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Pennsylvania German language

Pennsylvania German, or Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsilfaani-Deitsch), is a High German language spoken by 150,000 to 250,000 people in North America.

The word "Dutch" here is left over from an archaic sense of the English word, which once referred to Germany as well as to the Netherlands. This archaism may have survived for various reasons; for example, the Pennsylvania German word for "German" is "Deitsch", which sounds similar to the English "Dutch". The bottom line, however, is that Pennsylvania German is a dialect of German, not Dutch.

Speakers of the language can be found today mainly in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana in the United States, and Ontario in Canada. The majority of the speakers are either Amish or Old Order Mennonite although this was not the case a few generations ago; see Survival below. (Note that some other North and South American Mennonites speak Plautdietsch, which is a very different Low Saxon language.)

Table of contents

European origins

The Pennsylvania German language resembles most closely the dialects of the German Palatinate. However, Pennsylvania German speakers came from various parts of the southwest German speaking corner including Swabia, Württemberg, Alsace, and Switzerland. In the first generations after the settlers came over there is believed to have been a merging of the dialects. The language which resulted resembled most the Palatinate German[?].


Pennsylvania German is well-known in popular culture for its association with the Amish. Those English speakers with a Pennsylvania German accent are typically noted for the switching of the sound of the v and w. An example of this is found in the phrase "A wonderful violin," which would be pronounced to sound like "A vonderful wiolin." However, it should be noted this is a stereotype that is promoted in tourist areas, and most Pennsylvania German speakers today speak English with only a very slight accent.


There are currently two competing writing systems for the language.

For example, the Lord's Prayer is written in one system as follows:

Unsah Faddah im Himmel,
dei nohma loss heilich sei,
Dei Reich loss kumma.
Dei villa loss gedu sei,
uf di eaht vi im Himmel.
Unsah tayklich broht gebb uns heit,
Un fagebb unsah shulda,
vi miah dee fagevva vo uns shuldich sinn.
Un fiah uns naett in di fasuchung,
avvah hald uns fu'm eevila.
Fa dei is es Reich, di graft,
un di hallichkeit in ayvichkeit.

However, if the New Testament is written using the other script it would appear as follows:

Unser Fadder im Himmel,
dei Naame loss heilich sei,
Dei Reich loss kumme.
Dei Wille loss gedu sei,
uff die Erd wie im Himmel.
Unser deeglich Brot gebb uns heit,
Un vergebb unser Schulde,
wie mir die vergewwe wu uns schuldich sinn.
Un fiehr uns net in die Versuchung,
awwer hald uns vum Iewile.
Fer dei is es Reich, die Graft,
un die Hallichkeit in Ewichkeit.

And for example, the Lord's Prayer in modern standard German:

Vater unser im Himmel,
geheiligt werde dein Name.
dein Reich komme,
dein Wille geschehe
wie im Himmel, so auf Erden.
Unser tägliches Brot gib uns heute,
und vergib uns unsere Schuld,
wie auch wir vergeben unseren Schuldigern.
Und führe uns nicht in Versuchung,
sondern erlöse uns von dem Bösen.
Denn Dein ist das Reich
und die Kraft und die Herrlichkeit
in Ewigkeit


Pennsylvania German can be said to be dying in at least two ways. First, while it was once used as an everyday language in many parts of southeastern Pennsylvania, today it is not. There are still many among the older generations who speak Pennsylvania German; however, their grandchildren know only English. Second, the Amish, who do speak the language every day, use many English words in their Pennsylvania German. Because of this transformation, there is a fear among some that the Amish are gradually losing the language as they slowly replace Pennsylvania German words with English ones. Another concern is that this process may be quickened as land in many larger Amish communities becomes scarcer, which will force more Amish to look for jobs outside of farming and in factories where they may be exposed to English much more than before.

Only Amish and Old Order Mennonites are passing the language along to their children in the current generation, although they were originally minority groups within the Pennsylvania German speaking population. According to the Johns Hopkins University sociologist John A. Hostetler, fewer than 10% of the original Pennsylvania German population was Amish or Mennonite.

However, there is no sign that the Old Order Amish or the Old Order Mennonites who still use the language are about to give it up. In these cultures, the language is a sign of Demut or humility, and the language serves as a barrier against the outside world. Furthermore, with the high birth rate in Amish communities, the possibility is great that the language will survive at least in the short term.

Speaker Population

In Canada, the Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and many middle aged and older Mennonites who do not belong to the Old Order, and whose ancestors came from Pennsylvania, speak Pennsylvania German. There are far fewer speakers of Pennsylvania German in Canada than in the United States; however, at least one Canadian Mennonite group has been slower at abandoning the language than their American counterparts. Such is the case with the automobile Old Order Mennonites, whose members in Canada have continued to use Pennsylvania German in the home, whereas the Old Orders who use automobiles in the United States are making the switch to English.

In the United States all Old Order and New Amish and all horse and buggy Old Order Mennonite groups speak Pennsylvania German (except for the Shenandoah Valley Old Order Mennonites, who have some families who speak only English). As for the Beachy Amish, there has been a move towards English in many families. There are also diverse groups of those who can speak the language: the Lutherans, Reformed, Moravians, Schwenkfelders, Church of the Brethren, Catholics and Jewish people, mostly of elderly sorts. These people once represented the majority of Pennsylvania German speakers. These communities are also making efforts to re-teach the language in evening classes; however, as every year passes by fewer and fewer in these particular communities speak the language. There is still a weekly radio program in the dialect whose audience is made up mostly of these diverse groups, and many Lutheran and Reformed church congregations in Pennsylvania that formerly used German have a yearly service in Pennsylvania German. Other non-native speakers of the language include those persons that regularly do business with native speakers.

A fair estimate of the speaker population today would be between 150,000 (a very conservative estimate) to 250,000, although many, including some academic publications, may report much lower numbers, uninformed of those diverse speaker groups.

Among them, the Amish population is probably around 150,000 to 200,000; the Old Order Mennonites population is several tens of thousands, and there are thousands of older, less conservative Mennonites who speak the language, and thousands among older Pennsylvanian non-Amish and non-Mennonites. The Grundsau Lodge, which is an organisation in southeastern Pennsylvania of Pennsylvania German speakers, is said to have 6,000 members.

The number of Amish community members is not easy to estimate. In many cases, what is referred to as the Amish population represents only the baptized members of the community, which does not include younger members of the communities in their mid-twenties or younger. A better estimate is achieved based on the number of gmayna (church districts) and the average size of each gmay or church district. Furhermore, while there are large communities of speakers in the states of Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, there are smaller speaker groups found in and outside those states, and in Canada, scattered among English speakers.

There are no formal statistics on Amish population, and most who speak Pennsylvania German on the Canadian and US Census would report that they speak German, since it is the closest option available.

See also

External links

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