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Pennsylvania German

Pennsylvania German language

Pennsylvania German (also Pennsylvania Dutch, Deitsch, Pennsylvania Deutsch, Pennsilfaanisch-Deitsch, Pennsilfaani-Deitsch, Pennsilveni-Deitsch, Pennsilfaanisch) is a West Central German variety spoken by 150,000 to 250,000 people in North America. It is traditionally the language of the Pennsylvania Dutch community, and of the Amish community.

In this context, the word "Dutch" does not refer to the people of the Netherlands. "Dutch" here is left over from an archaic sense of the English word "Dutch" (compare German Deutsch, Dutch Duits), which once referred to all people speaking a non-peripheral continental West Germanic language on the European mainland.

The Pennsylvania Dutch (perhaps more strictly Pennsylvania Deitsch or Pennsylvania Germans or Pennsylvania Deutsch) are the descendants of German immigrants who came to Pennsylvania prior to 1800. According to Don Yoder, a Pennsylvania German expert and retired University of Pennsylvania professor, the word "Dutch" in this case owes its origin to an archaic meaning where the word "Dutch" designated groups that are considered today German and Dutch. Although Yoder rejects other explanations, other sources, such as Hostetler (1993) give the origin of "Dutch" as a corruption or a "folk-rendering" of the term "Deitsch". The difficulty is enlarged by the fact that the oldest native term for the Dutch language happens to be Dietsch, a stem that also shows up in the derivation of Plautdietsch. Plautdietsch developed on a mixed Dutch / Low German substrate, according to the Dutch linguist Ad Welschen (2000), which is certainly not the case with Pennsylvania Deitsch. So Deitsch means 'German', while Dietsch means 'Dutch'.

Speakers of the language are found today mainly in Pennsylvania (Dutch Country), Ohio, and Indiana in the United States, and Ontario, Canada. Historically, the dialect was spoken by most persons in Pennsylvania of south German origin, whether Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic, or belonging to any of a number of other Christian denominations. The use of Pennsylvania German as a street language in urban areas (such as Allentown, Reading, Lancaster and York) was declining by the arrival of the 20th century, while in more rural areas it continued in widespread use through World War II but not much beyond. Today, the majority of speakers are either Amish or Old Order Mennonite (see Survival below). (Note that some other North and South American Mennonites of Dutch and Prussian origin speak Plautdietsch, which is a very different Low German variety.)

European origins

The Pennsylvania German language resembles most closely the Franconian dialects of German. This is because Pennsylvania German speakers came from various parts of the southwest German-speaking corner including the Palatinate, Swabia, Württemberg, Alsace, and Switzerland. Most settlers spoke a West Middle German or Franconian dialect, and in the first generations after the settlers arrived it is believed that the dialects merged.

The language which resulted most resembles Palatinate German.

"Deitsch" today in Germany

If visitors from the Pfalz, the area from where many of the Amish people stem, encounter Amish people, conversation is often possible without any problems. There are hardly any differences between the "Deitsch" that is still spoken today in this small part of south-western Germany and the one spoken by the Amish. There are approximately 2,400,000 Germans in Metropol-Region-Rhein-Neckar (a region almost identical to the historical Pfalz) speaking Pfälzisch , the specific German dialect from which the "Pennsylvania German" is mainly derived.


In earlier generations, the Pennsylvania Dutch spoke English fluently but with a strong and distinctive accent. English speakers with a Pennsylvania German accent were sometimes noted for blending the sounds of v and w. The phrase "A wonderful violin," when spoken by a "Dutchman", might be perceived by a mainstream American as being pronounced, "A vonderful violin." The reason for this is interference. The German language does not have a [w] sound, and German learners of English often find it difficult to differentiate between the /v/ in vine and the /w/ in wine. This is also seen often among Germans when English words beginning with the sound /w/ are mistakenly pronounced with a /v/.

Some other examples of Pennsylvania Dutch pronunciation: house=haus (or hoss); once=vunc; you=yuh or du; why=vie; will-vill; the=the or de. Other typical sounds "oh" and "au" ("ow") sounds that are quite broad and virtually un-diphthonged, somewhat like some accents of Canadian English but more pronounced. Consonants like "t", "p" and "s" were spoken as in Pennsylvania German, as described below. The spoken language often had a slow, lilting rhythm, whether the speaker was speaking English or German. Most Pennsylvania German speakers today speak English with only a very slight Deitsch accent, if at all. With many modern speakers of the language, it is English that has "corrupted" the Pennsylvania German pronunciation rather than the other way around.


