What Language Do Amish Speak?

Unveiling the Dialects of a Traditional Community

The Amish community is known for its simple living, plain dress, and reluctance to adopt many conveniences of modern technology, which interestingly extends to the language they speak. The primary language of the Amish is Pennsylvania German, also known as Pennsylvania Dutch. This language is not Dutch but a dialect of German that was brought to the United States by Anabaptist immigrants from the Alsace, Palatinate, and Switzerland areas. While it shares roots with modern German, it has evolved independently in the Amish communities and incorporates a number of English words.

As they live mostly in insular communities, the use of Pennsylvania Dutch among the Amish serves as a marker of their identity and group cohesion. However, it is not the only language they speak. To interact with the non-Amish world, the Amish also learn English, which gets used in their dealings outside their community, including business, legal, and educational settings. Among themselves, though, Pennsylvania Dutch remains the heart of their linguistic culture, with its nuances and old-world charm setting them apart from the surrounding English-speaking society.

Historical Origin of the Amish Language

The Amish language, known as Pennsylvania German, is deeply rooted in Central European German dialects and has undergone significant developments upon the Amish migration to North America.

German Roots and Palatinate Influence

The language spoken by the Amish originates from a German dialect primarily associated with the Palatinate region of Central Europe. This dialect was historically spoken by ethnic Germans in this area and was one of several regional dialects with diverse influences across Germany.

Pennsylvania German Development

As the German immigrants, including Anabaptists and Mennonites, settled in Pennsylvania, their dialect evolved into what is now known as Pennsylvania German or Pennsylvania Dutch. This dialect reflects a blend of the original Palatinate German with adaptations from English.

The Swiss Connection

The Swiss Amish specifically descend from a sect of Anabaptists known as the Swiss Brethren, speaking dialects such as Bernese Swiss German and Alemannic varieties. When they migrated, they brought these dialects with them, which then contributed to the linguistic tapestry of the Amish language in North America.

Migration to North America

Upon migrating to North America, the Amish and Mennonites established communities primarily in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, as well as in Ohio's Holmes County and parts of Ontario, including Aylmer. Their language has been preserved and continues to be spoken within these communities alongside English.

Amish Language in Daily Life

In the Amish community, language is a cornerstone of cultural identity, often signaling a commitment to tradition and faith. While English is commonly understood, the primary everyday language varies, reflecting the deeply rooted heritage of the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites.

Family and Home

The Amish home is a cradle of language retention, where Pennsylvania German, commonly referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch, flourishes as the primary mode of communication. Within the walls of their households, family members use this dialect to express everything from the mundane to the intimate, solidifying bonds and preserving traditions. Clothing and dress patterns are often discussed in this language, ensuring that even aspects of physical appearance are closely tied to the linguistic traditions of the community.

Religious Practices

When they congregate for worship, High German takes precedence, especially during the reading of the Bible and other sacred texts. This distinct form of German is reserved for church services and spiritual disciplines, reflecting the Amish’s reverence for their ancestral language. Although the liturgical language differs from their everyday speech, it is an integral element that unifies the Anabaptist groups in their religious practices.

Education and Child Upbringing

Language education for Amish children occurs in one-room schools where instruction is conducted in English, acknowledging its necessity for external community interactions. Nevertheless, Pennsylvania Dutch is actively taught and spoken, ensuring that the next generation holds on to the unique dialect. As they grow, children learn to navigate both languages fluently, a testimony to the adaptive strategies of the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites in child upbringing and education.

Interactions with Outsiders

In engaging with those outside their community, Amish individuals often showcase their bilingual proficiency, balancing their use of Pennsylvania Dutch with English to facilitate communication, especially in business circumstances and cultural interactions.

Bilingual Communication

When Amish people interact with outsiders, they often switch from their native Pennsylvania Dutch to English, exhibiting a bilingual ability. This practice allows for meaningful dialogue and connection with non-Amish neighbors and tourists. In Lancaster County and Holmes County, Ohio, where Amish populations are prevalent, English words and phrases are regularly incorporated into their daily vocabulary.

Amish Business Transactions

In the realm of commerce, particularly within shops and other Amish-run businesses, communication is critical. Borrowed words from the English language are frequently used, especially terms related to modern technology and electricity, despite the Amish stance on self-sufficiency. This bilingualism ensures smooth business transactions and allows Amish store owners and craftsmen to effectively cater to a diverse clientele seeking goods like the famous shoofly pie.

