German Language

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The German language is the original language of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. Although formal use was made of Latin in some writings and disputations, almost all of the Anabaptist reformers and their followers were linguistically of German stock. The Swiss around Zürich and in other cantons; the Alsatians (Strasbourg); the Germans of Baden, Württemberg and the Palatinate (High German linguistically); those along the Rhine downstream to the Flemish and Dutch Low Countries and throughout the northern German territories (Low German linguistically), as well as in the upper (south) German areas of Bavaria, Austria and Bohemia -- all of these shared a common linguistic bond, though their dialects were different. During the period of the Protestant Reformation the linguistic boundaries between Dutch, Low German, and the new High German coming from the Alps and neighbouring regions were in a state of dynamic flux. The result of the changes was the ascendancy of High German and a separate literary Dutch language, while the Low German, which had been an important language of commerce, began its decline. Even the Dutch and Low German dialects in which Menno and others wrote were little more than regional German dialects at that time, as was the Saxon dialect (East Middle German) that Luther fashioned into the forerunner of modern standard German (High German). For Mennonites the German language in its various regional and historical forms is thus a "mother tongue" in other than a national sense. The variations of High and Low German which were brought to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the North and South American continents, and to various other Mennonite enclaves testify to the movements of different Mennonite groups in the intervening centuries, whether via the Palatinate and the Low Countries to Pennsylvania and Virginia, or from the Low Countries to Prussia and from Russia to Canada, the United States, and Latin America.

Mennonite Low German (Plautdietsch) added words and expressions from the several cultures (Polish, Ukrainian, English) through which the Prussian-Russian Mennonites passed, thus reflecting the historical experience of the group. The more formal "High German" used by these Prussian Mennonites also developed a peculiarity resting on a vocabulary limited by its narrow use in church and school and on borrowings from the Plautdietsch. "Pennsylvania Dutch" is the approximate "Swiss" American equivalent of the Russian Mennonite Plautdietsch, reflecting the origins and history in several upper German dialects (Swiss, Alsatian, Palatine, even Dutch) of the early Mennonite immigrants to the American colonies. In some situations Mennonites adapted more quickly than in others and some groups and "churches" shifted more rapidly than others, but in general it may be said that change has been slow and language retention has been high in Mennonite groups, relative to other ethnic and linguistic communities.

The classic texts peculiar to the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition were written in German, beginning with the letter of Conrad Grebel and his friends to Thomas Müntzer (1524), the Schleitheim Confession (1527), the mystical writings of Hans Denck, the treatises of Pilgram Marpeck and Menno Simons, and the texts collected in the Ausbund hymnal and the Martyrs Mirror. Dutch classics like The Wandering Soul by Jan Philipsz Schabaelje and The Way to the City of Peace by Pieter Pietersz (1574-1651) became popular in German editions, as did Menno's writings. The influence of Pietism enters into the Mennonite vocabulary in the sermons and devotional literature of Jakob Denner and J.H. Jung-Stilling, (Das Heimweh). Several of these standard Mennonite works were first published in America in the German language. Historically perceptive works of fiction, like Sara Stambaugh's I Hear the Reaper's Song (1985) preserve memories of a past in which formal "High German" as well as "Dutch" had a place in Mennonite social and religious communal life in Pennsylvania, Ontario, Virginia and midwestern states. As in the case of the Russian Mennonites, formal "High German" was the church language, while the dialect, which unlike Plautdietsch was of High German linguistic stock, was used in common parlance.

German Language since 1960

Due largely to the resettlement of the Umsiedler from the Soviet Union and some returnees from South America, the number of Mennonites in Germany who use standard German as a matter of course has grown to ca. 11,000 as of 1986. These groups have their own German language publications, among them the traditional Mennonitische Blätter (founded 1854 in Danzig, merged with Gemeinde Unterwegs to create Die Brücke in 1986), but these do not project greatly into the non-German Mennonite world.

German-speaking Mennonites in the Soviet Union made greater efforts to preserve their language#8212;together with their faith—than their North American counterparts, since for many of them this was clearly seen as a key to preserving their identity as a group. After 1956, when a certain freedom of movement was again permitted, many "Germans," including Lutheran, Catholics, Baptists, and Mennonites, moved to places where they could congregate as a linguistic and religious community (e.g., the German Mennonite Brethren Church in Karaganda, which however dropped "German" from its name in 1967.) In recent decades a German subculture developed in centers like Alma Ata, Kazakhstan, to which writers of Mennonite background contributed along with others of German background. Their chief organ was Neues Leben, a literary paper published in Moscow, and, beginning in 1984, a literary journal called Heimatliche Weiten. Works by writers of varying ideological stripe but of Mennonite background can be found in these periodicals.