There are currently two competing writing systems for the language. These use English and German writing systems, respectively, to approximate the sounds of Pennsylvania German. The choice of writing system is not meant to imply any difference in pronunciation. For comparison, the Lord's Prayer written under the two systems, as well as in English and in Modern German, appears below.

English (BCP) Writing system 1 (English-based) Writing system 2 (German-based) Modern German (close translation) Modern German (standard wording)
Our Father who art in heaven, Unsah Faddah im Himmel, Unser Vadder im Himmel, Unser Vater im Himmel, Vater unser im Himmel,
Hallowed be thy name. dei nohma loss heilich sei, dei Naame loss heilich sei, Deinen Namen lass heilig sein, geheiligt werde dein Name,
Thy kingdom come. Dei Reich loss kumma. Dei Reich loss komme. Dein Reich lass kommen. Dein Reich komme.
Thy will be done, Dei villa loss gedu sei, Dei Wille loss gedu sei, Deinen Willen lass getan sein, Dein Wille geschehe,
on earth as in heaven. uf di eaht vi im Himmel. uff die Erd wie im Himmel. auf der Erde wie im Himmel. wie im Himmel, so auf Erden.
Give us this day our daily bread. Unsah tayklich broht gebb uns heit, Unser deeglich Brot gebb uns heit, Unser tägliches Brot gib uns heute, Unser tägliches Brot gib uns heute,
And forgive us our trespasses; Un fagebb unsah shulda, Un vergebb unser Schulde, Und vergib unsere Schulden, Und vergib uns unsere Schuld,
as we forgive those who tresspass against us. vi miah dee fagevva vo uns shuldich sinn. wie mir die vergewwe wu uns schuldich sinn. wie wir denen vergeben, die uns schuldig sind. wie auch wir vergeben unseren Schuldigern.
And lead us not into temptation Un fiah uns naett in di fasuchung, Un fiehr uns net in die Versuchung, Und führe uns nicht in die Versuchung, Und führe uns nicht in Versuchung,
but deliver us from evil. avvah hald uns fu'm eevila. awwer hald uns vum Iewile. aber halte uns vom Üblen [fern]. sondern erlöse uns von dem Bösen.
For thine is the kingdom, the power Fa dei is es Reich, di graft, Fer dei is es Reich, die Graft, Für Dein ist das Reich, die Kraft Denn Dein ist das Reich, und die Kraft
and the glory, For ever and ever. un di hallichkeit in ayvichkeit. un die Hallichkeit in Ewichkeit. und die Herrlichkeit in Ewigkeit. und die Herrlichkeit in Ewigkeit.
Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Since 1997, the Pennsylvania German newspaper Hiwwe wie Driwwe allows dialect authors (of which there are still about 100) to publish Pennsylvania German poetry and prose. Hiwwe wie Driwwe is published twice a year (2,400 copies per issue).

Differences from standard German

As a Franconian dialect, Pennsylvania German is much closer to standard German than are many other modern German dialects, including Bavarian, Swiss German, or any of the northern forms of the language.

The differences from High German (Standard German) can be summarized as consisting principally of a simplified grammatical structure, several vowel and consonant shifts that occur with a fair degree of regularity, an important influence from English in both vocabulary and (increasingly) pronunciation and the use of some words that cannot be tied back to either English or High German roots but seem to be unique to Pennsylvania German or to have their origin in one or more South German dialects.


Pennsylvania German grammar is quite similar to that of High German, with a few simplifications. Like High German, Pennsylvania German uses three genders (der Mann, die Frau, das Kind). Pronouns inflect for four cases, as in High German, but the nominative and accusative are identical for articles and adjective endings (High German "den" becomes "der" in Pennsylvania German). As in other South German and West German dialects, the genitive is replaced by a special construction using the dative and the possessive pronoun: "that man's dog" becomes "dem Mann sein Hund". Adjectival endings exist but are somewhat simplified compared to High German. The past tense is generally expressed with the present perfect tense: "Ich bin ins Feld glaafe" (I went into the field) rather than the simple past that can be used in High German ("Ich lief ins Feld"). The use of the subjunctive, while it exists, is even more limited than in modern High German.

