The Amish People - Do they Speak German?

They have their own dialect

Amish Preacher-Do the Amish speak German
Amish Preacher. Mlenny Photography-Vetta-Getty-Images

The Amish in the U. S. are a Christian religious group which arose in the late 17th century in Switzerland, Alsace, Germany, and Russia among the followers of Jacob Amman (12 February 1644—between 1712 and 1730), a disaffected Swiss Brethren, and began emigrating to Pennsylvania in the early 18th century. Because of the group’s preference for a traditional way of life as farmers and skilled workers and its disdain for most technological advances, the Amish have fascinated outsiders on both sides of the Atlantic for at least three centuries.

 

The very popular 1985 film Witness starring Harrison Ford renewed that interest, which continues today, particularly in the group’s distinct “Pennsylvania Dutch” dialect, which developed from the language of their Swiss and German ancestors; however, over three centuries, the group’s language has evolved and shifted so extensively that it’s difficult for even native German speakers to understand it. 

 

‘Dutch’ doesn’t mean Dutch 

A good example of the language’s shift and evolution is its very name. The “Dutch” in “Pennsylvania Dutch” does not allude to the flat and flower-filled Netherlands, but to “Deutsch,” which is German for “German.” “Pennsylvania Dutch” is a German dialect in the same sense that “Plattdeutsch” is a German dialect. 

Most of today’s Amish forebears emigrated from the German Palatinate region during the 100 years between the early 18th century and the early 19th century.

The German Pfalz region is not merely Rheinland-Pfalz, but also reaches into Alsace, which was German until World War I. The emigrants sought religious freedom and opportunities to settle and to make a living. Until the early 20th century, “Pennsylvania Dutch” had been the de facto language across the south of Pennsylvania.

The Amish thereby preserved not only their very special fundamental way of life, but also their dialect. 

Over the centuries, this led to two fascinating developments. The first is the preservation of the ancient Palatinate dialect. In Germany, listeners can often guess a speaker’s regional background because local dialects are common and used daily. Regrettably, German dialects have lost much of their significance over time. The dialects have been diluted by or even supplanted by high German (dialect leveling). Speakers of a pure dialect, i.e., a dialect unaffected by outside influences, are becoming rarer and rarer. Such speakers comprise older people, particularly in smaller villages, who can still converse as their ancestors did centuries ago. 

“Pennsylvania Dutch” is a serendipitous preservation of the old Palatinate dialects. The Amish, especially the older ones, speak as did their ancestors in the 18th century. This serves as a unique link to the past. 

 

The Amish Denglisch 

Beyond this wonderful preservation of dialect, the Amish’s “Pennsylvania Dutch” is a very special mixture of German and English, but, unlike modern “Denglisch” (the term is used in all German-speaking countries to refer to the increasingly strong influx of English or pseudo-English vocabulary into German), its everyday use and historic circumstances are far more influential.

 

The Amish first arrived in the U.S. well ahead of the Industrial Revolution, so they had no words for many things related to modern industrial working processes or machines. Those sorts of things simply didn’t exist at the time. Over the centuries, the Amish have borrowed words from English to fill the gaps—just because the Amish don’t use electricity doesn’t mean that they don’t discuss it and other technological developments as well. 

The Amish have borrowed many common English words and, because German grammar is more complicated that English grammar, they use the words just as they would use a German word. For example, rather than say “sie jumps” for “she jumps,” they would say “sie jumpt.” In addition to the borrowed words, the Amish adopted whole English sentences by interpreting them word-for-word.

Instead of “Wie geht es dir?”, they use the literal English translation “Wie bischt?” 

For speakers of modern German, “Pennsylvania Dutch” is not easy to understand, but it’s not impossible either. The degree of difficulty is on a par with domestic German dialects or SwissGerman— one must listen more attentively and that’s a good rule to follow in all circumstances, nicht wahr?