The Amish of America speak a hybrid dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch or Pennsylvania German. It is a Germanic language with a good amount of English mixed in.
If you sit and listen to two Amish speaking, you may be surprised that what seems like every fifth or tenth or twentieth word is actually English. Occasionally you find you can sort of follow along as they speak.
PA Dutch is a largely unwritten language. When the Amish write notes and letters to one another, they usually use English.
But the typical Amish child will not speak much or any English until he or she reaches school age. PA Dutch is the first language they learn as toddlers, and the language that most Amish are most comfortable conversing in. Once in school, the teacher, who is almost always Amish, teaches the children English, and all lessons are held using English as a base language.
In fact, many if not most Amish are actually trilingual, because in addition to English and ‘Dutch’, they speak and understand High German, which is the language their Bibles are written in and the language typically used in their church services.
The Amish are not the only ones who have been known to speak PA German, though they are the largest group. Speakers of the dialect, including Mennonites and non-Amish, have been found historically in the southeastern region of Pennsylvania, as well as in the Shenandoah valley region stretching south through Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina.
The three languages of the Amish
- The Amish language is used at home and day-to-day life.
- In church they use Hochdeitsch or high German.
- While the English language is taught for business purposes and to interact with outsiders.
Amish linguistic tree
One of the things I like about the language of the Pennsylvania Dutch, spoken by 281,675 people. Actually close to 400,000 if you define it broader. The linguistic tree looks something like this:
Indo-European -> Germanic -> West Germanic -> High German -> West Central German -> Pennsylvania German.
The actual PADutch word for their own language is Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch, although some Mennonites speakers actually speak, Plautdietsch or Low German. It is also similar to Alemannic German a dialect on the Rhine and even Switzerland.
Palatinate German which is spoken by 2.4 million South West Germans in Europe is linguistically related to the Amish language and they are mutually understandable, but at times challenging. A lot of people forget that, Europe is all about dialects, like American is about regional accents.
Of course it is not really directly related to Dutch, rather it is a folk rendering of the German endonym ‘Deitsch’ which of course sounds like Deutsch, which is the modern German word for their own people. You can see how the word changed historically in English once it got into American English-speaking conversations through the years.
The Amish language has evolved over 300 years in America. There are even regional variations between the Ohio and Lancaster county speakers.
How does PA Dutch sound like?
It sounds l German English. When listening the English speaker can almost understand it without any knowledge if spoken in a plain context.
You can listen here: the sound of Pennsylvania Dutch
When the Amish speak English they have a ‘Dutchfied’ accent and sometimes hard to understand if you are not accustomed to this accent. I think it sounds quite nice.
Amish immigration waves and vocabulary
The Amish came in two waves. The 17th and early 18th century and the middle of the 19th century.
Both groups came from Southern Germany, Eastern France and Switzerland. However, the timing of the immigration is key.
The first wave settled in Pennsylvania. The second wave settled in Ohio and Indiana. The difference is the second wave came with German vocabulary rich in industrial and technology words. While the first wave that settle in Pennsylvania use load words in English to describe things like electricity and telephone. Therefore you have a divergence in the Amish lexicon in America.
The Written language
Not really a written language but people do write it. There is actually an Amish publisher called Pathway Publishing Company and bulletin newspapers.
The IPA or the International Phonetic Alphabet is useless. I taught languages for years and never used it once. It is archaic and for academics and only adds to the confusion. Better is simply get an mp3 of the words. Phonetically Pennsylvania Dutch is like English and you can sound out the words. This is because one thousand years ago Old German and Old English were basically the same language. I know this is a simplification but English is a Germanic language.
What does Pennsylvania German grammar look like?
There are four cases where nouns and pronouns change. If you do not know what a case is (because they are not prevalent in English) consider this example. ‘She’ is my girlfriend. I date ‘her’. Note how the pronoun ‘she’ changes to ‘her’ because it changes the context or case which it is use. In this sentence it chances from the nominative to the accusative.
Well in a case base language all nouns and pronouns could take different forms. However, these changes, like in German are pretty regular.
One importance I would underline in Pennsylvania German is the robust grammar around plurals.
What if you spoke Amish
Can you imagine the surprise of an Amish person if an Englisher starts to speak Pennsylvania Dutch in the market. I experienced this when I was in Poland and would start to speak Polish on the street to people. Since few foreigners spoke their language I was welcomed and seen as maybe not one of them but accepted in a positive different way.
If you spoke even a few words and phrases of the Amish language, then you would have a rapport and insight into their culture beyond an average tourist to Amishland.
Why learn the Amish language?
You could use the language:
- In the market or in a local Amish shop.
- At the Inn in Amishland.
- A cordial rapport when, for example talking about the weather.
- If you are reading Amish fiction and the author sprinkles in these Pennsylvania Dutch words.
- To exercises your brain in a unique way, better than crossword puzzles or Sudoku.
- Confidence builder, even if you are not good with languages there are so many free vocabulary words because of its proximity to English, you will make progress.
- Practically you could go to Germany and use it with Millions in parts where there is dialect similarity. Perhaps you might sound to the Germans or Swiss, like a you were speaking in an old fashion way, like Shakespearean English, would sound to us, but you could be understood. I think it would be marvelous.
- If you wanted to write a letter to an Amish person for a rapport (although it is primarily a spoken language)..
- If you wanted to take on a more serious interest in Amish ways.
- If you have ever thought of joining the Amish.
- For the pleasure of it.
There are other reasons, but I personally and trying to learn a little. It is an interesting part of our culture and I am a native of Pennsylvania.
Etymology of the word Amish
The Amish come from the Anabaptist movement, which ‘means to be baptized again’. And Amish come from Jakob Ammann a Swiss brethren Mennonite leader.
Is the Amish language is becoming diluted away?
On one hand, the Amish community is the fastest growing subculture in the Americas. On the other hand, it is being diluted with English with younger generation. Bilingualism is the norm. The good news is it is not and endanger language, rather it is evolving. With the sparse use of technology you have a unique linguistic laboratory.
External linguistic Amish resources
- Erik Wesner is an expert on the Amish.. Erik even has a real live Amish man sometimes answering questions, I think he has a computer hidden in his barn or something, really. Go here Pennsylvania Dutch in Amish land.
Let me know if you need more information on the language and I will be creating an MP3 program soon that teaches it and it will be professional.