Cultural Exchange

Cultural exchange occurs when Amish community members interact with external visitors, often educating them about their lifestyle while also learning about the broader world. Tourism plays a role in this, with people visiting Amish areas to experience a way of life that eschews modern conveniences in favor of simpler traditional practices. In these exchanges, the Amish demonstrate adaptability in language use, often incorporating and explaining terms from Pennsylvania Dutch that have no direct English equivalent.

Through these subsections of interaction—bilingual communication, business transactions, and cultural exchange—the Amish bridge the gap between their traditional world and the surrounding modern society.

Linguistic Characteristics of Pennsylvania Dutch

The Pennsylvania Dutch language boasts distinctive grammatical features and a vocabulary that has evolved through English influences.

Grammatical Structure

Pennsylvania Dutch grammar distinctively preserves certain elements from the German language, yet it also displays unique characteristics not found in modern standard German. Pronouns and nouns within Pennsylvania Dutch often follow the grammatical cases system, though not as rigorously as in German. The language uses three cases: nominative, accusative, and dative, but the genitive case is mostly obsolete.

  • Nominative Case: Used for the subject of a sentence.
  • Accusative Case: Used for the direct object of a sentence.
  • Dative Case: Used for the indirect object of a sentence.

Verb conjugation in Pennsylvania Dutch similarly retains patterns from German but is sometimes simplified. Auxiliary verbs are frequently employed to construct various tenses, and the language uses both strong and weak verb forms.

  • Strong Verbs: Typically involve a vowel change in their past tense and past participle forms.
  • Weak Verbs: Add a suffix to the infinitive to form the past tense.

Influence of English on Vocabulary

The vocabulary of Pennsylvania Dutch is fundamentally of German origin, with a notable accent that differentiates it from the standard German pronunciation. However, it has assimilated a significant number of English words, particularly for concepts and items introduced to the Amish and Mennonite communities post-immigration. For example:

  • Borrowed Words: farm (from English "farm"), schtramm (from English "stream").

The pronunciation of Pennsylvania Dutch also reveals the influence of the English language, particularly in the intonation patterns and the pronunciation of borrowed English words. The vowels in these borrowed terms often adapt to the phonological system of Pennsylvania Dutch, acquiring a distinct accent in the process.

Pennsylvania Dutch speakers are known to adapt English vocabulary into their speech, particularly for terminology that arose after their ancestors emigrated from Europe and for which a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch word does not exist. Consequently, English words are often used for technology, modern appliances, and new cultural phenomena. These borrowed words are sometimes modified to conform to the phonetic and grammatical patterns of Pennsylvania Dutch but retain an "English" sound to native German speakers.

Preservation and Evolution of the Language

The Amish community actively preserves its unique linguistic heritage while facing various influences leading to the evolution of their language. With a steadfast commitment to tradition and education, the community ensures the continuation of their distinct Pennsylvania German dialect.

Language Maintenance in the Community

Maintaining the Pennsylvania German dialect, commonly referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch, reflects a core aspect of Amish identity. It serves as a vehicle for cultural preservation and a marker of self-sufficiency. Amish institutions play a critical role in sustaining the language through conscious efforts aimed at intergenerational transmission. One-room schools offer a unique educational environment where Pennsylvania German thrives alongside standard English, teaching the children the value of linguistic simplicity and linguistic maintenance. This setting reinforces the simplicity inherent in the Amish lifestyle and dialects, contrasting the more complex or 'worldly' standard German often found in wider Lutheran or German-speaking communities.

The Role of Amish Institutions

Amish institutions, including the Mennonite Church and Amish schools, are fundamental in reinforcing the Amish language and identity. Language serves as a bedrock of their communal life, shaping both their spiritual and daily discourse. A conscious effort is made to discourage language simplification that can occur from external influences. Amish schools, primarily in the form of one-room schools, are especially influential, as they often provide instruction in both Pennsylvania German and English, underlining the importance of linguistic duality for cultural preservation. Through these educational practices, the Amish ensure that their language does not just survive but continues to be a living, breathing element of their communal identity.

Cultural Significance and Practices

The Amish language is deeply intertwined with their cultural practices and reflects the community's values and way of life. It is not just a medium of communication, but also a bearer of tradition and identity.

Amish Celebrations and Seasons

Easter and Spring: In the Amish community, family and cultural traditions are strongly upheld, especially during celebrations and seasonal events. Easter, for instance, has great cultural significance in Amish society, marking not only a religious observance but also the beginning of spring—a season that signifies renewal and life in Amish agriculture.