In North America settlers who came to Canada and the USA in the 1920s, such as Arnold Dyck and Gerhard Friesen, produced an immigrant literature in German , unlike their predecessors of the 1870s, who took an inward-looking stance linguistically. The importance of the later generation of pioneer writers, including also J. H. Janzen, Peter J. Klassen, Gerhard Loewen, and others, was only recognized later when German had been for the most part abandoned by the institutional church and for general use. German worship services have been continued for the older generation where appropriate, just as the German papers, Mennonitische Rundschau and Der Bote still supply a remnant of the Mennonite population with reading material. Plautdietsch continues to find some colloquial use and has been rediscovered for literary purposes, following the example of Arnold Dyck. The impetus for German language preservation has shifted from the churches to other institutions, such   as societies for the preservation of "heritage languages" and lobbyist groups (e.g., the German-Canadian Congress, and, specifically, Manitoba Parents for German Education), which are strongly supported by Mennonites. A 1986 study showed that about 50 percent of Canadian Mennonites retained High German and/or Low German skills, while the use of Pennsylvania Dutch in Ontario had almost been lost except among Old Order Mennonites and Amish. In the eastern and midwestern United States traces of the older languages, both High German and dialects, are seen mainly in literature, art, and folklore and in the continuing use of German hymnals and sermons by Old Order and Amish groups. More recent immigrants in Kansas, Nebraska and California also show proficiency in both High and Low German, but little is being done to counteract the erosion of this language.

German is still used in the Mennonite settlements in Mexico and Central America, where a conservative orientation ensures language retention but also limits language use to utilitarian and religious purposes. W. Schmiedehaus paints a bleak picture of the present and future in respect of the Old Colony schools and language teaching in particular.

In South America German is still in active use, although movement of German speakers into Portuguese and Spanish urban areas is having the same effects as the urbanization of North American Mennonites. The Paraguayan Mennonite colonies are able to ensure retention of both High and Low German within their communities. In both North and South America the German-speaking countries of Europe, especially the Federal Republic of Germany, have invested substantial resources to encourage and preserve the German language and Mennonites have not been reluctant to avail themselves of this help. Thus, while the earlier view, which saw a necessary connection between faith and language has largely been overcome, the underlying attachment to the original "mother tongue," whether High or Low German, is still much in evidence.

For most Mennonites of the 1980s, who do not live in a viable German linguistic community, the German language has become a thing of the past. This has meant for some that High German is at best a literary language, learned at school and perhaps used for academic, artistic, or professional purposes. In the case of Plautdietsch attempts have been made to retard its loss by regularizing its individualistic orthography and publishing the Mennonite classics of Arnold Dyck and other authors. Some writers, like Rudy Wiebe and Armin Wiebe, have made effective use of Plautdietsch in their English novels, the latter by inventive translations of the dialect idiom (referred to as "Flat German") into a comic context not too different from that created by Arnold Dyck in his Koop en Bua stories.

See also Acculturation; Dialect, Literature and Speech, Low German


Driedger, Leo and Peter Hengstenberg. "Non-official Multilingualism: Factors Affecting German Language Competence, Use and Maintenance in Canada." Canadian Ethnic Studies 18 (1986): 90-109.

Loewen, Jacob A."The German Language, Culture and Faith." Unpubl. ms. 1986.

Thiessen, John. Studien zum Wortschatz der kanadischen Mennoniten. Marburg: Elwart, 1963.

Schmiedehaus, Walter. Die Altkolonier-Mennoniten in Mexiko. Winnipeg: CMBC Publications; Steinbach, Mennonitische Post, 1982.

Wells, C. J. German: A Linguistic History to 1945. Oxford, 1985.

Wiebe, Armin.  The Salvation of Yasch Siemens. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1984.

Author(s) Victor G Doerksen
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

MLA style

Doerksen, Victor G. "German Language." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 4 Aug 2021.

APA style

Doerksen, Victor G. (1990). German Language. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 4 August 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 338-340. All rights reserved.

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