Keeping the Pa. Dutch language alive, thriving
On any Amish homestead, after labor’s last push and a check for 10 fingers and 10 toes, family members have heard one of two things for centuries.
“Sis en Bu” or “Sis en Maedel.”
“It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl.”
That language is Pennsylvania Dutch, and the gender announcement isn’t some old-fashioned tradition the Amish use only during childbirth. They “talk Dutch” about horse manure and carrots, about the weather and whether a buggy’s wheel needs mending before a trip to the market.
“It’s common for our people to pass it along to the next generation, said Moses Smucker, an Amishman who runs Smuckers Quality Meats at the Reading Terminal Market. “We spoke it to them as soon as they were born.”
The notion that Pennsylvania Dutch could go fallow is absurd to the Amish, who have been doubling their population every few decades.
“It’s actually considered the fastest-growing small-minority language in the United States,” said Patrick Donmoyer, director of Kutztown University’s Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center in Berks County.
But outside “plain” communities in the state and beyond, Pennsylvania Dutch is becoming rarer.
Donmoyer, whose family moved to Lebanon County from Philadelphia in 1732, said that approximately 400,000 people speak Pennsylvania Dutch in the United States (principally in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana) and Canada. Its influence is deepest in about 14 counties in the southeastern and central parts of Pennsylvania, with thousands of residents apart from Amish and several Mennonite communities.
“They are hardworking, proud and stubborn people with an agricultural background,” said Doug Madenford, of nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch. The Reading native grew up hearing the language on a family farm. “We don’t like change, and we like to hold onto our values. The Pennsylvania Dutch are unique, with their own culture and foods and art. We’ve fought in all of the wars and were some of the first people who called for the abolition of slavery.”
Among the Amish, the average age of a speaker of Pennsylvania Dutch is 17, Donmoyer said. For nonsectarian speakers, the average age is 75 – a number that he and other enthusiasts are trying to lower.
The Pennsylvania Dutch language – this can get confusing – is German, not Netherlands Dutch. It was spoken in the Rhine Valley and southwestern Palatinate region of what today is Germany.
In Germany, Pennsylvania Dutch speakers could get by in most of the country the same way someone from Vermont could function in Dublin or the Louisiana bayou.
In America, there was an academic movement to drop the word Dutch and call the language Pennsylvania German, but one of the distinct traits of the region – stubbornness – won out.