Several Pennsylvania German grammars have been published over the years. The clearest and most concise is A Simple Grammar of Pennsylvania Dutch by J. William Frey, although Earl C. Haag's A Pennsylvania German Reader and Grammar is also well organized and is easier to find.

In Lancaster County and some other regions, the use of the dative has been replaced over time by the accusative, so that "dem Mann sei Hund" (the man's dog) becomes "der Mann sei Hund", and "Ich bin am schaffe" (I am working) becomes "ich bin an schaffe". This is leading to a disappearance of declensions among some speakers.


Most speakers of High German will quickly learn to understand Pennsylvania German if they learn the following basic vowel and consonantal shifts. Many Germans are used to sound shifts of different dialects. They are able to understand, but not to speak other dialects. However, understanding can be hard or impossible if the differences are too big. The sound values are represented under German spelling rules, with the same sound under English spelling rules indicated in parentheses.


  • /aː/ => /oː/ (in some words): schlafen => schloofe
  • /aʊ/ => /ɔ/ This varies from speaker to speaker. Example: auch => "au" or "aa"
  • final /ə/ => /iː/ (in some speakers only, and generally only with feminine and plural endings): gute Frau => guudi Fraa
  • /ɔɪ/ => /aɪ/ Example: neu => nei
  • /o/ => /ʌ/ Example: Bodde (floor) is thus pronounced somewhat like the American "butter", but without the final "r". In contrast, the first vowel of "Budder" (butter) rhymes with the American "took"
  • /ɶ/ => /ɛ/ Example: Köpfe => Kepp
  • /øː/ => /eː/ Example: schön => schee
  • /y/ => /ɪ/ Example: dünn => dinn
  • /yː/ => /iː/ Example: Kühe => Kieh


  • /b/ => /v/ or ww, depending whether the preceding vowel is short or long (only when between vowels, not in initial or final position) (English: b => v). Example: Kübel => Kiwwel
  • /g/ => /j/ (mostly in some words following /r/ plus a vowel). Example: morgen => morje. For speakers with an Americanized r (/ɹ/) sound, the /j/ can disappear.
  • /g/ often becomes silent between vowels. Example: sagen => saage. Since the letter "g" has been retained by so many past writers, this sound was presumably pronounced as a /ɣ/ before it disappeared.
  • /k/ => /g/ (when followed by consonants such as /l/ and /ɹ/). Example: klein => glee
  • final /n/ generally disappears, including in infinitives. Example: [ˈva.ʃən] => ['va.ʃə]
  • /p/ => /b/ in many words. Example: [ˈpʰuːt.tsən] => [ˈbuːt.tsə]
  • /pf/ => /p/. Example: Pfarrer ([ˈpfaː.rər] => Parrer ([ˈpaː.rər])
  • final /r/ after a vowel is even more strongly vocalized than in modern High German, so that "Budder" is pronounced "Buddah". It often disappears entirely from both spelling and pronunciation, as in Herz = Haaz.
  • /r/ in all other positions was originally rolled (/r/, except for with some Amish, who tended to gutteralize it as in modern High German. Today most speakers have migrated to have an American /ɹ/, at least in part.
  • /s/ => /ʃ/ before /p/ or /t/, even at the end of a word. Example: bist => bischt
  • /s/ in all other locations is never voiced (always like the first "s" in the English "Susie", never like the second)
  • /t/ => /d/, especially initially and when followed by /r/ or a vowel. Example: [ˈtʰoːd] => [ˈdoːt]; Butter => Budder
  • w is for many speakers a rounded sound midway between a German and English "w". This does not apply to German /b/ sounds that become "w" and "ww", which tend to be a true German "w". Other speakers use a German "w" more consistently.
  • final /ts/ => /s/ with some speakers. Example: [ˈhoːlts] => [ˈhoːls]

Among the Amish of Lancaster County, there have been numerous other shifts that can make their Pennsylvania German particularly difficult for modern High German speakers to understand. A word beginning in "gs" generally becomes "ts" (which is more easily pronounced), so that German gesund => gsund => tsund and German gesagt => gsaat => tsaat. (This trait is found in Lancaster County outside of the Amish communities as well.) Likewise, German gescheid => gscheid => tscheid (as if it were English "chite"). German zurück => zrick => tschrick (exactly as in American English "trick"). The softened "w" after guttural consonants has mixed with the guttural "r" of earlier generations and also turned into an American "r", so that German gewesen => gwest => grest and German geschwind => gschwind => tschrind (spoken as "trint" would be in American English). These changes in pronunciation, combined with the general disappearance of declensions as described above, result in a form of the language that has evolved considerably from its early Pennsylvania origins nearly 300 years ago.

