The Pennsylvania Dutch Language
Amish speak a version of German known as Pennsylvania German, or Pennsylvania Dutch. There are some similarities with dialects of German spoken in Europe today, though Pennsylvania Dutch includes numerous English words. Accents and manners of speaking Pennsylvania Dutch can vary between communities.
Language of the Amish
Pennsylvania Dutch is generally not a written language. However, some attempts have been made to transcribe the language to a written form. Dictionaries have been compiled and some books written in the dialect.
Additionally, the so-called “Swiss Amish”, primarily found in Indiana, speak a Swiss dialect which differs from that spoken by the majority of Amish. This can even cause difficulties in understanding between a Swiss-speaking Amishman and one from a PA Dutch language background.
Amish also speak English
When Amish write letters, they do so largely in English, with some occasional use of German possible. Amish use English when conversing with non-Amish individuals, and when doing business with outsiders. Old Order Mennonites speak Pennsylvania Dutch as well, and Amish and Old Order Mennonites will converse in the language. Amish tend to switch to English when non-Amish enter within earshot, out of respect and to involve the others.
Amish learn three languages
Pennsylvania Dutch is the language of the home. It is the first language an Amish child learns. Most Amish children have limited exposure to English before entering first grade. In Amish schools, instruction is in English, along with some classes in High German. Some Amish children become quite proficient at English at a young age. This phenomenon has become more common with the rise of Amish business and greater exposure to the non-Amish world.
Bibles used by Amish are written in High German, and verses read in church are also in High German, as is the Amish songbook, the Ausbund. Proficiency in High German can vary among Amish. It is safe to say that Amish are a bilingual people, with individuals having a varying degree of ability in High German.
Amish language & identity
The Pennsylvania Dutch dialect is not only a means of communication but also seen as important in a symbolic sense. Along with Plain clothing and the horse-and-buggy, it is seen as a marker of the Amish and other Plain people, marking them in contrast with the outside world. Thus the preservation of the Pennsylvania Dutch language is important to the Amish. In some communities there is concern that Pennsylvania Dutch may be falling out of use in favor of English.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What language do the Amish speak?
- Why to Amish people call their dialect “Dutch”?
- Is the dialect Amish speak the same everywhere?
- When do Amish children learn English?
- Do Amish speak High German?
- Do Amish speak English with an accent?
- How can an outsider learn PA Dutch?
What language do the Amish speak?
Amish speak a dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch or Pennsylvania German. It is a German dialect which in its everyday usage often incorporates English words. The dialect is generally not written. It’s spoken in everyday conversation as the primary language of the home, business, and social interaction.
Why do Amish people call their language “Dutch?
It’s not what they speak in Holland.
True. Pennsylvania Dutch is not the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands, though you may have heard Amish people describing what they speak as “Dutch”.
The name of the dialect comes from the name given to the Pennsylvania Dutch people, a larger group of immigrants which included Amish and Mennonites but also many others of other religious persuasions. There are different theories as to why this group of people came to be known as “Dutch”.
Is the language Amish speak the same in all communities?
No. There are differences, for example, between the Pennsylvania Dutch spoken in Lancaster County and in Midwestern settlements like Holmes County, Ohio. Also, the Swiss Amish speak a different dialect which can be difficult for Pennsylvania Dutch speakers to understand.
When do Amish children learn English?
Typically when they enter the first grade, Amish children will get their first formal training in English. However, some Amish children may get exposure to the English language due to their parents’ occupations (eg, jobs involving contact with English clientele) or via non-Amish neighbors and visitors.
Do Amish speak High German?
High German is considered the language of the church. It is not spoken in everyday usage, but Bibles and other religious books are printed and read in High German. Amish children have German lessons in school.
Do Amish speak English with an accent?
In some communities it involves a softening of syllables, such as the word “just” being pronounced more like “chust”. Amish may pronounce certain common words in an unusual manner, such as the word “favorite” being enunciated as “favo-right”. They may also use some unusual phrasings, such as “it wondered me”, instead of “I wondered”.
Some Amish accents are stronger than others, and Amish in different communities and situations will be more and less comfortable communicating in English. Generally, businesspeople who have a lot of exposure to non-Amish people tend to have higher language skills while Amish in plainer, more isolated settlements have weaker English abilities.
Can I learn Pennsylvania Dutch?
Yes. There are a number of resources available to help non-natives learn the language, including books, dictionaries, and at least one course. If you’re curious about the language, you can view some PA Dutch kitchen terms and similar-sounding words.
You can also hear PA Dutch being spoken by a variety of speakers at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures American Languages project.
- Stoltzfus, Lillian. Speaking Amish. Bird-in-Hand, PA: Eckshank Publishing, 2013.
- Kraybill, Donald B., Karen Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt. The Amish. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
- “Group Identity and Language Maintenance: The Survival of Pennsylvania German in Old Order Communities”, Karen Johnson-Weiner, Diachronic Studies on the Languages of the Anabaptists, 1992
- “Community Identity and Language Change in North American Anabaptist Communities”, Karen Johnson-Weiner, Journal of Sociolinguistics 1998 2/3: 375-394
- “Kannst Du Deitsch Schwetza?”, David Luthy, Family Life, July 1975