Debunking some Speech Myths
The Amish don’t use ‘thee’, ‘thine’, or ‘thou’, as you might think after watching Weird Al’s video.
Neither do they speak like Alexander Godunov or Jan Rubes did in Witness. Check that, at least one Amishman today does–but he was born in Germany and converted to the faith in his 20’s.
They mostly speak English like any rural Americans would. Though you could say there is such a thing as an Amish accent, including some peculiar turns of phrase and pronunciation…
It often varies by region. Illinois Amish have a funny way of saying ‘Iowa.’ It comes out ‘Io-way.’
Amish i’s often go long when they’re not supposed to. Some Michigan Amish once told me about their ‘favo-right’ music.
Amish i’s also become long e’s. ‘Six’ sounds like ‘seex’. ‘Mischief’ is spoken ‘mis-cheef’.
The word ‘anymore’ gets used in puzzling ways. It seems to substitute for ‘nowadays’, or ‘lately’, as in, “anymore, it’s hard to find a good vet around here.”
Sara E. Fisher and Rachel K. Stahl, authors of The Amish School, excerpt a letter from The Blackboard Bulletin, a periodical for Amish teachers. The writer speaks of being frustrated at finding out that she has been pronouncing a word incorrectly for many years, asking ‘if we go to a school where an Amish teacher…doesn’t pronounce the words correctly either, how are we supposed to learn better?’
In reality it’s actually somewhat charming, probably in the same way that an American that is 99% fluent in a foreign language might amuse a native listener with a slightly odd turn of speech. It reflects nothing on the general Amish level of education, which, while only going through the 8th grade, is sufficient for the typical Amish way of life.
Amish schools do their job well. Brad Igou includes a Family Life editor’s letter in The Amish in their Own Words which describes a University of Michigan study of Amish parochial schools. In it, the parochial schools get the best marks out of the five categories tested.
English is a second language for the Amish. Amongst themselves, they speak an oral dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch or Pennsylvania German. The Amish can communicate perfectly in English, or very close to it. Occasionally an Amishman will stop in the middle of speaking and search for a word, often apologizing that he could say it better in German.
Most Amish children learn English when they first go to school, though some pick it up while still at home. This also varies by settlement and how often the kids are around English speakers. Business owners’ ‘pre-scholars’ are often among the best at English, especially if their father has a lot of English clients.
And finally, Pennsylvania Dutch has little to do with what they speak in the Netherlands. Although there is some uncertainty over the origin of the term, the ‘Dutch’ description has traditionally been considered an Anglicized version of ‘Deutsch’.
Interesting blog! 🙂
The “thee” and “thy” confusion is older than the Weird Al song, however; it probably originated several centuries ago when new Amish communities were established near plain-dressing, plain-speaking Quaker communities in Pennsylvania.
That’s interesting Laura, I’d never heard that before.
Thanks for reading! (:
I’ve just found your blog recently, and I am enjoying it. I realize I have some of the books you show in the sidebar.
I can say though, being from Illinois, that the “anymore” speech pattern seems to happen all over the state, including in Chicago. I say it myself, which amuses my friends from elsewhere!
Hi itazurakko, glad you like it–I have also heard ‘anymore’ from non-Amish as well, it just seemed to show up a bit more
whenever I sell books among the Amish I find myself unintentionally starting to mimic their English speech patterns just a tad, at least the way they pronounce a bit. it’s funny when I catch myself. I guess it’s the same when I’m in the South, or in Europe–accent gets more ‘southern’ or ‘flat’ accordingly.
They are speaking English – rather than American English 😀