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In the 2010 United States Census, it is recorded that forty-three percent of Holmes County spoke a language other than English in their homes. The "other" language in this case is a German dialect known as Pennsylvania Dutch. If you visit Amish Country and hear two Amish speak, it will often be in this language which allows for cultural and social interactions that are unique to any group with a distinctive language. Not to be confused with the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands, this language has deep roots in the shared history of these people.
Today almost all the Amish are functionally literate in Pennsylvania Dutch and in English. Most business and interactions with the outside world are in English, and much of the reading and writing by the Amish are in English. Most Amish can interact well with the American language, and many are polite enough to switch quickly to English out of respect to visitors. English is the language of their education as well. Amish schools recognize the need to teach English and most if not all lessons are done in English. This gives the students an opportunity to learn how to interact in English. It also recognizes that the Amish care about interactions with the broader world where English is the language.
However, most of the interactions within the Amish, such as their church services, conversations at home, and connections within the community are in the Pennsylvania Dutch language. This distinction allows the language to be developed while at the same time allowing the Amish to interact with the non-Amish in polite and meaningful ways.
One might question the need to "keep" the language alive in a world where they could just as well use English. Language and language distinctions are important cultural distinctions for any group. The use of a distinctive language, which according to linguist Mark Louden has been spoken continuously since the late eighteenth century even though it has not been 'refreshed' by later waves of immigration from abroad," is important because it allows a way to communicate that is deeply tied to their memory and story.1
For those people who have deep connections to the Amish community, such as physicians, hospitals, educators, and other businesses, a basic knowledge of the language aids them in interacting with the Amish. In times of trauma or illness, the Amish, like any bi-lingual group for whom English is a second language often have difficulty expressing themselves. Many doctors in the community have at least a basic knowledge, if not proficiency, in the language. This allows them to hear these people in their native tongue. Many hospital systems that interact with the Amish have hired someone who can serve the Amish as translator in these most difficult times of their lives. Local public school systems often have one or several staff members who are fluent in the language and able to assist those students who have difficulty expressing themselves.
I close with a personal story. As a six-year old Amish boy I attended a local public school where over 75 % of students were Amish or Mennonite. I remember well when the teacher asked us to report on what we had done the previous weekend. My family had attended a local auction and I could not remember how to say that in English. My teacher graciously asked if I could say the word in Dutch. I said, "We went to a Fenue." She was able to graciously offer me the opportunity to express myself, without the ridicule that often comes from peers. While sometimes awkward the prospect to connect to the rich heritage of a shared language and the opportunity to carry on significant conversation with my 92-year-old grandmother in her tongue before she died, is well worth the occasional gaffe that often comes to those who are bilingual.
When you visit Amish country think about the fact that when you hear these people speak it is deeply connected to five-hundred years of history and shared story that has weathered many storms. Ask your Amish friends to teach you a few basic words so you can get the flavor of this language. Enjoy the fact that in a world where languages and dialects are lost every day, this is a thriving growing language that allows expression and life to this group of people.
If you wish to learn more about the Amish, their language, or their place in history, plan a visit the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. The Center offers guided tours of "Behalt" - a 10 ft. x 265 ft. cyclorama oil-on-canvas painting that illustrates the heritage of the Amish and Mennonite people from their Anabaptist beginnings in Zurich, Switzerland, to the present day. Behalt means "to keep" or "remember." The Center is open Mon-Sat 9:00-5:00 and is located near Berlin, OH at 5798 County Road 77, Millersburg, OH 44654. Please call (330) 893-3192 for more information or to schedule a group tour.
1 Mark Louden, Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore: 2016), xi.
Marcus Yoder was born to an Amish family in the heart of Amish Country. His family later moved to the Mennonite church where Marcus takes an active role in preaching, teaching, and writing. He is the Executive Director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. In his thirties he decided to return to school and has a BA in history from The Ohio State University and a MA from Yale. He enjoys reading and writing and spending time with his wife, Norita.