Pennsylvania Dutch: The Fastest-Growing US Minority Language

What is Pennsylvania Dutch, and where is it spoken? The answers to these questions are not what you think.
amish children walking down the side of a dirt road with farm in the distance pennsylvania dutch

Pennsylvania Dutch is actually a misnomer: the language is not a form of Dutch, and it’s spoken in many places beyond Pennsylvania’s borders. Pennsylvania Dutch is related to dialects of German, and it’s spoken in a number of places in both the United States and Canada. Patrick Donmoyer, director of Kutztown University’s Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, says Pennsylvania Dutch is “actually considered the fastest-growing small-minority language in the United States.”

But let’s back up a bit and take a quick look at how the language originated.

A Brief History Of Pennsylvania Dutch

The language developed in the second half of the 18th century, when German speakers immigrated to Pennsylvania, says Mark Louden, professor of German and Religious Studies and Director of the Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

“The crucial event in all immigrant language situations is what the children of immigrants do, which is essentially not inheriting a language from their parents, but taking their parents’ input and creating something new,” Louden explained.

That was the case with Pennsylvania Dutch, and as generations have passed, the language has moved further and further from its European roots. Speaking of which, why is it called Pennsylvania Dutch if it stems from German dialects? According to Louden, it’s a preservation of “an older use of ‘Dutch’ in British and American English to refer to speakers of Germanic languages in western and central Europe.”

Who Speaks Pennsylvania Dutch?

The majority of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers are Amish or Old Order Mennonites. If you need a mental picture, both groups dress plainly and use horse-and-buggy for transportation. Differences between the groups are nuanced and are explained in detail here.

Donmoyer estimates that approximately 400,000 people speak Pennsylvania Dutch throughout the United States and Canada, but primarily in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. Louden says speakers live in over 30 states and 3 Canadian provinces, and that the number of speakers is growing rapidly.

“Their numbers are doubling every 20 years due to very high birth rates and low attrition,” Louden says. “No other language communities in the world are growing faster.”

There are Pennsylvania Dutch speakers who aren’t Amish or Mennonite, but they have greatly reduced in number over time. Referred to as the “Fancy Dutch,” these people also tended to live in rural areas and take part in farming or other trades, but some of them pursued higher education and married outside their linguistic community. Louden says most of this subsect of “Fancy Dutch” ended up switching to using only English.

An example of what Pennsylvania Dutch sounds like. Courtesy of Wikitongues.

What Does The Future Have In Store?

Both Louden and Donmoyer believe the future of the language is bright. It has not only survived, but thrived for centuries, and this is thanks to the lifestyles of the speakers. The Amish and Old Order Mennonites lead very traditional lives; they live in rural communities, have little or no contact with the outside world and marry within their own social group. These factors all contribute to the natural maintenance of the language.

Louden points to another possible reason for the language’s persistence: “[The Amish and traditional Mennonites] continue to use a form of standard German for worship purposes, which marks a connection to the spiritual heritage that is at the heart of their everyday lives. Maintaining receptive knowledge of German complements their continued use of Pennsylvania Dutch as a vital oral language.”

The number of speakers is growing exponentially, and without any official support, which bodes well for its future.

“As long as the Amish and related groups thrive, so will Pennsylvania Dutch,” Louden said.

This article was originally published on December 13, 2017.

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