German Talk Takes On The Language of the Pennsylvania Dutch

On Friday, March 16, Professor Mark L. Louden, professor of German at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, gave a talk on Pennsylvania Dutch language, an often forgotten language, primarily spoken by the old-order Amish and Mennonites.

Mark Loudon, professor of German at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Louden said that although the language has been described as “miserably broken mishmash,” it is in fact a “uniquely American language.”  Pennsylvania Dutch is actually primarily German, termed Dutch simply because in the two words were used interchangeably for some things in the 1700s.  Since its original speakers brought the language to North America in the early 18th century, they have had very little contact with German, so many of the things invented since then have been called by their English names.  The result is a language with German grammar and a mix of vocabulary that is about 10 to 15% English and 85 to 90% German-based, although many spellings have changed.

Though Louden said that only .08% of the Americans speak Pennsylvania Dutch, the population that does is doubling every 20 years (due to the Amish and old-order Mennonite tradition of having over ten kids per family).  Today the actual number of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers has reached 260,000. He also said that “languages reflect the experiences of their speakers,” and explained that the general isolation of the Pennsylvania Dutch has had a profound effect on their language and explains why it has not disappeared altogether.

After Louden’s talk, Professor Don Yoder, a retired professor of folklore and folk life at the University of Pennsylvania who devoted a good portion of his career to the study of Pennsylvania Dutch, gave a short rebuttal.  Yoder spoke about how being “in the world, but not of it” was an important part of “the plain people.”  He also devoted some time to the distinction between “the plain Dutch” and “the gay Dutch,” explaining that the word “gay” simply means “worldly” (in terms of the immigrants who assimilated into American society instead of remaining in their own communities).  Yoder also said that the other name for them, “the fancy Dutch,” used primarily because of the connotations of the word gay in today’s society, was completely incorrect because the gay Dutch were never fancy people.

Yoder concluded with a challenge to all the students in the room. He said that Pennsylvania Dutch has been recorded many times in history and that “we need to survey and catalogue the collections of the recordings.”  A daunting task to say the least, nevertheless, he encouraged the students in attendance to take up the job if they were interested.

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