The Amish are a group of traditionalist Christians who live in various parts of the United States and Canada. The Amish speak a version of German known as Pennsylvania German or Pennsylvania Dutch, which is a distinct dialect of the German language that developed in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The term Pennsylvania Dutch is actually a mangling and Anglicization of Deutch, which means German, but leave it to the Americans to turn Deutch to Dutch! So the proper term for the language most Amish speak is "Pennsylvania German."
🧑🤝🧑 The Amish Also Speak English
However, the Amish also learn English in school and use it for communication outside of their community. Some Amish communities may also speak other languages, such as Spanish or French, depending on their location and interactions with other communities.
While Swiss German, a group of Alemannic dialects, is spoken by a majority of the population in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, it is not considered a separate language from standard German.
🇩🇪 German is the First Language For Most Amish
Most Amish learn German first. That’s their first language. Amish parents who want to talk in front of their children (like about a surprise or a serious family issue inappropriate for young ears) without their understanding, will often speak English. Later, especially when they are in school, they learn English. Although, most often, children are picking up on English words, even before they enter school. The most conservative Amish communities, maybe not.
A general rule of thumb is that the more conservative an Amish community is, the more they hew to the German language at home the more progressive and less isolated Amish community is, the more English creeps into the dialect. So, in some Amish communities, you have a real mishmash of German and English being spoken.
Many Old Order Mennonites also speak German, Old Order Mennonites are the horse and buggy Mennonites. The exception being the Order Order Mennonite community in Dayton, Virginia, they have gradually moved to all English, and you rarely hear German anymore
🧀 Swiss-German Speaking Amish
There are some exceptions among the Amish, the Amish that have their roots in Switzerland speak Swiss German, which is really just a group of Alemannic dialects are spoken by majority of the population in the German, speaking part of Switzerland. It is not bilingual is considered a separate language from standard German. However, the Pennsylvania Dutch language has evolved enough in the United States, that if an Amish person from, say, Holmes county, Ohio encounters an Amish person from Berne, Indiana, they have difficulty conversing and understanding one another in German. So the converse in English.
😐 Examples of Amish Settlements that Speak Traditional Pennsylvania German (Dutch)
This list is not meant to be comprehensive, these are just some examples of Amish settlements that speak traditional Pennsylvania German:
- Holmes County, Ohio
- Shipshewana, Indiana
- Adams County, Ohio (Wheat Ridge)
- Lancaster County, PA
🧀 Communities that speak the Swiss German
- Berne-Geneva Indiana
- Webster County, Missouri
😐 Communities Where Both Pennsylvania Dutch and Swiss German is spoken:
- Guthrie, Kentucky
- Milroy, Indiana
- Grabill, Indiana
🕮 Common Pennsylvania Dutch Words
- "Gesundheit" - This means "health" and is often said after someone sneezes.
- "Rutsch" - This means "slide" and is often used to describe a slippery surface or a child's playground slide.
- "Schmutz" - This means "dirt" or "grime."
- "Buggy" - This is a common term for a horse-drawn carriage.
- "Dummerjahn" - This means "fool" or "idiot."
When German dictator Adolf Hitler was trying to unite German-speaking people throughout the world, the Amish caught his attention and there is some evidence that German operatives tried to infiltrate the Amish in the USA, thinking they'd find sympathizers. But all evidence suggests the Amish brushed them off. However, because the Amish spoke German and there was a lot of anti-German sentiment among Americans during WW II, the Amish were viewed by many Americans with suspicion.
❓ Amish Language FAQ
Yes, most Amish use a German-version of the King James Bible. The Amish own a publishing house in Aylmer, Ontario that produces Bibles, textbooks, workbooks, and other materials in traditional Pennsylvania Dutch language.
It's rare, but some Amish learn Spanish. The Amish in Beeville, Texas for instance speak some. And Amish who work with a lot of Hispanic workers in Midwestern factories and processing plants sometimes learn it. The Old Order Mennonites in Quebec speak English, German, and French.