Pennsylvania Dutch: A language that persisted

“Guder Mariye, liewe Kinner!” (Good morning, dear children!)

I start most of my mornings with these four words. What’s most interesting about that statement is that I am an American. My family immigrated to the colony of Pennsylvania in the early 1700s and has been here ever since. Twelve generations later, we still speak the language that our forefathers brought with them across the Atlantic: Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsylvaanisch Deitsch, or PD).

There are very few immigrant languages that have stood the test of time in America. Most immigrants stop using their native language within a generation or two of immigrating in the hopes of assimilating to American culture and society. My forefathers decided that yes, assimilation is important, but we would continue to maintain our language.

Most outsiders to PD culture only associate it with Amish and Mennonite groups. These two groups do still use PD as their first language, and speak it in their homes and in their daily lives. What many people do not know is that they were only one part of the PD who came to America.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, immigrants from Germany’s Rhine Valley and southwestern Palatinate region, as well as from parts of Switzerland, fled to Pennsylvania for economic and religious reasons. The language they brought with them was the one we still speak today. Among those people were religious groups fleeing persecution, like the Amish and Mennonite churches.

Others came in search of land and economic opportunities, and refuge from poverty or war. The latter were Protestants, and included Lutherans, Reformed (Calvinists), Huguenots, and other smaller Protestant churches. These groups are often referred to as the “church Dutch”, or nonsectarians – a category to which my own family belongs.

For over 300 years, our language and culture survived in an ever-growing America. We isolated ourselves to certain geographic regions, predominately in south-eastern Pennsylvania. There we were on small farms, continuing agricultural practices brought over from the old country

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