Book review: ‘German Language: Cradle of our Heritage’

Apr 29, 2019 by

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How is it that Old Order Amish and some Old Order Mennonites remain bilingual more than 10 generations after their arrival in North America? Most immigrants give up their native tongue after the third generation. Why is the transition to English so agonizing for speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch/High German?

German Language: Cradle of our Heritage

German Language: Cradle of our Heritage

In German Language: Cradle  of Our Heritage — Struggles with Language Change Among Mennonites, Old Order Mennonite historian and farmer Amos B. Hoover traces Mennonites’ preoccupation over the spiritual ramifications of changing from Pennsylvania German to English.

This transition has been taking place for 150 years and continues today. For many, it happened with great reluctance and distress, sometimes leading to church divisions.

Those with vivid memories, as I have, of deliberations about the risk of losing “our way of life if we give up the mother tongue” will find this book a fascinating trip through the history of the acculturation of Mennonite and Amish immigrants to the Americas.

Whether you believe it is silly to hang on to a quaint, minority language or think your spiritual welfare is compromised by giving up Pennsylvania German, German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage provides insight into how language is an integral component of culture.

English funeral sermons for the benefit of attendees who spoke only English, and introduction of the occasional English-language hymn into church services for the benefit of young people, were usually the first steps in shifting to English in Mennonite religious practices. The 1834 compulsory public education law in Pennsylvania accelerated the transition to English, including for Mennonite and Amish children.

Hoover wants to help his own people from the Weaverland Conference — a car-driving Old Order Mennonite group — to understand that giving up one’s native language is part of a broader acculturation, which brings change for good or ill.

He does not so much lament the loss of the language as the loss of vital resources not translated from German to English: The Apocrypha, devotional books, prayer books and hymns, especially the Ausbund.

He contends that the switch to theological and devotional resources from other streams nurtured a more individualistic spirituality. He believes that the switch to English led to a change from “a submissive theology and life­style to an aggressive one” and that the adoption of Meth­odist and other hymns led to a shift from “brotherhood ideology” to a theology centered more on individual piety. Switching to English speeds assimilation to American culture, religious and otherwise.

Though he focuses primarily on the Old Order Mennonite experience, Hoover draws extensively on other Mennonite streams and even reaches beyond the Anabaptist tradition: Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico and Canada, German Baptists, Beachy Amish, Quakers, “Old Mennonites” (the former Mennonite Church), Russian Mennonites (many of whom were part of the former General Conference Mennonite Church), Lutherans and Old Order Amish.

Hoover acknowledges that the issues would be the same for other languages. He quotes a Spanish-speaking brother, who said, “If you force us to lose our language, it will destroy our culture.” When language shifts, other practices and values often change as well. It is no coincidence that the tensions over language change among Mennonites often occurred simultaneously with other changes such as the introduction of Sunday school, use of cars, electricity and youth activities.

In discussions about this book, several Amish friends said, “We speak Amish in our homes.” They meant Pennsylvania Dutch, of course, but their response illustrated Hoover’s thesis that language is integral to a way of life.

No wonder they try to hold on to their native language. They understand the quote in the frontispiece of the book: “The language you speak, you are a child of it.” It makes one wonder how Amish vocational diversification may speed the language transition.

Drawing on his amazing lifetime collection of interview notes, many in Pennsylvania German with English translation, Hoover includes historical information about life in Old Order communities. The notes include Pennsylvania Dutch humor, such as a drawing showing various Old Order responses to language change. Even the tidbits that are irrelevant to language transition enliven the text, such as the explanation of why tropical vegetables — tomatoes and eggplant — are found in every Old Order home and roadside produce stand: The Span­iards imported them from Mexico to the Med­iterranean, where the Huguenots adopted them and took them along to the Palatinate, where they (the Huguenots) were persecuted, and introduced them to the Mennonites.

Color photographs of frakturs that memorialized births, deaths, marriages, baptisms, family registers and other significant events, plus photos of valuable books, meetinghouses, tombstones and historical sites, enrich this work. An attractive cover hints at folk art.

This is an important book for anyone interested in Mennonite history, language and the struggle to be in but not of the dominant culture. In an increasingly polyglot church and world, knowing one’s own history can enhance cross-cultural understanding that is essential for harmonious relationships in a global community.

The book can be purchased at Muddy Creek Farm Library, 296 Wheatridge Dr., Ephrata, PA 17522, telephone 717-354-7635.

Herman Bontrager, of Ephrata, Pa., is secretary-treasurer of the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom and president emeritus of Goodville Mutual.

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