What Language Do Amish People Speak? Get the Facts


Amish communities are very insular, which has led to much confusion about their habits and daily lives. From their rejection of modern technology and their old-fashioned clothes to their tight-knit societies, the Amish are a subject of fascination and curiosity for many outsiders. The sense of mystery around them is heightened by their unique language, a variant of German only spoken by these religious communities. 

Most Amish and Mennonite people speak two languages, Pennsylvania Dutch and English. They use Pennsylvania Dutch when speaking in the community and speak English when communicating with outsiders. They may also use German for reading the Bible.

Though the Amish and Mennonites aren’t the same, they share many traits, including their use of Pennsylvania Dutch. Both groups emigrated from similar areas in Europe, leading to their shared language. This article will take a closer look at Pennsylvania Dutch in the Amish community, its origins, and its future as a language.

Also see Are There Any Black Amish People? to learn more.

Amish people
Why don’t Amish people just speak English? See below

Where Does Pennsylvania Dutch Come From?

In the 1700s, over 80,000 German-speaking immigrants came to the United States. [1] Many immigrants continued to speak their German dialect long after they came to America, passing it down to their children.

A small percentage of these immigrants became the Anabaptist communities that exist today, including the Mennonites and Amish.

Pennsylvania Dutch comes from the original German language, despite what its name might suggest. Academics prefer to call the language by its proper name, Pennsylvania German, as that’s the name that most accurately reflects the language’s origin. [2]

Pennsylvania “Dutch” is a misnomer resulting from non-Amish people referring to anyone from Germany or Central Europe as Dutch, usually in a dismissive or slightly derogatory way.

Most of the original Amish immigrants were German or Swiss, not from the Netherlands. They spoke a dialect of German unique to central Europe. This dialect is called Palatinate German, in reference to the Palatinate region from which they emigrated.

Pennsylvania Dutch differs from Palatinate German in a few ways.

  • The Pennsylvania Dutch vocabulary is about 10 to 15% borrowed words from English. Some of these loaned words have been changed slightly or bastardized to better fit the Pennsylvania Dutch accent and phrasing.
  • Pennsylvania Dutch often bases its sentence structure on phrases directly translated from English rather than using traditionally German phrases. As a result, a German listener may understand the individual words in Pennsylvania Dutch. Still, the sentences as a whole seem incomprehensible. [3]

Languages change over time. Even though the Amish spoke Palatinate German several hundred years ago, the passage of time led to the evolution of the Pennsylvania Dutch language, distinct from both English and German. 

Additionally, a small Amish community in Indiana speaks Bernese Swiss German instead of Pennsylvania Dutch. Thanks to their separate language, this group is sometimes called the Swiss Amish. However, they’re a much smaller group than the Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking Amish. 

Also see Do Amish People Pay Taxes? to learn more.

Amish horse and buggie
Do some Amish speak and understand German? See below

Why Don’t Amish People Just Speak English?

An outsider looking in at the Amish might wonder why they keep speaking this obscure version of German. Many immigrant communities in the United States stop teaching their children their native languages after a generation or two, but the Amish have preserved Pennsylvania Dutch for hundreds of years. So what makes the Amish different, and why do they not speak English?

Most Amish people do speak English in addition to Pennsylvania Dutch. However, Pennsylvania Dutch is an important part of the Amish heritage, religion, and identity. The Amish would prefer to be bilingual than give up this important aspect of their culture.

The Amish use English when speaking to non-Amish family and friends. They also use English for reading, as many of their books are not translated into Pennsylvania Dutch.

Amish schools use English for instruction, so their children can read, write, and speak with people outside the community as needed. The Amish mainly reserve Pennsylvania Dutch for conversations with other Amish.

English is still the dominant language for reading. However, there are some efforts within the Amish community to revive Pennsylvania Dutch as a written language.

The New Testament of the Bible was recently translated into Pennsylvania Dutch, as well as several children’s books. The Amish also created the Grundsow Lodges, meetings dedicated to preserving Amish culture and language. 

Pennsylvania Dutch is an important symbol of the Amish identity, like their modest clothing and horse-drawn buggies. The language connects the modern Amish to their ancestors and the spiritual leaders who came before them. Pennsylvania Dutch symbolizes the Amish commitment to remaining separate from the outside world. 

Unfortunately, though, Pennsylvania Dutch may die out. As the Amish grow more connected with the outside world through family members, tourism, and the service industry, they use English more and more frequently. Without intentional efforts to preserve Pennsylvania Dutch, it could fall out of use.

Also see Do Amish People Drink Alcohol? to learn more.

Do Some Amish Speak and Understand German?

Pennsylvania Dutch isn’t just a dialect of German; it’s an entirely separate language. But due to the similarities between the two, it seems plausible that an Amish speaker may understand German, and some, though not all, do.

Most Amish can read German, though they may not speak it often. German is the language used for the Bible and some other texts that the Amish don’t keep in English or Pennsylvania Dutch. 

Though church services are held in Pennsylvania Dutch, the Amish use German for reading the Bible. Because religion is so important to the Amish community, most people have a good understanding of German, at least enough to read the Bible.

However, an Amish person may not be able to have a conversation in German. They’re used to reading it, not speaking it. Most of their daily conversations are in Pennsylvania Dutch or English.

Just as a native German speaker can recognize words in Pennsylvania Dutch, an Amish person will likely recognize words spoken in German. But the Amish don’t have much practice in speaking German conversationally. 

Conclusion

The Amish have three languages for different scenarios. They read the Bible in German, speak Pennsylvania Dutch for everyday use, and use English with outsiders. 

Also see Do Amish Celebrate Christmas? to learn more.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source

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