How different are High German and the everyday language of the Amish*, Pennsylvania German (aka Pennsylvania Dutch)?

In today’s video, a High German speaker converses with three Amish people – first Menno Petersheim of Shipshewana, IN, then Ivan and Ruth Chupp of Burr Oak, MI.

You can see how well they are able to understand one another, and follow along thanks to the English subtitles.

The High German speaker, Joseph Michaels, describes the experience:

While growing up in the Midwest, I would see the Amish now and again. I was under the preconceived notion that they were standoffish, but I never really tried to talk with them.

In August 2015, I met with the Amish to see if we could understand each other’s German; I speak High German, the form spoken by most in Germany, and they speak a mixture of an old dialect of German or Swiss German with many English words thrown in. I was not allowed to film them – just record their voices. I have included pictures that I found online, with the exception of the first four in the second conversation with Ivan and Ruth Chupp, which are pictures taken during the visit. You can see what their store looks like and what they sell.

Although we could understand each other relatively well, the conversation was not always easy. I have added subtitles for what I can understand. Otherwise, you will see question marks.

Even if you know nothing of German you can see that there are distinct differences between the speech here, and some trouble understanding at points.

The Amish do have a command of High German as this is the language of church, so that must have helped the flow of talk here. You’ll also hear some English words in the mix from the Amish speakers, as is typical.

*The everyday Amish tongue varies as well across regions (e.g., in Lancaster County vs. the Midwest), and a minority of Amish – the “Swiss” Amish – speak a different variety of German which can be difficult for other Amish to understand.

A commenter on the video, who was born into an Amish family, adds:

The first minute in this video is quite humorous. The German speaker is on one level, and the Amish man is on another level. Both are trying to figure out what the other is saying, but there was enough connection in the communication that things kept going, LOL. I had more fun with the first character because he had more Pennsylvania Dutch in his conversation. The second group had quite a bit of English in it.

He admits that he has lost a lot of the language, but has some interesting comments illustrating those regional differences:

By age nine, I was practically fluent in spoken English, and so by age 10, I would have been conversationally bi-lingual in two languages. But, at age 42, I’ve lost so much Pennsylvania Dutch, I don’t know how to say where I’m at with Pennsylvania Dutch.

When I listen to Pennsylvania Dutch from a new area, there are a number of difficulties. For example, back about 7 years, I was in Pennsylvania, and I ran into an Amish man. When he asked me what my name was, he didn’t say it how Pennsylvania Dutch would sound in Fredericktown, Ohio, and so, I didn’t know at all what he was asking me. Then, he reverts to English, and it looked like I didn’t understand Pennsylvania Dutch. Most of the time, the different areas of Amish in America just say words differently, as opposed to having new grammar, but that Amish man in Pennsylvania took me for a loop.

In 2005, I visited the Amish church that we went to back there in the early 80’s. Wow, so much of that preaching just flew right by. I could follow the first preacher easier, and then a preacher from another area preached and I probably missed most of what he said.

Amish formal education is abbreviated compared to standard American learning.

But the Amish do have one thing most Americans don’t – a command of multiple languages.

The estimated percentage of people in the US who are bilingual is around just 20%. If you add High German, this gives the Amish a third language.

Image credit: Amish women speaking – Harold/flickr

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