Mark Louden is a linguist, educator, and author of Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language. Mark recently answered some questions on Pennsylvania Dutch. We’ve got that interview for you today, plus a chance to win a copy of his book (the contest has now ended – you can find the winner here).

If you’ve ever wondered about things like how close PA Dutch is to the German spoken in Europe today, differences in how it’s spoken in different Amish communities, and just what is “Dutchified” English, you should enjoy this one.

Mark L. Louden

Mark currently serves as Alfred L. Shoemaker, J. William Frey, and Don Yoder Professor of Germanic Linguistics at the University of Wisconsin. Among his various projects, Mark does interpretation, translation and cultural mediation between Pennsylvania Dutch and English.

This has been an important service especially in cases when Amish have appeared in court. I first heard of the need for this during the SMV triangle cases in Kentucky several years back.

Mark also runs the website padutch.net, dedicated to the Pennsylvania Dutch language, where you can find a variety of resources including texts, grammar, and recordings (here’s one of an Amish speaker discussing making maple syrup). The materials on the site also support the ongoing Pennsylvania Dutch Documentation Project.

Mark has a deep experience with Pennsylvania Dutch, spoken today most prominently by the Old Order Amish, and has a wealth of knowledge on this language. I hope you enjoy today’s Q-and-A.

Win a copy of Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language

You can also win a copy of Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language.

How? Simply leave a comment on this post.

We’ll draw a winner at random and announce it here next week.

Q-and-A with Mark Louden on Pennsylvania Dutch

Amish America: What is your background as far as Pennsylvania Dutch goes? How did you come to know the language, and what is your involvement with it today?

Mark Louden: Thirty-three years ago, in February of 1985, I visited an Amish church service for the first time. This was in upstate New York, where I was in graduate school. At that time I was looking for a spiritual home and curious about how the Amish lived out their faith.

I met a family who lived in the Romulus Amish community, and they invited me to church. Because I knew German, everyone assumed I could understand PA Dutch, so they only spoke that language to me, which was a great way to pick it up. About six months later, I met an Old Order Mennonite couple from the Penn Yan area and started attending services there, too.

Over the next three years, I became more and more involved in Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities in New York and in Lancaster, PA, where many families had moved from. I taught singing school for Old Order Mennonite youth for two summers in PA Dutch and also learned to lead the singing in Amish services.

In 1988, I moved to Austin, TX, to begin my career as a German professor and became involved with the Amish community that was at that time located near Gonzales. I moved onto a ranch in that community that was operated by an Amish family and lived there until I got my present job at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I was eventually baptized at Milwaukee Mennonite Church, where I am a member today. Our church is all English-speaking, but I have close ties to many Amish communities here in Wisconsin and attend services from time to time.

Is Pennsylvania Dutch a dialect or language?

Mark: There are no scientific criteria to distinguish between “languages” and “dialects.” The labels are often arbitrary, depending on what speakers prefer. Contrary to popular stereotypes, there is no difference in complexity between languages and dialects, all are rich systems of communication that meet the needs of their users.

Most speakers of PA Dutch refer to it as a dialect of German because it is mainly spoken and not subject to prescriptive norms of usage as German and other standardized languages are. But in PA Dutch itself, there is no distinction made between languages and dialects; the word Schprooch is used to describe both. My personal preference is to call PA Dutch a language because of its independence from German.

Amish schoolchildren, Lancaster County. Photo by Ed

Why do we have this term “Dutch” for a German-rooted people and language? To what degree is the term “Pennsylvania German” used?

Mark: Both Pennsylvania Dutch and Pennsylvania German are correct. In the 18th century, when German speakers immigrated to Pennsylvania, the words Dutch and German were both used in English to refer to what we call “German” today. Dutch was the older and more familiar word, while German was a more formal borrowing from Latin.

The words Dutch and deutsch (‘German’) come from a common Germanic source, but Dutch is not derived from deutsch; they are linguistic cousins. The PA Dutch founding population was made up of mostly farmers and rural craftspeople, so Dutch was a more appropriate way to refer to them than German, the term preferred by city folk.

Today, Pennsylvania German is used mainly by scholars and others who want to stress the kinship between PA Dutch and German. Most speakers themselves prefer Pennsylvania Dutch.

What differences in PA Dutch exist across communities, for instance across Amish communities, or in usage by Amish vs. Mennonites?

Mark: All varieties of PA Dutch are completely mutually intelligible, but there are differences, mainly in vocabulary, depending on the region and the social or religious group to which a speaker belongs. Into the 20th century, most PA Dutch speakers were not Amish or Mennonites (“plain people” or “sectarians”), but “church people” (“nonsectarians”) whose ancestors were affiliated mainly with Lutheran and Reformed churches.

In Pennsylvania, plain people were concentrated more in Lancaster County, while church people were more numerous in Berks and Lehigh counties. Differences between these two groups reflect a general pattern of lexical variation between western and eastern counties in the PA Dutch heartland.

Within the plain community, there are some vocabulary differences between Amish and Mennonites, e.g., Wammes vs. Rock for ‘coat’, and among Amish, there are differences in the speech of Amish from or with ties to Lancaster County and “western” Amish, most of whom have a historic connection to Ohio.

