Pennsylvania German language

Pennsylvania German language
Pennsylvania German, Pennsylvania Dutch
Deitsch, Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch
Spoken in USA, Canada
Region Pennsylvania; Ohio; Indiana; Ontario; and elsewhere
Native speakers 250 000+  (date missing)
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3 pdc
Linguasphere 52-ACB-he
Pennsylvania German distribution.png
Blue: The counties with the highest proportion of Pennsylvania German speakers.
Red: The counties with the highest number of Pennsylvania German speakers.

The Pennsylvania German language (usually referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch, or simply as Dutch, in American English; usually referred to in Pennsylvania German as Deitsch, Pennsylvania Deitsch or Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch) is a variety of West Central German possibly spoken by more than 250,000 people in North America. It has traditionally been the language of the Pennsylvania Dutch, descendants of late 17th and early 18th century immigrants to the US states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina from southern Germany, eastern France and Switzerland. Although for many, the term 'Pennsylvania Dutch' is often taken to refer to the Old Order Amish and related groups exclusively, the term should not imply a connection to any particular religious group. The Amish and Mennonites originally made up only a small percentage of the Pennsylvania German population.

In this context, the word "Dutch" does not refer to the Dutch people or their descendants. "Dutch" in this case is likely left over from an archaic sense of the English word "Dutch", compare German Deutsch ('German'), Dutch Duits ('German'), Diets ('Dutch'), which once referred to any people speaking a non-peripheral continental West Germanic language on the European mainland.[1] Alternatively, some sources give the origin of "Dutch" in this case as a corruption or a "folk-rendering" of the Pennsylvania German endonym "Deitsch".[2]

Speakers of the language are primarily found today in Ontario in Canada and in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana in the United States. Historically, the dialect was also spoken in several other regions where its use has either largely or entirely faded. The use of Pennsylvania German as a street language in urban areas of Pennsylvania (such as Allentown, Reading, Lancaster and York) was declining by the arrival of the 20th century, while in more rural areas it continued in widespread use through the World War II era. Since that time, its use has greatly declined. The exception to this decline is in the context of the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities, and presently the members of these two groups make up the majority of Pennsylvania German speakers. (see Survival below).

Some other North and South American Mennonites of Dutch and Prussian origin speak what is actually a Low German dialect, referred to as Plautdietsch, which is quite different from Pennsylvania German.


European origins

The ancestors of Pennsylvania German speakers came from various parts of the southwest corner of the German-speaking region of Europe, including the Palatinate, Swabia, Württemberg, the Alsace, and Switzerland. Most spoke West Middle German dialects, and in the first generations after the settlers arrived it is believed that the dialects merged.[citation needed]

Modern Palatine German

When individuals from the Palatinate region of Germany encounter Pennsylvania German speakers today, conversation is often possible to a limited degree. There are many similarities between the German dialect that is still spoken in this small part of southwestern Germany and Pennsylvania German. There are approximately 2,400,000 Germans in Rhine-Neckar Metropolitan Region (a region almost identical to the historical Palatinate) speaking Palatinate German, the specific German dialect from which the "Pennsylvania German" is mainly derived.[3]

Writing in Pennsylvania German

Pennsylvania German has primarily been a spoken language throughout its history, with very few of its speakers making much of an attempt to read or write it. Writing in Pennsylvania German can be a difficult task, and there is no spelling standard for the language whatsoever. There are currently two primary, competing models which numerous orthographic (i.e., spelling) systems have been based upon by individuals attempting to write in the Pennsylvania German language. One 'school' tends to follow the rules of American English orthography, the other the rules of Standard German orthography. The choice of writing system is not meant to imply any difference in pronunciation. For comparison, a translation into Pennsylvania German, using two different spelling systems, of the Lord's Prayer, as found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, is presented below. The text in the second column illustrates a system based on American English orthography. The text in the third column uses, on the other hand, a system based on Standard German. The English original is found in the first column, and a Standard German version appears in the fourth column. (Note: The German version(s) of the Lord's Prayer most likely to have been used by Pennsylvania Germans would have been derived in most cases from Martin Luther's translation of the New Testament.)