Adoption of English vocabulary

The southern Germanic peoples who together formed the original Pennsylvania Dutch culture and language arrived in America in the early 18th century, before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This is also true, to a more limited extent, of a second wave of immigration in the mid-19th century, who came from the same regions but settled more in Ohio, Indiana and other parts of the mid-West. Thus, an entire industrial vocabulary relating to electricity, machinery and modern farming implements has naturally been borrowed from the English. For Pennsylvania German speakers who work in a modern trade or in an industrial environment, this increases the challenge of maintaining their mother tongue.

There are a number of English words that have been used since the first generations of Pennsylvania Dutch habitation of southeastern Pennsylvania. Examples of English loan words that are relatively common include "bet" (Ich bet, du kannscht Deitsch schwetze = I bet you can speak Dutch), "depend" (Es dependt en wennig waer du bischt = it depends somewhat on who you are), "juscht" and "juscht abaat" for the English "just" and "just about" (but with the "j" pronounced like an English "y", as in German); "tschaepp" for "chap" or "guy"; and "tschumbe" for "to jump". With some adjustments to the pronunciation, "dad" and "daddy" become "Daet" and "Daadi", respectively; and "mom" becomes "maem" (roughly rhyming with "ham"). A car is, at least for the Lancaster County Amish, a "Maschiin" (just like the English "machine"). Today, many speakers will use Pennsylvania German words for small numbers and English for larger and more complex numbers, like "$27,599."

Vocabulary that is not derived from English or High German

Pennsylvania German contains a number of words that do not exist in standard High German but are derived from any of a number of south German dialects. Potatoes are "Grumbeere"; someone is "ebbe" or "eppe"; something is "ebbes" or "eppes" [Like in the Hessian dialect of German, where "ebbes" = "etwas"]; boy is "Bu" (plural Buwe)[Standard German 'Bub, plural Buben' ]. The demonstrative adjective "seller" (engl. "that one") is found in a number of South German dialects but not in High German. For some words with slightly different meanings in High German and South German dialects, some Pennsylvania German speakers adopt the latter usage: "schwetze" is the standard word for "to speak", while in High German the connotation of "schwätzen" tends in the direction of idle gossip; "schmacke" can mean "to smell" while the High German "schmecken" means "to taste"; "schpringe" can mean "to run" rather than "to jump". "springen = jump, rennen = run".

Where a High German would have a choice between "tun" and "machen", a Pennsylvania Dutchman will generally prefer the former (pronounced "du"). The words "du", "duscht" and "geduh" (in High German "tue" and "tun", "tust" and "getan") appear far more frequently in Pennsylvania German than in High German or even Palatine German.

A number of words are truly unique to Pennsylvania German. What Americans would call "corn" and most languages elsewhere in the world call "maize" is "Welschkorn" or "Welschkann" in Pennsylvania German; "welsch" means "unintelligible" in ancient Germanic languages, and it also means, by extension, "foreign," thus "foreign corn" (since in Germany, rye and not maize is considered to be "corn"). Turkey, likewise, is "Welschhahn", meaning "foreign rooster" because it is not like German fowl. "To like" is "gleiche," which derives from the German word "gleichen," meaning "to be similar."


Pennsylvania German can be said to be dying in at least two ways. First, while it was once used as an everyday language in many parts of southeastern Pennsylvania, today it is not. There are still many among the older generations who speak it; however, most of their descendants know only English. Second, the Amish, who do speak the language every day, use many English words in their Pennsylvania German. Because of this transformation, there is a fear among some that the Amish are gradually losing the language as they slowly replace Pennsylvania German words with English ones. Another concern is that this process is being quickened as land in many larger Amish communities becomes more scarce, which is forcing more Amish to look for jobs outside of farming and in factories where they are exposed to English much more than before.

