect. Lancaster, 1924.

A Pennsylvania-Dutch Dictionary. Quakertown, PA, n.d.

Pennsylvania Folklife, a quarterly published at Bethel, PA, beginning in 1949 as the Pennsylvania Dutchman published at Lancaster, PA.

Robacker, E. F. Pennsylvania German Literature. Philadelphia, 1943.

Springer, Otto. "The Study of the Pennsylvania-German Dialict." Journal of English and Germanic Philology (January 1943): 1-39.

Stories in Pennsylvania German appear in various newspapers and journals, including Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage.

Author(s) Melvin Gingerich
Noah Good
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Gingerich, Melvin and Noah Good. "Dialect Literature and Speech, Pennsylvania German." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 2 Jul 2022. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Dialect_Literature_and_Speech,_Pennsylvania_German&oldid=102166.

APA style

Gingerich, Melvin and Noah Good. (1989). Dialect Literature and Speech, Pennsylvania German. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 July 2022, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Dialect_Literature_and_Speech,_Pennsylvania_German&oldid=102166.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 141-142, 1147; vol. 5, pp. 233-234. All rights reserved.

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