English (BCP) Writing system 1 (English-based) Writing system 2 (German-based) Modern German (close translation) Modern German (standard wording)
Our Father who art in heaven, Unsah Faddah im Himmel, Unser Vadder im Himmel, Unser Vater im Himmel, Vater unser im Himmel,
Hallowed be thy name. dei nohma loss heilich sei, dei Naame loss heilich sei, Deinen Namen lass heilig sein, geheiligt werde dein Name,
Thy kingdom come. Dei Reich loss kumma. Dei Reich loss komme. Dein Reich lass kommen. Dein Reich komme.
Thy will be done, Dei villa loss gedu sei, Dei Wille loss gedu sei, Deinen Willen lass getan sein, Dein Wille geschehe,
on earth as in heaven. uf di eaht vi im Himmel. uff die Erd wie im Himmel. auf der Erde wie im Himmel. wie im Himmel, so auf Erden.
Give us this day our daily bread. Unsah tayklich broht gebb uns heit, Unser deeglich Brot gebb uns heit, Unser täglich Brot gib uns heute, Unser tägliches Brot gib uns heute,
And forgive us our trespasses; Un fagebb unsah shulda, Un vergebb unser Schulde, Und vergib unsere Schulden, Und vergib uns unsere Schuld,
as we forgive those who trespass against us. vi miah dee fagevva vo uns shuldich sinn. wie mir die vergewwe wu uns schuldich sinn. wie wir denen vergeben, die uns schuldig sind. wie auch wir vergeben unseren Schuldigern.
And lead us not into temptation Un fiah uns naett in di fasuchung, Un fiehr uns net in die Versuchung, Und führe uns nicht in die Versuchung, Und führe uns nicht in Versuchung,
but deliver us from evil. avvah hald uns fu'm eevila. awwer hald uns vum ewile. aber halte uns vom Üblen [fern]. sondern erlöse uns von dem Bösen.
For thine is the kingdom, the power Fa dei is es Reich, di graft, Fer dei is es Reich, die Graft, Für Dein ist das Reich, die Kraft Denn Dein ist das Reich, und die Kraft
and the glory, For ever and ever. un di hallichkeit in ayvichkeit. un die Hallichkeit in Ewichkeit. und die Herrlichkeit in Ewigkeit. und die Herrlichkeit in Ewigkeit.
Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Pennsylvania German publications

Since 1997, the Pennsylvania German newspaper Hiwwe wie Driwwe [4] allows dialect authors (of which there are still about 100) to publish Pennsylvania German poetry and prose. Hiwwe wie Driwwe is published twice a year (2,400 copies per issue).

Comparison to Standard German

Pennsylvania German reflects the origins of the early speakers from the regions along the Upper Rhine River in the Rhineland, Wuerttemberg, Baden, Switzerland and the Elsass/Alsace. Pennsylvania German sounds much like the Allemanisch and Swabian dialects of that region. Much of Pennsylvania German's differences with Standard German can be summarized as consisting of a simplified grammatical structure, several vowel and consonant shifts that occur with a fair degree of regularity, as well as a variety of lexical differences. The influence of American English upon grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation is also significant.


As in Standard German, Pennsylvania German uses three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter). Pronouns inflect for four cases, as in Standard German, but the nominative and accusative articles and adjective endings (High German "den" becomes "der" in Pennsylvania German) are the same. As in other South German and West German dialects, the genitive is often replaced by a special construction using the dative and the possessive pronoun: "the man's dog" becomes "em Mann sei Hund". In most regions, the use of the dative has been gradually replaced by the accusative, so that "em Mann sei Hund" (the man's dog), for example, has frequently become "der Mann sei Hund". Adjectival endings exist, but are somewhat simplified compared to Standard German. As in all other South German dialects, the past tense is generally expressed using the perfect: "Ich bin ins Feld glaafe" (I went into the field) rather than the simple past ("Ich lief ins Feld"). The use of the subjunctive, while it exists, is more limited than in Standard German.[citation needed]

Several Pennsylvania German grammars have been published over the years. A few examples are A Simple Grammar of Pennsylvania Dutch by J. William Frey, and Earl C. Haag's A Pennsylvania German Reader and Grammar.


The list below appears to use IPA symbols to represent sounds used in Standard German (to the left), with an arrow pointing to a sound found to at times be its Pennsylvania German equivalent. Following each of these entries is an example of a related word from Standard German, once again with an arrow pointing to its modern Pennsylvania German counterpart.


