Pennsylvania Dutch is the native language of the Amish. They speak it in their homes and anywhere they meet. The English language is used anytime an “Englisher” is involved in a conversation, but the moment it’s just Amish conversing, “Dutch” is resumed.
Even though it contains the name “Dutch”, Pennsylvania Dutch has no roots in the Netherlands or its language. The German word “Deutsch”, meaning “German”, is most likely the root of the term.
Its origins reach back to the time before the Amish crossed the Atlantic Ocean to come to America. Let’s explore the roots of the dialect, and discuss the missing word.
Pennsylvania Dutch is derived from the distinct dialect of immigrants from the German Palatinate, located in the Rhine River region. This ancient homeland was a war-ravaged place, and also one of relentless religious persecution. Thousands of Germans from this area immigrated to William Penn’s settlement, Penn-sylvania, in the 18th and 19th centuries. While many were Anabaptists, like the Amish and Mennonites, some were also non-Anabaptist German people seeking freedom and opportunity in a new land.
Thousands upon thousands of people in Pennsylvania spoke this German dialect in their homes until the latter part of the 1900s. They were descended mainly from these immigrants of the Upper Rhine Valley, but also immigrants from other German areas and Switzerland as well.
Such a large concentration of people spoke the dialect in Pennsylvania, it became know as “Pennsylvania Dutch”. Up to the 1950s, it was not just known as the Amish language. The Pennsylvania Dutch were a dominant American subculture throughout Pennsylvania, many of whom were not Amish.
But only those keeping themselves separate from the modern culture for religious reasons, namely the Amish and the Old Order Mennonites, have kept the language alive in their communities to the present day.
To the Amish, their dialect isn’t just a cultural heritage from their ancestors in Germany. Their distinct language separates them more completely from “English” society, and is the mother tongue of their people.
The Heart Language
On my first visit to my husband’s Amish family shortly after our wedding, I had a new family member frown upon me, saying, “So you don’t speak our mother tongue?” The answer was, of course, “No”, as I was never Amish.
The first words an Amish baby hears are in Pennsylvania Dutch, and that is the language spoken at home throughout his or her childhood. English is a foreign language to the majority of Amish children.
In Amish schools, English is not a subject dedicated to just the literature, grammar and proper writing of the language, but is a foreign language class. The teacher, typically a young, unmarried Amish girl, instructs her students in how to speak and write in English.
Pennsylvania Dutch is only an oral language, as it is a dialect of German. Writing Pennsylvania Dutch is possible, and there is even a Bible translation. But it is difficult to write because there is no prescribed method of spelling it. Reading in Pennsylvania Dutch takes practice, as the Amish person has to learn how to sound out the written words. When an Amish person writes a letter to a family member in another community, the letter is transcribed in English.
The Missing Word
When my husband told me there is no direct equivalent for the word “love” in Pennsylvania Dutch, I was shocked. No word that means love?
The closest word in the Amish language is “gleich“, translated “like”. The German word “liebe” means love and is sometimes used to express it. “Love” could also be used, as English words are commonly sprinkled throughout an Amish conversation when there are no “Dutch” equivalents.
But why would there be no word for love in the heart language of the Amish? No one can know for sure as it’s origins are from many hundreds of years ago in Germany.
The old-fashioned sense of decorum and self-control may be part of the reason. This reminds me of my grandparents’ generation, the Silent Generation. Words of love did not come easily. Feelings and emotions were to be controlled, rather than freely expressed. Love was shown by actions, not by emotion-filled words.
Saying and hearing, “I love you”, seems vital to the close relationships that beautify our lives. Missing a word for love in your heart language is a sad omission. Hearing words of love is an essential need of the human spirit.
In the New Testament Scriptures, God speaks to us of His love for us over and over and over again. But love needs to be shown by more than words. God did more than talk. He gave Himself for us.
Our modern American culture may be strong on saying words of love, but it comes up short in the self-denying, giving actions of love. The day-in and day-out selflessness real love requires.
Love isn’t just a word or a feeling. Love is something you choose. Love is something you do.
The Anabaptist immigrants left their Amish descendants not only a unique language but a way of life. Love may not be a word included in their vernacular, but they show it in the way they care for their families and their community.
Have you learned something about Pennsylvania Dutch? Do you have an experience you’d like to share?
Please share in the comments below.