Harvesting the 'Rock': The Amish community is known for its agrarian lifestyle, and the term "rock" in this context refers to the soil—the foundation of their farming practices. Families unite in the act of tilling the land, planting seeds, and harvesting the crops, which is a cultural cornerstone, reinforcing the significance of community within Amish traditions.

Amish Settlements and Migration Patterns

The Amish community has a rich history of settlement and migration within North America, deeply rooted in their quest for religious freedom and agrarian lifestyle.

Expansion in North America

The Amish made their way to North America in waves, seeking both political stability and religious freedom. Their first settlements took shape in southeastern Pennsylvania, particularly in Lancaster County, during the mid-1700s. This area remains a central hub for the Amish community, where the Pennsylvania German language, also known as Pennsylvania Dutch, is widely spoken.

As the community grew, Holmes County in Ohio became another significant area, showcasing a substantial Amish presence. Besides Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Amish have established settlements across various North American regions, including Ontario, Canada. These settlements are vital for the continuity and growth of the Amish way of life.

Migration patterns among the Amish are often dictated by the search for arable land to support their agrarian lifestyle, leading them to explore new territories beyond the traditional areas of Pennsylvania and Ohio. The settlement processes often involve purchasing large swaths of land, establishing new farms, and building communities that live according to Amish customs and the Ordnung, their set of unwritten rules guiding daily life.

Language, as a part of their identity, has remained a staple within the Amish settlements. Despite the geographical spread, communities strive to retain their linguistic heritage, with variations like Swiss-German emerging in certain regions like southern Indiana. As they continue to expand across North America, the resilience and adaptability of the Amish people to maintain their language and customs while forging new communities is a testament to their steadfast commitment to their cultural legacy.

Impact of Technology and Modernity

The Amish community maintains a distinctive lifestyle that embodies the essence of simplicity and a cautious approach towards modern technology. They believe this helps preserve their language and heritage.

Adapting to the Modern World

The Amish people are known for their strategic and limited use of modern technology, which they believe could impact their closely-knit community and principles. They generally avoid electricity from public grids, opting instead for alternative forms of power that fit within their guidelines for simplicity.

This selective adoption extends to their usage of languages. Although the Amish primarily speak a dialect known as Pennsylvania German or Pennsylvania Dutch, they often learn English and High German, managing three languages to various extents. This multilingual ability allows them to interact with the non-Amish world while maintaining their cultural identity.

Their approach to integrating technology serves to protect their language and traditional practices, ensuring that these remain a core part of the community's identity in the face of the fast-paced change characterizing the modern world.


The Amish community primarily uses Pennsylvania Dutch as their everyday language, especially within their own communities and households. This language, deeply rooted in their heritage, is a variant of German and has sustained its usage across generations while also reflecting a unique cultural identity.

For religious functions and formal education, High German is the language of choice, especially when reading the Bible and during church services. It connects them to their spiritual roots and historical texts.

When interacting with the non-Amish population or engaging in trade, the Amish are also conversant in English. This bilingual ability illustrates their practical approach to communication, allowing them to maintain a presence in broader society while preserving their distinctive linguistic and cultural landscape.

By retaining their linguistic traditions, the Amish demonstrate a commitment to their cultural heritage, even as the world around them continues to change. Their languages offer a glimpse into the Amish way of life and are an essential aspect of their identity.


The Amish community primarily speaks a dialect known as Pennsylvania German; also referred to colloquially as Pennsylvania Dutch. This language is a cornerstone of their identity and is used in their daily lives. Most Amish people are bilingual, also speaking English, which they mainly use when interacting with non-Amish individuals. English is typically the dominant medium of literacy.

Language Context of Use
Pennsylvania German Daily conversation, within the community
English Communication with outsiders, written context
High German Religious services, Bible, and songbook (Ausbund)

When they gather for worship, the Amish use High German, especially during church services where sermons are delivered in this language. The Bible used by the Amish for religious services is also written in High German. In fact, the New Testament and other religious texts that the Amish study are in this traditional language, which resonates with their origins and beliefs.

Understanding the linguistic intricacies of the Amish can offer insights into their culture and social organization. Their language reflects both how they preserve heritage and how they interact with the surrounding world. It’s noteworthy how these languages play different roles in the life of the Amish, separating sacred from secular and community from outsider interactions.

For additional information on the Amish languages and how they are utilized within the community, please refer to the following resources:

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