Pennsylvania Dutch in the Public Eye
Mark Louden, Department of German
Pennsylvania Dutch is a North American language that developed from the migration of German speakers to eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. Though it resembles southwestern German dialects, it is not mutually intelligible with standard German. Until the twentieth century, most active speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch were residents of rural Pennsylvania known as the “Fancy Dutch.” A minority of speakers were members of conservative Amish and Mennonite groups known collectively as the “Plain People.” Today, the language is no longer actively spoken by most Fancy Dutch, but among the Plain sectarians Pennsylvania Dutch is thriving. Due to high birth rates and low attrition, the number of speakers is doubling every twenty years, an exceptional situation for an American minority language that is supported neither institutionally nor through continued migration from abroad.
Already in the 1700s outsiders began to take note of the Pennsylvania Dutch and formed a negative view of their language as an unnatural mixture of German and English. This stereotype endures, though Pennsylvania Dutch is gradually becoming recognized as a language in its own right. In this presentation I will share some of my experiences as an interpreter and cultural mediator between Pennsylvania Dutch speakers and outsiders, especially in the legal and health care systems. All Pennsylvania Dutch are bilingual, yet their proficiency in English varies, as does their comfort level in discussing certain matters relating to their faith and lifestyle in English. While the sociolinguistic situation of the Pennsylvania Dutch resembles that of non-English-speaking immigrants to some extent, there are a number of important differences that we will consider.
Dianna Murphy, 608-262-1473
Language Institute, Department of German, and Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures.