13 posts categorized "Pennsylvania Dutch Language"

March 27, 2007

So you want to join the Amish

One thing that sets the Amish apart from many Mennonite groups, and for that matter most other religious bodies:  they don't recruit.

Amish typically neither condemn nor encourage attempts to join.  They may seem a bit discouraging towards the idea.  If the subject comes up, usually you hear something like 'if you don't grow up Amish, it's really hard to do it.' 

Occasionally, you run into an Amish person with a name that just doesn't 'sound' Amish.  That's often a clue.

It frequently happens that non-Amish who join stick it out for a little while but leave when the novelty wears off.

I've only met a very few that have joined, and that's out of literally (literally literally) thousands of families met while selling books in their communities.

I regret not having a chance to get down to the nitty-gritty about it with the joiners (What's it like?  No, what's it really like?  What do you miss most?).

One was a teacher.  Another works in a factory.  A third, fairly fresh convert raises and sells mums.  He supposedly fell for an Amish lass while on a visit to the community. 

Asking another 'native' Amishman in his community about the newbie, I was told, almost wink-wink jokingly, that he seems to be doing alright (so far), as if the underlying idea was 'is he gonna make it?' 

But this guy, and the other people around him were supportive as far as I could tell.  In fact, the outsiders who have joined and 'survived' seem to garner a bit of extra respect.

Apparently, one way it works for interested parties is that you first come to live and get put to work for a certain length of time, just to see if you can hack it on that end.

Then there are the teachings and language to pick up.  Amish adolescents readying themselves for baptism normally attend prep courses led by church ministers.   

One New Order couple I met had adopted five non-Amish children.  They found a Pennsylvania Dutch tutor to teach the kids the native tongue.  I suppose that would come in handy for non-Dutch adult converts as well. 

Some converts are from similar-minded faiths such as this Mennonite -background fellow, which may make it easier, but others come from different branches of Christianity.

The teacher-convert was apparently originally Catholic, as was well-known Amish historian David Luthy, whom I often mention in this blog. 

616444_car_keys Apparently this teacher-convert said he found living without a car to be the most difficult.  That's not surprising.  For me, I think car and electric would be the hardest.  Clothing, hairstyle, hard physical work I'm pretty sure I could swing.

But that might be looking at it the wrong way.  One Amishman has suggested that seekers approaching the Amish solely through the lifestyle angle--the buggies-and-beards rustic appeal of it--are missing the point.   

The whole idea is not to live in a strange cultural world for it's own sake.   By itself, that gets you nowhere.  Rather it's all about living what the Amish feel is most important:  the words and teachings of Jesus Christ. 

February 11, 2007

Why do you keep calling me that? I've never even been to Britain!

'English' is what many Amish call non-Amish people.

'Yankee' is another term. 

The Amish also use phrases--'your people', 'those kinds of people'--which may sound somewhat derogatory to our ears.

But no harm intended.  It's just an identity thing.


Identity matters in Amish America.  Customs, clothes, language make dividing lines clear.

At the same time, many Amish are surprisingly open to the world, and even have good friends among the English. 

The author recalls one visit in an Amish home.  A shy two-year-old quickly hid his face, unused to English folks. 

The mother smiled and reassured her boy in Pennsylvania Dutch:  'don't worry...he just looks different from us, but he's good too.'

January 17, 2007

Debunking some Speech Myths

The Amish don't use 'thee', 'thine', or 'thou', as you might think after watching Weird Al's video.

Neither do they speak like Alexander Godunov or Jan Rubes did in Witness.  Check that, at least one Amishman that Amish America knows of does--but he was born in Germany and converted to the faith in his 20's.    

They mostly speak English like any rural Americans would.  Though you could say there is such a thing as an Amish accent, including some peculiar turns of phrase and pronunciation...


It often varies by region.  Illinois Amish have a funny way of saying 'Iowa.'  It comes out 'Io-way.'

Amish i's often go long when they're not supposed to.  Some kind-hearted Michigan Amish once told the author about their 'favo-right' music.

Amish i's also become long e's.  'Six' sounds like 'seex'.  'Mischief' is spoken 'mis-cheef'.

The word 'anymore' gets used in puzzling ways.  It seems to substitute for 'nowadays', or 'lately', as in, "anymore, it's hard to find a good vet around here."

Sara E. Fisher and Rachel K. Stahl, authors of The Amish School, excerpt a letter from The Blackboard Bulletin, a periodical for Amish teachers. The writer speaks of being frustrated at finding out that she has been pronouncing a word incorrectly for many years, asking 'if we go to a school where an Amish teacher...doesn't pronounce the words correctly either, how are we supposed to learn better?'    

In reality it's actually very charming, probably in the same way that an American that is 99% fluent in a foreign language might amuse a native listener with a slightly odd turn of speech.  It reflects nothing on the general Amish level of education, which, while only going through the 8th grade, is sufficient for the typical Amish way of life.

Amish schools do their job well.  Brad Igou includes a Family Life editor's letter in The Amish in their Own Words which describes a University of Michigan study of Amish parochial schools.  In it, the parochial schools get the best marks out of the five categories tested. 

English is a second language for the Amish.  Amongst themselves, they speak an oral dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch or Pennsylvania German.  The Amish can communicate perfectly in English, or very close to it.  Occasionally an Amishman will stop in the middle of speaking and search for a word, often apologizing that he could say it better in German.   

Most Amish children learn English when they first go to school, though some pick it up while still at home. This also varies by settlement and how often the kids are around English speakers.  Business owners' 'pre-scholars' are often among the best at English, especially if their father has a lot of English clients.

And finally, Pennsylvania Dutch has little to do with what they speak in the Netherlands.  Here, 'Dutch' is most likely an Anglicized version of 'Deutsch'.

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