The Amish are well-known throughout the world for living an ultra-conservative lifestyle that shuns the luxuries of modern life.
But other than that, there are a lot of questions about how the Amish go about their daily lives — particularly around their language.
Because the Amish are known to have come from Western Europe and migrated to North America, it’s a common belief that the Amish speak German. And in truth, some Amish may.
But do the Amish officially speak German? No.
If you want to know the details, here’s why.
Why Don’t the Amish Speak German?
This answer requires a look at a lot of historical details and geographic information that may not interest everyone.
If that applies to you, here’s the short answer — the Amish don’t speak German anymore because they’ve been isolated from native German-speaking populations. When this happens, languages change into different dialects, some of which may be unrecognizable to the original populous. This is what happened to the Amish.
(See Pennsylvania Dutch as an example.)
If you’re interested in the long answer, here we go!
Originally, the Amish formed in German-speaking Switzerland when their founder, Jakob Ammann, caused a fissure with his denomination of the Swiss Brethren.
Essentially Swiss Mennonites, the Brethren and Ammann came to an impasse when determining how the church should dole out punishments.
Ammann was a firm believer in excommunication — now called “shunning” — and fought for it tooth and nail.
The other elders of the Swiss Brethren stressed more forgiving punishments.
After years of deliberation and degrading relationships, Ammann (plus a few of the other elders) voted to excommunicate the opposition from the Swiss Brethren.
The opposing elders also voted to excommunicate Ammann and his side.
Outraged, Ammann stormed from Switzerland and his followers made for the mountainous, geographically-isolated region of Alsace, which borders France and Germany.
At the time, this territory was held by France (though it changed hands with Germany frequently throughout history). Ammann and his Swiss-born followers came there and spoke German, predominantly.
Prior to Ammann’s death, King Louis XIV exiled all Anabaptists from France — which included the Amish.
Ammann and his followers then searched for a new home. Eventually, they landed in the New World by means of Philadelphia and / or New York.
When the Revolutionary War happened, the Amish escaped conscription into the Continental Army by escaping into the Pennsylvania wilderness because of their pacifist beliefs.
There, pockets of Amish communities settled on arable farmland to carve out a new life for themselves where they could practice their faith in peace.
Over time, the Amish have continued to migrate among different pockets of population. Lancaster is literally nicknamed “Amish Country,” but there’s also Harrisonburg, Virginia and Goshen, Indiana, among other areas.
Once settled, these populations lost their connectivity to their native Switzerland. In Europe, German-speaking populations continued to change the language as time changed.
The Amish populations in America did the same — but they did it completely separated from German-speaking Europeans.
The result is a pseudo-pig language called “Dietsch” — better known as Pennsylvania Dutch — that is spoken semi-natively by the Amish.
The reason we say “semi-natively” is because Pennsylvania Dutch is a dying language these days, even among the Amish. There are still a fair amount of speakers in areas like Lancaster, but modern generations of Amish haven’t placed as much of a priority on the language as their ancestors.
There’s another reason for this — Pennsylvania Dutch isn’t a pragmatic language to speak anymore, especially for Amish populations that are somewhat integrated with mainstream populations.
This is the case for Lancaster, in particular. The Amish community plays a major role in a huge variety of industries, including construction, tourism, hospitality, and farming, among others.
These professions require the Amish to interact with non-Amish — called “worldly” or “English” — on a regular basis.
Because the non-Amish don’t know Pennsylvania Dutch, most Amish will find themselves speaking English for most of the day.
Because of that, the Amish don’t have the time or need to practice Pennsylvania Dutch.
And because of that, the language is quietly dissipating from modern Amish speech.
All of this is to arrive at this conclusion — the Amish don’t speak German because they have no ability to keep modern German alive and well within their communities.
Their isolation from Europe via the Atlantic Ocean prevents them from easily communicating with anyone in German-speaking countries, and many Amish families probably can’t trace their lineages to the point where they could identify family members still in Europe.
And even if they could, the ability to communicate overseas is largely based on technology. While some Amish communities find loopholes to use devices like smartphones, the practicality of calling someone in Germany is small, if it exists at all.
Plus, most Amish communities have been around for so long that they no longer have firm ties outside of the communities themselves. As we’ve said a few other times in this blog, the Amish are isolated because of their beliefs, geographies, technological savvy, and more.
Finally, the Amish conclude their educations after eighth grade. This means they don’t do the same things that other American schools do — like learn a new language.
Amish schools are one-room houses that teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. That’s all they need to survive — so that’s all they learn.
As a result of all of this, speaking authentic German is one of the last things on the mind of an Amish person.
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