Language Problem

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Problems caused by language have repeatedly arisen among the Mennonites because of their migrations from one language-and-culture area to another, often because of persecution, but at times also of a desire for economic betterment. The maintenance of the language of the motherland has aided in maintaining separation from the surrounding culture in the new homeland and thus strengthened the sense of nonconformity to the world. This has often made it easier to maintain the distinctive Mennonite principles and intensify the feeling of group solidarity. On the other hand, the language breach has usually prevented a program of active evangelism and outreach, and has imposed a necessary system of private or parochial schools. As long as the breach with the surrounding culture and language was complete and continuous, problems of adjustment, either of the group with the outside world, or of individuals to individuals within the group, seldom arose. However, when the breach has been only partial, or when individuals or a subgroup within the larger group become wholly or partially assimilated to the "outside" language, serious problems of internal adjustment have arisen. At times this has been a problem of adjustment between the generations, so that youth has come into conflict with age, and usually large numbers of the youth have been lost to the group and its faith and way of life. At other times factionalism has arisen, resulting in serious schisms. Conservative groups attempting to hold the language line have died out because of failure to adjust to the new environment. Successful maintenance of small language enclaves detached from any larger language culture body has resulted in cultural and intellectual impoverishment, frequently with attendant religious losses. The battle to maintain the language has usually been fought with religious sanctions which have at times gone to the extreme of claims of higher spiritual values for the mother tongue as compared with the new tongue and of forfeiture of group principles and even faith in God in case of surrender of the language. Usually the transition from one language to another has required two or more generations of confusion and turmoil with considerable loss of membership en route, as well as the diversion of much energy from constructive work. The effect in literary production and consumption by the group is also usually very detrimental.

The following cases of serious problems caused by language transition may be noted: (1) Dutch to German for the Anabaptist-Mennonite refugees from Holland settling in northwest Germany (Emden, Krefeld, Hamburg, Lübeck) and the area of East and West Prussia (Danzig, Elbing, Königsberg, Graudenz). The transition was completed everywhere but Emden by the end of the 19th century. (2) German to English for the Mennonite immigrants to Pennsylvania from Switzerland and the Palatinate, Germany, in the 18th century (including daughter settlements in Ontario, Virginia western Pennsylvania, and Ohio). A similar problem faced the immigrants from Switzerland, Alsace, and South Germany to the area west of the Allegheny Mountains as far as Illinois. Both of these immigrant groups made the transition largely in the second half of the 19th century. The stress and strain of the transition, complicated with other factors of course, played a large role in the schisms among the Amish (Old Order Amish) 1850-1880 and the Mennonites (Old Order or Wisler Mennonites 1870-1900). (3) The transition from German to English among the immigrants from Russia to the prairie states and provinces (1874-1888). In the United States this transition occurred in the first quarter of the 20th century. In Canada it is still in progress in the mid-20th century, where it was delayed and intensified by the arrival of very large further contingents of immigrants from Russia in 1922-1925, 1930-1932, and 1947-1950, and was then approaching its most intense phase.

Other cases of language problems are: (1) the Swiss Mennonite German-speaking enclaves in the French-speaking Jura area of the canton of Bern, Switzerland, which though small in quantity is just as serious as in other cases of larger extent. (2) The German-speaking Mennonite communities in inner France, and the less serious but similar situation in Alsace. (3) The German-speaking Mennonite communities established in Paraguay and Uruguay in Spanish language areas, and in Brazil in a Portuguese language area.

The case of the German-speaking Mennonite settlements in Russia is unique. Until after 1920 they, with other German immigrant groups, had been permitted linguistic and cultural as well as religious autonomy, and with the aid of large block settlements, foreign language schools, and cultural superiority, they successfully maintained the German language and avoided cultural deterioration. The attempt of the Czarist government in 1870-1880 to russify these groups contributed heavily to the great emigration to North America at that time. The final destruction of the block settlements and the autonomous Mennonite educational and cultural institutions (1929-1939) thrust Russian Mennonitism into a crisis. The mid-20th generation of Mennonites in Russia then faced the language problem in an acute form. The coming generation would perforce become Russian in language.

A particular case of the language problem was that of the Old Colony Mennonites in Manitoba, who thought they had a governmental guarantee dating from the time of their settlement in 1874-1877, of school and language autonomy. Losing this in the strenuous period of World War I, large blocks immigrated to Mexico and Paraguay, where they were promised school and language autonomy, and where they recreated through block settlement and German schools the desired state of language maintenance. In both areas, however, the Old Colony groups suffered from considerable cultural deterioration.

The language problem has been further complicated for the Mennonites by the maintenance of dialects or sub-languages, e.g., the Plattdeutsch among the Russian Mennonite immigrants in North and South America and the Pennsylvania-Dutch among the Old Order Amish. In such groups where the dialect has displaced the High German, at least relatively, the people have lost almost all touch with the literary German language except Bible reading, and therefore have largely stopped reading serious literature of either religious or secular character, with resulting cultural and religious impoverishment.

Sometimes the theory of the cultural value of using two languages has been propounded to support retention of the "mother tongue." Actually it is probable that only highly intelligent persons who diligently pursue both languages on a literary level profit from this dualism. More common outcomes are the failure to master either language adequately, confusion of vocabulary and ideas, undesirable carryover of idioms from one language to the other (Germanisms in English and Anglicisms in German), and undesirable foreign accents which handicap individuals in their speaking and other expression as they move in public life.

The language problem has often become acute in the pulpit. Without diligent effort few preachers acquire the ability to preach well in a second language after middle age is reached, and they may be unwilling to pay the necessary price to do so. Consequently congregations have suffered in pulpit leadership because of preachers able to use only the older language. With the older generation of members unable or unwilling to accept a new language in the pulpit, they have denied their children and youth the privilege of religious teaching and worship in the new language, the only one which the latter fully comprehend.

Language problems are characteristic of all immigrant religious groups who find themselves in a new and strange language-culture situation. But these problems have been intensified among Mennonites by their distinctive emphasis upon nonconformity and nonresistance.

Author(s) Harold S Bender
Date Published 1957

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MLA style

Bender, Harold S. "Language Problem." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 29 Sep 2023.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. (1957). Language Problem. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 September 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 290-292. All rights reserved.

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