What’s that language that the Amish speak? It’s called “Pennsylvania Dutch” or just “Dutch”. It confusing because it’s not the Dutch that people in Holland speak – it’s a dialect of German. So why is everything in Amish country is called “Dutch” when the dialect spoken is really German? This will require a short history lesson, so bear with us.
Deutschland, the homeland
The original Anabaptist Christian movement (meaning “re-baptizers”) began in the 1500’s in German-speaking Switzerland. Many Anabaptists lived in the mountains around Bern, Switzerland, the Alsace-Lorraine and the German Palatinate. In 1693, a conservative sect of these Swiss Anabaptists broke away from the main branch and followed the teachings of Jakob Amman, later known as the Amish. The main branch of the movement was eventually called the Mennonites, after a priest from Holland named Menno Simons.
When the Amish and Swiss Mennonites came to America, they brought with them their Swiss dialect. Along with the many German-speaking immigrants who came to Pennsylvania, the entire group was termed “Pennsylvania Dutch”. Dutch or “Deutsch” is actually German for the German language.
Du sind Deitsch!
Modern Pennsylvania Dutch varies from community to community and state to state. “Deitschers”, or those who can speak Dutch, can always tell if someone is from out of the area just by their way of speaking. English is often mixed into the vernacular so you may catch a few phrases or words if you listen closely. High German speakers will find it difficult to understand and communicate since the Dutch dialect is so evolved – Swiss and Low German is similar but still quite different.
A word to the wise: those of you who read Amish novels may expect to have a good grasp of the Amish language. Believe me, it’s not even a drop in the bucket. I’ve lived in an Amish/Mennonite community all of my life, know enough Dutch and German to be dangerous, but I would not even try to speak Dutch to an Amish person. It’s not offensive to them, but you’ll find yourself to be the chuckle of the day and a good story at their next family gathering. Try speaking Dutch only if you have the ability to laugh at yourself!
A short glossary and the comedic side of “Dutch”
Dutch is really a fun language. This is a short list of common and amusing Dutch words. The words are spelled as they sound.
- Diener – Minister
- Dawdy – Grandpa (Sometimes the little house built next to the big family house is called the “Dawdy Haus“.)
- Mammy – Grandma
- Ferhuddled – Mixed up or confused
- Groombadda mush – Mashed potatoes
- Greeny bonna – Green beans
- Lumba – Dish rag
- Butz – To clean.
- Wie bischt du? – How are you?
- Kannst du Deitsch schwetza? – Can you understand Dutch?
- Schmutz – Grease
- Doplich or Dobbich – Clumsy. “I’m so dobbich, I tripped over my own feet!”
- Loppich – Naughty
- Gook mal doe! – Look at that!
- Strubblich – messy. “My hair is so strubblich!” Grandma used to say this.
- Hook die hanna. – Sit down! Often heard on the bus ride home from school.
- Hinkle – Chicken
- Gol or Golly – Horse
- Kuw – Cow
- Schlock – To hit. “He schlocked the ball over the fence.”
- Bush – Trees. “He schlocked the ball over the bush.”
- Shiddle – To shake. “My custard pie is so slimy, it’s shiddling.”
- Glevalich – Slimy. “My custard pie is so glevalich, it’s shiddling.”
- Iss da Chim dat? – “Is Jim home?” – A direct quote from my youth. The neighbors called us often at 6am, looking for my dad, Jim.)
- Maydy, vit du hayra? “Girl, do you want to get married?” This phrase is actually a well-known Dutch song by Ohio musician John Schmid.
Lost in translation? German has a different word order than English, so the translation to English (and vice versa) can cause fits of giggling.
- I stood up at 6 this morning. “I woke up and got out of bed at 6 o’clock.”
- Make the lights out. “Turn off the lights.”
- The lemonade is all. “There is no more lemonade.”
- Throw the cow over the fence some hay. “Throw some hay over the fence for the cow.”
- We get too soon oldt and too late schmart.
Have an amusing Dutch word or phrase? Post it (clean ones, please) in a response. We’d love to hear them.