One big difference between Lancaster variety and those spoken by Midwestern Amish is the pronunciation of the vowel in a word like deitsch (‘PA Dutch, German). In the Lancaster variety, the vowel rhymes with eye, while Midwestern Amish pronounce it more like the vowel in English badge.

mennonites old order

Old Order Mennonites in Ontario. Photo by Wen Zhang

How well would an Amish PA Dutch speaker be understood in German-speaking areas of Europe?

Mark: That depends on the region. PA Dutch is most closely related to German dialects of the Palatinate (Pfalz), in southwestern Germany, so speakers of Palatine German (Pfälzisch) will recognize many similarities. But nearly three centuries of separation between PA Dutch speakers and Europe has meant that the languages on both sides of the Atlantic have diverged from one another quite a bit.

To what degree has English influenced this language?

Mark: From the start, essentially all PA Dutch speakers were bilingual to some degree, so English has left its imprint on the language, but pretty much just in the area of vocabulary.

The basic grammar of PA Dutch remains strongly Palatine German. There are four major types of English influence on PA Dutch vocabulary: words that are borrowed completely from English, e.g., Fens ‘fence’; partial borrowings, e.g., Kascheboi ‘cherry pie’ (Boi is pie adapted to PA Dutch pronunciation); Palatine German words that have shifted their meaning to match English, e.g., gleiche ’to like’; and literal translations of English words and expressions, e.g., uffgucke ’to look up (something)’.

Taking all four types of English influence together, still only about 20% of PA Dutch vocabulary is derived from or influenced by English. Standard German, for example, owes between a quarter to one-third of its words to other languages, especially French and Latin, so PA Dutch is actually a “purer” Germanic language than German is.

What is “Dutchified English”? Can you share a few examples?

Mark: Although PA Dutch speakers have always been bilingual, they often were more proficient in PA Dutch, which meant that they sometimes spoke English with a “Dutchy” accent.

For example, Joe would be pronounced like cho, zipper like sipper, eyes like ice, etc. And sometimes they would translate whole expressions from PA Dutch into English, such as Make the light out (Mach’s Licht aus).

So there is some truth to the phenomenon of “Dutchified English,” but a lot of what is passed off as such, especially in items sold to tourists, is fanciful, expressions like Throw Johnny down the stairs his hat. That sentences like this are made up is demonstrated by the fact that if you translate them back into PA Dutch, they are just as nonsensical. Today, the great majority of PA Dutch speakers are equally proficient in both English and PA Dutch.

Examples of (mostly fanciful?) “Dutchified English” Photo by Seven Morris

Is Pennsylvania Dutch written down? Among the Amish, isn’t the vast majority of correspondence carried out in English?

Mark: Going back to the early 1800s, native speakers of PA Dutch would on occasion write their language down, but literacy in PA Dutch has always been exceptional. This is mainly because the schools that PA Dutch children attended were either conducted in German or, since the later 1800s, English.

Amish and Old Order Mennonite parochial schools use English as the sole medium of instruction, and some teachers require that it be used at recess as well. Most schools also teach German as a subject, since that is the language of the Luther Bible and their devotional materials.

There is a fairly large body of literature in PA Dutch, especially from the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th, which was written mainly by nonsectarians. Some plain people today read and write PA Dutch actively, and in 2013, a PA Dutch translation of the Bible, Di Heilich Shrift, was completed.

We know how this language is thriving among Amish and Mennonites, but how many nonsectarians are speaking the language today? What caused this decline among non-Amish/Mennonites? Do you think it is going to die out among these people?

Mark: There are perhaps several thousand nonsectarian speakers of PA Dutch still living today, almost all of whom are in rural Pennsylvania, but almost all fluent speakers are elderly.

Continued use of PA Dutch has always correlated with a rural lifestyle, relatively limited social and geographic mobility, and especially marrying within the PA Dutch–speaking community. As far back as the early 1800s, PA Dutch speakers who moved into towns and cities, entered the professions, or married English monolinguals typically shifted to speaking English only. That trend accelerated among nonsectarians in the early 20th century, as all Americans became more mobile and the relative isolation of rural areas decreased.

That’s why there are many so-called heritage languages in the US like nonsectarian PA Dutch—such as Cajun French in Louisiana, and most Native American languages—that are in danger of losing their native speakers. The Old Orders very intentionally maintain a measure of social and geographic distance between themselves and the larger society, which enables them to “keep Dutch.” They are likely to be the sole speakers of PA Dutch within the next few decades.

What are one or two interesting or surprising things that people might not know about PA Dutch?

Mark: There is no other language in the world, large or small, that is growing faster than PA Dutch, which is due to the exponential growth of the Old Orders.

The only other languages in this small club are also spoken by highly traditional religious groups: Hutterisch/Hutterite German (Hutterites), Plautdietsch/Mennonite Low German (Old Colony Mennonites), Shwitzer/Amish Swiss German (Swiss Amish), and Yiddish (Hasidim). These groups are all similar to the Amish and Old Order Mennonites in having many children and children who make the decision as young adults to join or remain in their community.


Get a copy of Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language

You can get a copy of Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language via Mark’s website padutch.net, at a 30% discount (better than via Amazon). Here’s the link for that deal.