This post was updated on Nov. 7, 2018 to include a link to more information about the Pennsylvania Dutch language.
One of the important ways in which the culture of Amish communities is defined and maintained is through the Amish language. The Amish speak a German dialect known as Pennsylvania German, and is often referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsche). Amish children learn Pennsylvania Dutch at home and are fluent in it before they learn English.
Conversations between Amish people, whether at home or in public, are typically conducted in Pennsylvania Dutch. If an “English” (non-Amish) person is part of the group, the Amish generally switch to speaking English so that everyone can be included. Outsiders eavesdropping on Pennsylvania Dutch conversations often recognize a generous sprinkling of English words.
Amish children are taught both English and formal German in school. Lessons are conducted in English, although in casual conversation students often revert back to Pennsylvania Dutch. Formal German is also used for scripture readings and spoken during Amish church services. The Amish songbook is written in formal, or high German. The boundary established by this shared language is powerful, creating a very clear sense of who is part of the group and who is not.
I grew up in Southern Michigan and as a teenager worked in my uncles’ Amish restaurants in Wasepi, Michigan; Topeka, Indiana; and Goshen, Indiana. In this setting, I worked alongside many Amish and developed some good friendships with some of them. I never learned to speak Pennsylvania Dutch, though my friends never stopped trying to teach me.