But what is it about Amish and Mennonite speech that’s so unique? And why isn’t there a guide that tells you what their unique collection of throw-in words means in plain English?
In this blog, we’ll answer those exact questions with a quick glossary explaining some of the most common differences in Mennonite and Amish speech when compared to other English speakers.
After all, Amish and Mennonites predominantly speak English in the United States. Its the use of that language that differs from society at large. Amish and Mennonites speak in a way that emphasizes throw-in words that in some contexts can change the meaning of a sentence or, in many cases, add no additional value whatsoever.
Generally speaking, there are five throw-in words that you’ll hear more than any others in Amish and Mennonite speech, plus idiosyncrasies from one pseudo-language:
- Pennsylvania Dutch
We’ll start with the words you’re most likely to hear in conversation and get more obscure as the list progresses.
1. Once (Also Pronounced “Wonst”)
Definition: Soon; in a moment; in the near future; imminently; please
Example Sentence: “Pass me that hammer once so I can drive this nail.”
“Once” is probably the most-used throw-in word that you’ll hear from Amish and Mennonite speakers.
It doesn’t add much to a sentence’s original meaning in most cases. Often, it only serves to mean that someone is going to do something or should do something in a few moments.
A lot of the time, you’ll hear this word used when someone is asking for some kind of small favor. In this context, “once” can also indicate that the asker is being polite.
Someone sitting at the dinner table could ask, “Can you pass me the salt once?”
However, you probably wouldn’t hear them say, “Can you please pass me the salt once?”
This is because “once” is the polite indicator of the sentence, and it doesn’t need to be repeated with “please.”
This doesn’t happen for any structured reason. Amish and Mennonites both say please in their everyday life, and generally speaking, both groups are polite in conversation.
The difference is in the size of what’s being requested or indicated. Someone says “once” when they know the favor will be quick, easy for the other person, and not require any form of compensation.
It’s just a quick favor.
And you can do it “once.”
Definition: Meaningless; also; replacement for “once”
Example Sentence: “Hand me that beer, yet.”
“Yet” is another common throw-in word that you’ll hear from Amish and Mennonites.
However, “yet” is different from all of the other terms on our list because, in this context, “yet” is meaningless.
You’ll hear “yet” all the time from Amish and Mennonite speakers in places where you wouldn’t hear any other words from other English speakers.
At times, it can mean “as well” or “also.” But these times are few and far between compared to the amount that “yet” is said with absolutely no consequence to the meaning of a sentence.
Even more rarely, “yet” can fully replace the word “once” as a throw-in word in a phrase.
If you’re a tourist to an Amish or Mennonite area, you may hear the Holy Grail of throw-in words every once in a while: “once yet.”
And, if you were raised Amish or Mennonite like me, you know you’ve probably had a few “once yet” phrases slip too.
It happens to the best of us.
Meaning: In the meantime
Example Sentence: “I forgot my keys. You get in the car awhile and I’ll be right out.”
“Awhile” is a less-used throw-in word compared to the first two on our list, but it also has a single, definitive meaning.
That sets it apart from the lion’s share of Amish or Mennonite vernacular that you don’t hear anywhere else.
In short, it’s best to think of the word “awhile” as the phrase “in the meantime.”
Someone will say that you can do something “awhile” to indicate that you don’t have to wait on them or whatever they’re doing before you get the chance to do something.
In that way, “awhile” is also meant to be polite, just like “once.” But this is more to rid the guilt of the speaker than it is to allow someone to know they don’t have to wait.
This is because Amish and Mennonites share a common theme of not wanting to burden anyone with anything. You may also be familiar with this idiosyncrasy if you’re from the Midwest or a part of another subculture that emphasizes politeness.
In all of these cultures, you don’t want to be the reason that someone else can’t do something. As a result, you get throw-in words and phrases that let someone say “Hey, don’t wait on me — I know you have other stuff going on.”
Meaning: Completely gone; synonymous with “all gone”
Example Setting: “Sorry, I had the last slice of shoefly pie. It’s all.”
“All” is a simple throw-in word that’s more of a contraction than a new term.
In almost all (ha!) of its uses, “all” is a shortened form of “all gone.”
A pie that’s been eaten is “all.” The last nail that’s used on a barn means the nails are “all.” If furniture is out of stock, it’s “all.”
There’s not much else to this one. It’s a simple word with a simple and precise meaning.
Meaning: To squirm or shuffle in your seat; to re-situate while you’re sitting or lying down
Example Sentence: “I could hear the person’s chair behind me in the theater. They were rutsching around for the whole movie.”
“Rutsch” is a Pennsylvania Dutch word that was co-opted into English because there’s not an existing English equivalent.
In the simplest terms, “rutsch” means to shuffle or resituate, usually creating a lot of noise or motion at the same time. “Rutsching around” is the common phrase that you’ll hear someone say when they’re asking someone if they’re moving or asking them to stop moving.
If someone is rutsching near you, you’ll probably feel them shift and move. If it gets annoying, you may ask them to “stop rutsching around.”
6. Pennsylvania Dutch (Anything That Sounds Vaguely German)
In addition to “rutsch,” you could hear any number of additional Pennsylvania Dutch (also called “Dietsch”) words thrown into English speech with an Amish or Mennonite person.
More often than not, these words come form the Amish, who speak Pennsylvania Dutch much more commonly than most Mennonites.
Pennsylvania Dutch itself isn’t considered its own language, but it is considered a kind of “pig” language that mixes a lot of different grammatical rules from other existing languages and spoken in a very small, niche community.
Most of these words are similar to their German equivalents. For example, the Pennsylvania Dutch word “schmartz” means “hurt” and “to hurt.” This word comes from the German word “schmertz,” which means the same.
Maybe the most famous Pennsylvania Dutch word is “doppich.” While it’s not used nearly as much as the other words on this list, “doppich” is the Dietsch equivalent of saying someone is clumsy.
Some English speakers may use the word “doppic,” “doplic,” or “doplick” as well, though these are all derived from the Pennsylvania Dutch “doppich.”
Generally speaking, you can get a good grasp of Pennsylvania Dutch if you know modern German. The words, conjugations, and grammar are all similar enough that it’s almost like speaking a dialect instead of a different language.
Still, Pennsylvania Dutch has been around for a long, long time. Today, it has whole new suites of words that are used for modern phenomena, and they’ve been made separately from their German counterparts.
So, at some point, Pennsylvania Dutch will become much more difficult for someone to understand, even if they have a background in speaking German.
However, the Dietsch-speaking community is so small that it may take centuries for it to become a distinct language — or it could be forgotten entirely.
Regardless, there are already some Pennsylvania Dutch words that have made their way into American English, and they’re here to stay for quite some time.
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