Book review: ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’

Oct 10, 2016 by

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What are the roles of language in forming and maintaining religious identity? This fascinating volume explores Pennsylvania Dutch, a language that, nowadays, is “neither explicitly taught nor read nor sung.” Most who speak it are also fluent in English; in addition, many Pennsylvania Dutch speakers use limited German-language skills to listen, recite and sing in worship services.

"Pennsylvania Dutch"

“Pennsylvania Dutch”

Among those who speak Pennsylvania Dutch at home and with coreligionists are Old Order Amish, Beachy Amish Mennonites and Old Order Mennonites.

By 1890, usage of Pennsylvania Dutch, a primarily oral language with roots in 18th-century German immigration to North America, reached its zenith. Perhaps as many as 750,000 Americans and eastern Canadians spoke it. Astonishingly, at that time, only about 5 percent of these individuals were Amish or Mennonite. As Germanic linguistics professor and author Mark Louden acknowledges, “it is surprising for many to learn that for most of the [250-year] history of the language, Anabaptist sectarians constituted just a very small percentage of the total Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking population.”

Throughout the language’s earliest developments and up to the turn of the 20th century, Pennsylvania Dutch was spoken primarily by members of Lutheran and German Reformed groups. Drawing on American religious history, linguistics and literary studies, Louden explains how and why this particular “minority language” shifted significantly in the 20th century. Upwardly mobile and increasingly urban descendants of Lutheran and German Reformed immigrants dropped Pennsylvania Dutch and moved toward monolingual English use. At the same time, many rural Old Order Amish and Mennonite speakers — often known as “plain people” — retained the oral Pennsylvania Dutch tradition as part of a multi­lingual strategy alongside English and German usage.

Louden argues that the Pennsylvania Dutch phenomenon is unusual in the context of American minority languages and the global phenomenon of disappearing languages. Fewer than half as many people speak it now as in its heyday during the late 19th century. Yet this overall decline in numbers is not the end of the story, given the persistently high birth­rates and retention rates among Old Older Amish and Old Order Mennonites. Within these subcultures, where endogamy (marrying within one’s own religious group) is common, Louden argues, adults and children alike “maintain the language effortlessly within their communities.”

Presently, Pennsylvania Dutch is spoken in 31 states and in Ontario, which suggests both a bright future and that the language’s name has long been a misnomer. Of course, the language also owes its survival to a history of governmental non­interference. Unlike Native American languages, for example, Pennsylvania Dutch has never been besieged by legislative or educational policies for eradication in the interest of cultural hegemony.

Although Louden offers persuasive evidence that Pennsylvania Dutch is an autonomous language (rather than a dialect) with German roots in the Palatinate region of central Europe, he notes that it has long been plagued by an image problem. Immediately after the American Revolution, a German physician who traveled through Pennsylvania wrote disparagingly of “Bastard-Kauderwelsch,” (“bastard gibberish”) and a “broken mishmash of English and German.”

This stereotype endured well into the 20th century, when non-Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking Mennonite historians, including John C. Wenger and Harold S. Bender, worried that traditionalists adhering to the oral language were impoverishing themselves intellectually. This, the historians believed, had implications for practitioners in seeking to understand biblical texts and other writings, and hampered functioning in public life.

Writing more half a century after Wenger’s and Bender’s grim prognoses, Louden’s assessment is cheerier, deeming Pennsylvania Dutch speakers to be beneficiaries of linguistic enrichment: “[H]aving not one but . . . three languages at their disposal enables Old Orders to fully meet all their communicative needs, both oral and written, and without interference or confusion.”

The symbolic power that connects Pennsylvania Dutch speakers to each other remains strong, serving “a marker of humility . . . [that Old Order groups] very intentionally aim to live by.”

Louden’s interdisciplinary work, sweeping as it does through centuries of history and across a vast continent, draws on three decades of study into the language’s evolution and social history. For readers not content to simply “read” Pennsylvania Dutch, the author provides opportunities online for listening to the language. A website, padutch.net, developed at the University of Wisconsin, features audio recordings of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers.

Readers interested in other languages associated with Anabaptist groups in North America — including but not limited to Spanish, Hutterisch and Low German — will find ample material in Louden’s book and companion website to raise provocative questions about the merits, and tradeoffs, of maintaining linguistic traditions as part of religious identity.

Rachel Waltner Goossen teaches history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.


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