What Languages Do the Amish Speak?

The Amish are an insular, socially-isolated group of religious followers who all share a belief in rejecting the modern world in favor of the simplicity of their traditions.

But for all of the Amish beliefs, there’s an important question that has to be answered — what languages do the Amish speak?

This is important to know because it goes beyond the question of what the Amish believe. Instead, it looks deeper into how they communicate, which sets the stage for how they see the world itself.

The short answer is simple. Generally speaking, the Amish know the following languages:

  1. Pennsylvania Dutch (or “Dietsch”)
  2. Swiss-derived German
  3. Modern English

However, like most questions about the Amish, the long answer is far more interesting than the short one.

In this blog, we’ll take a look at the three languages that Amish generally speak and discuss why they’re so important to the Amish experience.

We’ll start with the language that is practically unique to the Amish themselves — Pennsylvania Dutch.

1. Pennsylvania Dutch

Pennsylvania Dutch is a pseudo-language that is almost exclusive to the Amish. With fewer than 150,000 speakers in the United States, it’s also one of the least-known languages.

However, “Pennsylvania Dutch” is a completely misleading name for this language for two reasons.

First, it’s not exclusive to Pennsylvania.

Despite its name, Pennsylvania Dutch is spoken in Amish communities throughout the world. This includes the titular Pennsylvania, and it extends to Amish communities in Indiana, Illinois, New York, and even Ontario.

There are naturally going to be regional variations of Pennsylvania Dutch in each of these communities, just as there are regional variations of English throughout the United States.

But these are dialects — the base language is still the same.

There’s also a second reason that “Pennsylvania Dutch” is a misleading name for this language — it’s not Dutch.

Pennsylvania Dutch is derived from German. In fact, the name for “Pennsylvania Dutch” in Pennsylvania Dutch is “Dietsch.”

German speakers will recognize this as a near-duplicate of the word “Deutsch,” which is the German word for “German.”

This is because Pennsylvania Dutch is derived directly from German. The Amish were founded as an Anabaptist denomination, and they were formed when they split with mainline Swiss Brethren.

The Amish then made a concerted effort to leave Europe and head to the New World. This geographic distance and isolation from the parent language allowed Pennsylvania Dutch to mutate into its own regional pseudo-language.

In fact, if you were to trace the linguistic family tree of Pennsylvania Dutch all the way to its base roots, it looks something like this:

  • Indo-European languages
    • Germanic
      • West Germanic
        • Irminonic
          • High German
            • West Central German
              • Rhine Franconian
                • Palatine German
                  • Pennsylvania Dutch

For reference, High German is the version of German that is spoken in modern Germany and other German-speaking countries.

This means that Pennsylvania Dutch is not just German — it’s an offshoot language of an offshoot language of an offshoot language, etc.

This is a big reason why Pennsylvania Dutch has a similar sound and sentence structure to modern German, but it still sounds distinct. Words like “rutsching” are unique to Pennsylvania Dutch, despite the obvious German heritage that created the word.

However, all of this means that Pennsylvania Dutch still has ties to its parent languages, including regional variations of German.

As a result, some Amish also speak a similar language — Swiss German.

2. Swiss-Derived German

Swiss-derived German — more formally called Palatine German — is a regional dialect of German that is spoken in Switzerland and the surrounding area.

One of these surrounding areas includes the French region of Alsace.

Alsace plays a critical role in the history of the Amish because it’s where they truly became Amish after separating themselves from the Swiss Brethren.

Alsace was the first home of the Amish, and it allowed them to be relatively free while worshipping in relative isolation from the rest of mainland Europe.

This is crucial to understand because, at the time, both Catholics and Protestants were eager to kill any members of an Anabaptist denomination, including Mennonites.

Because of these denominations’ unifying belief in non-violence, they didn’t have the option to fight back.

Instead, they fled into isolation.

Alsace gave the Amish the peace and solace they needed to continue practicing their faith, but it also led them to speaking the original German that was their native language.

As we established earlier, the Amish then left for North America, and the language continued to mutate into Pennsylvania Dutch.

However, there are some Amish — particularly those with ties to those who study and speak the language — who maintain an oral and written understanding of Swiss German today.

While distinct, it’s shockingly similar to High German, which is the dialect that’s taught in most American schools.

As a result, taking high school German classes can allow someone to communicate with the Amish in one of their native languages.

You don’t need to do this, though. Instead, you can speak the third language of the Amish.

3. English

English is the preferred language of the Amish in almost all parts of life, including social gatherings and religious ceremonies.

It’s how the Amish do business, how they work with one another, how they raise children, and more.

The dominance of English in the Amish lifestyle has led to a decline in speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch and Swiss German, particularly in more densely-populated areas like Lancaster, PA.

(We say “densely” as a relative term. Compared to isolated white topper communities in Central Pennsylvania, Lancaster is a bustling metropolis.)

The only differences that you may hear in “Amish English” are found in grammar. At times, it may sound like an Amish person is mixing their verbs and nouns around in a sentence, which can make it challenging to follow.

This is especially true for Amish who don’t live near English-speaking communities (again, like those in Central Pennsylvania).

There’s an important reason for this that goes back to linguistic principles.

All German languages conform to a pattern of speech and writing called Subject-Object-Verb (SOV).

This means that proper grammar follows this sequence in these languages.

English is the opposite. English is a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) language, so proper English sentences follow this pattern.

We’ll use an example sentence to compare. In this sentence, we’ll describe someone eating food.

Subject-Object-Verb (German) word order: Beatrice cake ate.

Subject-Verb-Object (English) word order: Beatrice ate cake.

In German, “Beatrice cake ate” makes sense because nouns and verbs change based on how they’re used in a sentence.

In English, “Beatrice ate cake” makes sense because verbs change based on nouns.

(There are other reasons — but I’m not intelligent or educated enough in the field of linguistics to understand or explain them.)

So while the Amish do, in fact, speak English, you may notice that it’s a challenge to follow the same way as a native English speaker.

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