‘I Recognize Every Word, But I Have No Idea What You’re Saying’

For hundreds of years, Pennsylvania Dutch and Swiss German have been spoken in America by the descendants of Swiss immigrants. How do these dialects compare with those spoken in Europe today?

You may know that Pennsylvania German, also known as Pennsylvania Dutch (PD), is the primary language of most Amish and conservative Mennonite communities living in the United States today. What you may not know is that most PD speakers are ethnically Swiss.

Before emigrating to the US in the 18th century, many of their ancestors, persecuted in Switzerland for their Anabaptist beliefs, fled to Germany where they picked up Palatine German – the linguistic ancestor of Pennsylvania Dutch.

Other Anabaptists from Bern and Jura continued to speak Swiss German after emigrating, but since many came to the US via Alsace on the French-German border, their language split into two different Alemannic dialects: Amish Alsatian German and Amish Swiss German. The Swiss German diverged even further between Amish and Mennonite communities.

It can all get rather confusing – even for the speakers themselves.

“I know a family of Amish living here in Wisconsin where the dad is from Adams County, Indiana – where Amish Swiss German is spoken – while the mother is from Allen County, where Amish Alsatian German is spoken,” Mark Louden, a professor of German and expert in Anabaptist studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells swissinfo.ch.

“One of their sons married a PD speaker, and now their kids are growing up with Amish Swiss German, PD, and English – plus, they all understand standard German, too!”

The languages are all similar, but far from identical. Louden explains that as the minority language, most Amish Swiss German speakers can understand Pennsylvania Dutch, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true.

It’s a phenomenon that Guido Seiler, a professor of German linguistics at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, is trying to understand in his research on Swiss German-speaking Amish and Mennonite communities in Indiana.

He hypothesises that Pennsylvania Dutch is better understood by Swiss German speakers than vice-versa because PD is more closely related to the dialects that gave rise to written standard German, which all Amish learn in order to read the Bible.

Welcome to Berne, Indiana

Today, the US state of Indiana has the largest concentration of Swiss German speaking Amish, who came from Switzerland via Alsace in the early 19th century. Many settled in a town in Adams County they dubbed Berne, after the Swiss capital. Today, Berne, IN is still a major centre of Swiss-German culture, complete with a replica of the Swiss city’s Zytglogge clock tower, and a historic Swiss Heritage Village.

Everyday ‘Denglish’

So how do these dialects compare with the standard German and Swiss German spoken in Europe today?

Louden says that PD, Amish Swiss German, and Amish Alsatian German differ markedly from their European ancestors – but not in the way you might think.

“There’s a stereotype that these languages are heavily influenced by English. When Swiss or German people hear them, they are struck by the borrowed English words right away, even though the actual number of words drawn from English is modest – I estimate it’s between 10-15%,” he says. He compares this phenomenon to the use of English vocabulary in contemporary European German, which is popularly known as ‘Denglish’ (Deutsch + English).


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