  • /aː//oː/ (in some words): schlafenschloofe
  • /aʊ//ɔ/ This varies from speaker to speaker. Example: auchau or aa
  • final /ə//iː/ (in some speakers only, and generally only with feminine and plural endings): gute Frauguudi Fraa
  • /ɔɪ//aɪ/ Example: neunei
  • /o//ʌ/ Example: Bodde (floor) is thus pronounced somewhat like the American butter, but without the final <r>. In contrast, the first vowel of Budder (butter) rhymes with the American took
  • /œ//ɛ/ Example: KöpfeKepp
  • /øː//eː/ Example: schönschee
  • /ʏ//ɪ/ Example: dünndinn
  • /yː//iː/ Example: KüheKieh


  • /b//v/ or /wː/, depending whether the preceding vowel is short or long (only when between vowels, not in initial or final position) (English: /b//v/). Example: KübelKiwwel
  • /ɡ//j/ (mostly in some words following /r/ plus a vowel). Example: morgenmorje. For speakers with an Americanized <r> (/ɹ/) sound, the /j/ can disappear.
  • /ɡ/ often becomes silent between vowels. Example: sagensaage. Since the letter <g> has been retained by so many past writers, this sound was presumably pronounced as a /ɣ/ before it disappeared.
  • /k//ɡ/ (when followed by consonants such as /l/ and /ɹ/). Example: kleinglee
  • final /n/ generally disappears, including in infinitives. Example: [ˈva.ʃən][ˈva.ʃə]
  • /p//b/ in many words. Example: [ˈpʰuːt.tsən][ˈbuːt.tsə]
  • /pf//p/. Example: Pfarrer [ˈpfaː.rər]Parrer [ˈpaː.rər]
  • final /r/ after a vowel is even more strongly vocalized than in modern High German, so that Budder is pronounced *Buddah. It often disappears entirely from both spelling and pronunciation, as in HerzHaaz.
  • /r/ in all other positions was originally rolled (/r/, except for with some Amish, who tended to gutteralize it as in modern High German. Today most speakers have migrated to have an American /ɹ/, at least in part.
  • /s//ʃ/ before /p/ or /t/, even at the end of a word. Example: bistbischt
  • /s/ in all other locations is never voiced (always like the first <s> in the English Susie, never like the second)
  • /t//d/, especially initially and when followed by /r/ or a vowel. Example: tot [ˈtʰoːd][ˈdoːt]; ButterBudder
  • w is for many speakers a rounded sound midway between a German and English <w>. This does not apply to German /b/ sounds that become <w> and <ww>, which tend to be a true German <w>. Other speakers use a German <w> more consistently.
  • final /ts//s/ with some speakers. Example: [ˈhoːlts][ˈhoːls]

Among the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, there have been numerous other shifts that can make their Pennsylvania German particularly difficult for modern High German speakers to understand. A word beginning in <gs> generally becomes <ts> (which is more easily pronounced), so that German gesundgsundtsund and German gesagtgsaattsaat. (This trait is found in Lancaster County outside of the Amish communities as well.) Likewise, German gescheidgscheidtscheid (as if it were English *chite). German zurückzricktsrick (exactly as in American English trick). The softened <w> after guttural consonants has mixed with the guttural <r> of earlier generations and also turned into an American <r>, so that German gewesengwestgrest and German geschwindgschwindtschrind (spoken as *trint would be in American English). These changes in pronunciation, combined with the general disappearance of declensions as described above, result in a form of the language that has evolved considerably from its early Pennsylvania origins nearly 300 years ago.[citation needed]

Adoption of English vocabulary

The peoples from southern Germany, eastern France and Switzerland, from whom the Pennsylvania German culture and language sprang, arrived in America beginning in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.[citation needed] To a more limited extent, this is also true of a second wave of immigration in the mid-19th century, which came from the same regions, but settled more frequently in Ohio, Indiana and other parts of the Midwest.[citation needed] Thus, an entire industrial vocabulary relating to electricity, machinery and modern farming implements has naturally been borrowed from the English. For Pennsylvania German speakers who work in a modern trade or in an industrial environment, this could potentially increase the challenge of maintaining their mother tongue.

There are numerous English words that have been borrowed and adapted for use in Pennsylvania German since the first generations of Pennsylvania German habitation of southeastern Pennsylvania. Examples of English loan words that are relatively common include "bet" (Ich bet, du kannscht Deitsch schwetze = I bet you can speak German), "depend" (Es dependt en wennig, waer du bischt = it depends somewhat on who you are); "tschaepp" for "chap" or "guy"; and "tschumbe" for "to jump". Today, many speakers will use Pennsylvania German words for the smaller numerals and English for larger and more complex numerals, like "$27,599."

Pennsylvania Dutch English

Conversely, although many among the earlier generations of Pennsylvania Germans could speak English, they were known for speaking it with a strong and distinctive accent. Such Pennsylvania Dutch English can still sometimes be heard to this day. Although this more recently coined term is being used in the context of this and related articles to describe this Pennsylvania German-influenced English, it has traditionally been referred to as "Dutchy" or "Dutchified" English.


