How Did the Pennsylvania Dutch Get Their Name?

A farm in Pennsylvania "German" Country. Getty Images/Credit: Roger Holden

First of all, we can quickly dispose of the "Pennsylvania Dutch" misnomer. The term is more properly "Pennsylvania German" because the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch have nothing to do with Holland, the Netherlands, or the Dutch language.

These settlers originally came from German-speaking areas of Europe and spoke a dialect of German they refer to as "Deitsch" (Deutsch). It is this word "Deutsch" (German) that has led to the second misconception about the origin of the term Pennsylvania Dutch.

Did Deutsch Became Dutch?

This popular explanation of why the Pennsylvania Germans are often incorrectly called Pennsylvania Dutch fits into the "plausible" category of myths. At first, it seems logical that English-speaking Pennsylvanians simply confused the word "Deutsch" for "Dutch." But then you have to ask yourself, were they really that ignorant—and wouldn't the Pennsylvania Dutch themselves have bothered to correct people constantly calling them "Dutchmen"? But this Deutsch/Dutch explanation further falls apart when you realize that many of the Pennsylvania Dutch actually prefer that term over Pennsylvania German! They also use the term "Dutch" or "Dutchmen" to refer to themselves.

There is another explanation. Some linguists have made the case that the term Pennsylvania Dutch goes back to the original English use of the word "Dutch." Although there is no definitive evidence that links it to the term Pennsylvania Dutch, it is true that in the English of the 18th and 19th centuries, the word "Dutch" referred to anyone from a wide range of Germanic regions, places that we now distinguish as the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

At that time "Dutch" was a broader term that meant what we today call Flemish, Dutch or German. The terms "High Dutch" (German) and "Low Dutch" (Dutch, "nether" means "low") were used to make a clearer distinction between what we now call German (from Latin) or Dutch (from Old High German).

Not all Pennsylvania Germans are Amish. Although they are the best known group, the Amish make up only a small portion of the Pennsylvania Germans in the state. Other groups include the Mennonites, the Brethren, and sub-groups within each group, many of whom use cars and electricity.

It is also easy to forget that Germany (Deutschland) did not exist as a single nation state until 1871. Prior to that time, Germany was more like a quiltwork of duchies, kingdoms and states where various German dialects were spoken. The settlers of the Pennsylvania German region came from the Rhineland, Switzerland, Tyrol, and various other regions beginning in 1689. The Amish, Hutterites and Mennonites now located in the eastern counties of Pennsylvania and elsewhere in North America did not really come from "Germany" in the modern sense of the word, so it is not entirely accurate to refer to them as "German" either.

However, they did bring their German dialects with them, and in modern English it is best to refer to this ethnic group as Pennsylvania Germans. Calling them Pennsylvania Dutch is misleading to speakers of modern English. Despite the fact that Lancaster County and various tourism agencies keep using the "quaint" term "Pennsylvania Dutch" on their Web sites and promotional materials, and despite the fact that some Pennsylvania Germans prefer the "Dutch" term, why perpetuate something that contradicts the fact that the Pennsylvania Germans are linguistically German, not Dutch?

Support for this opinion can be seen in the name of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University. This organization, dedicated to the preservation of the Pennsylvania German language and culture, uses the word "German" rather than "Dutch" in its name. Since "Dutch" no longer means what it did in the 1700s and is very misleading, it's more appropriate to replace it with "German."

Deitsch
Unfortunately, Deitsch, the language of the Pennsylvania Germans, is dying out. Learn more about Deitsch, the Amish, other settlement areas, and more on the next page.

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Flippo, Hyde. "How Did the Pennsylvania Dutch Get Their Name?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 28, 2017, thoughtco.com/how-pennsylvania-dutch-get-their-name-4070513. Flippo, Hyde. (2017, February 28). How Did the Pennsylvania Dutch Get Their Name? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-pennsylvania-dutch-get-their-name-4070513 Flippo, Hyde. "How Did the Pennsylvania Dutch Get Their Name?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-pennsylvania-dutch-get-their-name-4070513 (accessed December 18, 2017).