Where does the “Dutch” in “Pennsylvania Dutch” REALLY come from?

Visit the larger tourist-friendly Amish communities, and you’ll find the label “Pennsylvania Dutch” or just “Dutch”, and variations of it, everywhere.

Amish use the term as well, for instance in the names of their businesses, or in nicknames. But where does this term come from?

When you hear “Dutch” in a vacuum, the Netherlands (or Holland) invariably come to mind. And some accounts mistakenly have the connection having something to do with the place in Europe.

This false connection is what a lot of the Amish tourist industry has played upon, at least in the earlier days, with European Dutch-style windmill imagery and the like.

Dutch Haven, Lancaster County, PA. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The more widely spread idea is that it is simply a mistranslation of “Deutsch”, meaning German (I used to think this was the case). But that’s not really it either.

Mark Louden sheds light on where the term really comes from in his book Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language. This is from page 2 (also covered in the video below):

Contrary to a popular belief among both nonscholars and scholars, though, the Dutch in Pennsylvania Dutch is not a historical mistranslation of the native word Deitsch, as originally pointed out by Don Yoder. Although the words Deitsch and Dutch do share a common Germanic etymology, both German and Dutch were used in earlier American English to mean ‘German’. The two synonyms differed in terms of formality. The word German, which was borrowed from Latin, traditionally had a neutral or formal connotation, while Dutch was used in more familiar and informal (“folksier”) contexts. Since most active Pennsylvania Dutch speakers have historically been farmers, craftspeople, and laborers, it is understandable that Dutch has been their label of choice.

Mark Louden also describes a second reason for the term’s enduring. Most ancestors of the Pennsylvania Dutch arrived in the first half of the 18th century – as opposed to more culturally distant Germans who started coming to America in the 19th century.

He explains that the earlier group called the 19th-century arrivals by the term Deitschlenner (‘Germany people’), and notes that, “for their part, most Deitschlenner likewise felt little kinship with the Pennsylvania Dutch” (page 3). So the term reflects this cultural distance between the two groups.

The Revised Pennsylvania German Dictionary by C. Richard Beam

Of course, “Pennsylvania Dutch” refers to both the people, and the language (along with its synonym Pennsylvania German). At the end of the video I also share an interesting footnote from the book – about how Amish who speak Pennsylvania Dutch communicate with a minority of Amish who speak a Swiss dialect. From page 376, footnote 22:

There is a subgroup of Old Order Amish whose ancestors came to America from Switzerland and Alsace in the early nineteenth century and who still speak a form of Bernese Swiss German. Many of these “Swiss Amish”, a number of whom live near the eastern Indiana town of Berne, also speak Pennsylvania Dutch, but they often resort to English when communicating with Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking Amish, since Amish Swiss German and Pennsylvania Dutch are not mutually intelligible.

So that’s an interesting thought – two Amish people resorting to English because they don’t understand each other’s German.

Watch the video version below (Runtime: 2:49). If you’re interested in the topic I also recommend this 2018 Q-and-A we did with Mark on Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language.

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    10 Comments

    1. Thanks for the History Lesson

      Hello Erik, thanks for the history lesson. Jim

      1. Glad you liked it Jim. Hope to share some more from Mark Louden on this topic at some point.

    2. Jackie Mineo

      Swiss Amish

      Yes, In Central NY I was witness to a “swiss” Amish young man courting a daughter of a more german/dutch speaking Amish family. He explained the interesting circumstance of the language barrier but no real problem to the relationship.

    3. Central Virginian

      Interesting!

      I grew up bilingual and still speak and understand German, but the Amish dialect is quite different than modern mainstream German. I can understand, but very slowly and it takes some effort.

    4. Leana A Mari

      What I heard

      There is a youtube channel and I can’t remember what it is called now, but it was about Amish issues, some were leaving the Amish and going into society but in a more ‘Amish’ way, another topic was spiritual revival among the Amish, their way of life, etc. Well there was a history lesson series as well and what I recall goes as follows.
      It began in Switzerland as there was a spiritual revival and they practiced adult baptism and that sort of thing. They were ostracized and began meeting in private and secret. They became persecuted and ended up farming land to survive in their own community outside of the city, much like preppers do today. Eventually they came to America for religious freedom and settled first in Pennsylvania. There are many branches and for the most part the religious practice seems rather ‘stuffy’ at this point in general and not what it started out as, but that is the pattern. It follows the same path as many during the Reformation under persecution, and like the Pilgrims who left England to come to America for religious freedom. Many of these had a similar plight.
      Well at this point in our history, people like me are going to need to start looking for another continent…. again!
      😉

    5. Kensi Blonde

      Swiss

      Thanks. My grandmother is “Pennsylvania Dutch” she was born in Bethlehem PA and is Moravian but only speaks English. My ancestry chart shows the expected German but I also have a bit of Swiss. I’d been wondering where that came from. Probably her!

    6. Fritz Fischer

      Bernese Diealect

      The Germans from further north still don’t understand us when we speak Bernese, which sometimes has its advantages 🙂

    7. Arthur Mabee Jr

      Regarding the word “Dutch”

      Erik,
      This is an explanation and very good lesson on the
      History of Pennsylvania Dutch, there is many interpretations
      to the truth about why it’s called Dutch. I know some
      Very old order Amish being Swartzentruber friends
      that differ some. I asked a Bishop friend of mine that
      Explained this to me 6 years ago: He told me that it
      Is German pronounced deutch with an American standard
      Dutch, just like the Pennsylvania Dutch language spoken.
      In older order German, for the pronounce of their land:
      Bunders republik Of Detuchland back 20 years ago.
      If you said that today to someone in the younger generation,
      They would not understand, and give you a funny look.
      I speak German fluent “iche spreaken sie gosse deutche”
      That is old german, newer german people give you
      A funny look lol.
      In any event this is a great history lesson Erik,
      Keep up the great work brother!
      Brother,
      Arthur

      1. Thank you Arthur. Yes that’s the explanation I had heard before too. There are still some etymology questions here, and going off the info I shared here, one question would be when and how did “Dutch” start being used as a synonym for “German” in that earlier American English that Mark Louden references – and how that came about. Maybe it was a mispronunciation or maybe it had another origin. And maybe the answer to that is unknown. Either way, I’m still curious. Glad you liked the vid!

    8. Central Virginian

      Deutsch/Dutch

      Per the post, “both German and Dutch were used in earlier American English to mean ‘German’. ”
      Even though the switch from Deutsch to Dutch may not have occurred later, it seems that at some point applying Dutch to German also, it likely came from using the word Deutsch in spoken English to refer to Germans.