Claims can be made that Pennsylvania German may be dying in at least two ways. Firstly, while it was once used as an everyday language in areas such as southeastern Pennsylvania, today this is much more rarely the case. There are still many among the older generations who speak it; however, most of their descendants know only English. Secondly, the Old Order Amish, most of whom do speak the language every day, use many English words in their Pennsylvania German. Due to 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 is being quickened as land in many larger Amish communities becomes more scarce, which is forcing more Amish to look for jobs outside of farming and in factories where they are exposed to English much more than before.

Only the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites appear to be passing the language on to their children in the current generation, although they were originally minority groups within the Pennsylvania German speaking population. According to sociologist John A. Hostetler, less than 10 percent of the original Pennsylvania German population was Amish or Mennonite.[citation needed]

Pennsylvania German Sticker "We still speak the mother tongue"

However, there have been efforts to advance the use of the language. Kutztown University offers a complete minor program in Pennsylvania German Studies. The program includes two full semesters of the Pennsylvania German language. In the 2007–2008 school year, the classes were being taught by Professor Edward Quinter. In 2008–2009, Professor Robert Lusch served as the instructor.

Since 2005, Pennsylvania Germans have been working on a Pennsylvania German version of Wikipedia.

Speaker population

In Ontario, Canada, the Old Order Amish, most Old Order Mennonites, and smaller pockets of others (regardless of religious affiliation) speak Pennsylvania German. There are, however, far fewer speakers of Pennsylvania German in Canada than in the United States.

In the United States, most Old Order Amish and most "horse and buggy" Old Order Mennonite groups speak Pennsylvania German. There are, however, exceptions. There are several Old Order Amish communities (especially in Indiana) where dialects of Swiss German are spoken, instead of Pennsylvania German. Additionally, English has almost completely replaced Pennsylvania German among the Old Order Mennonites of Virginia. Other religious groups among whose members the Pennsylvania German language would have once been predominant, include: Lutheran and German Reformed congregations of Pennsylvania German background, Moravians, Schwenkfelders, and the Schwarzenau Brethren or German Baptists. It should be noted, however, that until fairly recent times, the speaking of Pennsylvania German had absolutely no religious connotations.

There are also attempts being made in a few communities to teach the language in a classroom setting; 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 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.

Among them, the Old Order Amish population is probably around 227,000.[5] Additionally, the Old Order Mennonite population, a sizable percentage of which is Pennsylvania German speaking, numbers several tens of thousands. There are also thousands of other Mennonites who speak the language, as well as thousands more older Pennsylvania German speakers of non-Amish and non-Mennonite background. The Grundsau Lodge, which is an organisation in southeastern Pennsylvania of Pennsylvania German speakers, is said to have 6,000 members. Therefore, a fair estimate of the speaker population today might be approaching 300,000, although many, including some academic publications, may report much lower numbers, uninformed of those diverse speaker groups.

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. Furthermore, 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 the size of the Amish population, and most who speak Pennsylvania German on the Canadian and U.S. censuses would report that they speak German, since it is the closest option available. Pennsylvania German was reported under ethnicity in the 2000 census.[6]

In Mario Pei's book Language for Everybody, a popular poem in the dialect is printed:

Heut is 's xäctly zwanzig Johr
Dass ich bin owwe naus;
Nau bin ich widder lewig z'rück
Und steh am Schulhaus an d'r Krick
Juscht nächst ans Daddy's Haus.

Freely translated (by J. Cooper) as:

Today it's exactly twenty years
Since I went up and away;
Now I have returned once more, alive
And stand at the school by the creek
Just next to Grandpa's house.

See also


  1. ^ Weaver, Kyle R. (2006), Meet Don Yoder Dean of Folklife Scholars, Pennsylvania Heritage, vol. 32, no. 2, p.9–10
  2. ^ Hostetler, John A. (1993), Amish Society, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, p. 241
  3. ^ Buffington, Alfred F.; Preston A. Barba (1965) [1954]. A Pennsylvania German Grammar (Revised ed.). Allentown, PA, USA: Schlecter's. pp. 137–145. 
  4. ^ Werner, Michael (ed.) Hiwwe wie Driwwe.
  5. ^ Mark Scolforo (2008-08-20). "Amish population nearly doubles in 16 years". USA Today. Associated Press. Retrieved 3 February 2011. 
  6. ^ US Census Bureau, Ancestry: 2000, Census 2000 Brief C2KBR-35

External links


Pennsylvania German

Further information

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