Only Amish and Old Order Mennonites, i.e., the plain people, are passing the language along to their children in the current generation, although they were originally minority groups within the Pennsylvania German speaking population. According to sociologist John A. Hostetler, fewer than 10 percent of the original Pennsylvania German population was Amish or Mennonite.

However, there is no sign that the Old Order Amish or the Old Order Mennonites who still use the language are about to give it up. In these cultures, the language is a sign of Demut or humility, and the language serves as a barrier against the outside world. Furthermore, with the high birth rate in Amish communities, the possibility is great that the language will survive at least in the short term. In fact, the Old Order Amish population which numbered only about 5000 in 1900 has been doubling every 21 years. If this pace were to hold up, the number of Pennsylvania German speakers could rise quite rapidly in the coming century.

Additionally, there have been efforts to advance the use of the language. Kutztown University offers a complete minor program in Pennsylvania German Studies. The program includes two full semesters of the Pennsylvania German language. In the 2007-2008 school year, the classes were being taught by Professor Edward Quinter. In 2008-2009, Professor Robert Lusch is serving as the instructor.

About 100 Pennsylvania Germans write poems, prose and theatre plays in the dialect. Most of them publish their texts in the Pennsylvania German newspaper Hiwwe wie Driwwe. Since 2005, Pennsylvania Germans work on a Pennsylvania German version of Wikepedia.

Speaker population

In Canada, the Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and many middle-aged and older Mennonites who do not belong to the Old Order, and whose ancestors came from Pennsylvania, speak Pennsylvania German. There are far fewer speakers of Pennsylvania German in Canada than in the United States; however, at least one Canadian Mennonite group has been slower at abandoning the language than their American counterparts.

Such is the case with the automobile Old Order Mennonites, whose members in Canada have continued to use Pennsylvania German in the home, whereas the Old Orders who use automobiles in the United States are making the switch to English.

In the United States all Old Order and New Amish and almost all horse and buggy Old Order Mennonite groups speak Pennsylvania German (the Shenandoah Valley's Old Order Mennonites are the exception, they have many families who speak only English, and their Sunday meetings are conducted in English only). As for the Beachy Amish, there has been a move towards English in many families. There are also diverse groups of those who can speak the language: Lutherans, members of Reformed churches, Moravians, Schwenkfelders, and members of the Church of the Brethren. Together, these people once represented the vast bulk of Pennsylvania German speakers.

These communities are also making efforts to re-teach the language in evening classes; however, as every year passes by fewer and fewer in these particular communities speak the language. There is still a weekly radio program in the dialect whose audience is made up mostly of these diverse groups, and many Lutheran and Reformed church congregations in Pennsylvania that formerly used German have a yearly service in Pennsylvania German. Other non-native speakers of the language include those persons that regularly do business with native speakers.

A fair estimate of the speaker population today would be between 150,000 (a very conservative estimate) to 250,000, although many, including some academic publications, may report much lower numbers, uninformed of those diverse speaker groups.

Among them, the Amish population is probably around 150,000 to 200,000; the Old Order Mennonites population is several tens of thousands, and there are thousands of older, less conservative Mennonites who speak the language, and thousands among older Pennsylvanian non-Amish and non-Mennonites. The Grundsau Lodge, which is an organisation in southeastern Pennsylvania of Pennsylvania German speakers, is said to have 6,000 members.

The number of Amish community members is not easy to estimate. In many cases, what is referred to as the Amish population represents only the baptized members of the community, which does not include younger members of the communities in their mid-twenties or younger. A better estimate is achieved based on the number of gmayna (church districts) and the average size of each gmay or church district. Furthermore, while there are large communities of speakers in the states of Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, there are smaller speaker groups found in and outside those states, and in Canada, scattered among English speakers.

There are no formal statistics on Amish population, and most who speak Pennsylvania German on the Canadian and US Census would report that they speak German, since it is the closest option available.

In Mario Pei's book Language for Everybody, a popular poem in the dialect is printed:

Heut is 's xäctly zwanzig Johr
Dass ich bin owwe naus;
Nau bin ich widder lewig z'rück
Und steh am Schulhaus an d'r Krick
''Juscht nächst ans Daddy's Haus.

(This translates freely as:

Today is exactly twenty years
That I've been over now;
Now I am back [in Europe] again
And stand in the schoolhouse by the creek
Just next to daddy's house.)

See also


External links


In Pennsylvania German

Self instruction

Further information

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