An Amish dialect?

I spent last week in southeastern Pennsylvania, near the heartland of the Amish, an isolated religious group which shuns modern dress and lifestyle.  This resulted in the strange experience of spotting teenage girls in a local mall clad in clothing more typical of 18th-Century Europe than 21st-Century America.  And me being me, I couldn’t help but wonder what an ‘Amish dialect’ of English might sound like.

Although English is common in this culture, the Amish dialect seems out of step with the surrounding ‘native’ English.  Note the unique accents heard in this BBC Two documentary about ex-Amish leaving their society for the modern world (speech samples begin at :38):

I would note a few salient accent features here. I was struck by the young woman’s entirely non-American pronunciation of ‘says’ as if it rhymed with ‘ways’ [i.e. IPA seɪz].  She also exhibits some apparent German influence in her pronunciation of ‘decisions’ as ‘dezisions.’  Note too the frequent use of a glottal stop for the letter ‘t,’ a feature more typical of many types of British English than Pennsylvanian.  The intonation of this accent is unusual as well, unlike the patterns typical of Americans.

By the way, it should go without saying that by ‘German’ I don’t mean the type of ‘standard’ German spoken in contemporary Germany.  Rather, the Amish dialect of the language is a type of High German that would be entirely incomprehensible to someone from, say, Berlin.  (Although it maintains some similarities to another language derived from High German, Yiddish).

That being said, the German language is not what comes to mind when I hear the accents in the clip above.  Rather, it seems the Amish dialect of English is a unique variety that, while it exhibits some foreign influence, has a number of entirely innovative features.  In fact, one would be forgiven for mistaking the accent spoken in the clip above for some obscure type of Irish or British English (albeit one exposed to American speech).

Any other impressions?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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20 Responses to An Amish dialect?

  1. Danny Ryan says:

    Amish German (Pennsylvania Dutch, Pennsylvania German) is readily understandable by contemporary German speakers in Germany and Austria, especially those familiar with the central German dialects of the Palatinate, Hesse and the souther western dialect of Swabian. The almost extinct Pennsylvania German of the non-sectarian speakers is close to identical to general Palatinate dialects, while the sectarian speakers of the Old Order Mennonites and Amish are more progressive in speech, showing more dialect leveling, English influence where the phonology is concerned and grammatical simplification. Their speech community on the other hand is growing with an above average birth rate and is more readily transmitted to the next generation.

  2. Quirky Case says:

    I’d add that modern standard German is actually a ‘High German’ variety…

  3. trawicks says:

    @Danny,

    It’s probably true that the dialect is comprehensible in some German-speaking areas of Central Europe (I’ve heard it rumored, by the by, that Yiddish is mutually intelligible with some varieties of Swiss German, but I don’t know enough to comment). That being said, it strikes me that PA German wouldn’t be mutually intelligible with “Standard” German unless you were already familiar with similar dialects. I’m not positive however, as I’m no German expert!

    @Quirky Case,

    That’s true, although I don’t mean suggest that Standard German belongs in a different category. It’s just a different variety.

    • Danny Ryan says:

      German speakers from Europe tend to understand Pennsylvania German a lot better than the other way around as they are used to hearing different dialects and colloquial varieties of German.
      I cannot imagine that Swiss German and Yiddish are mutually more comprehensible than any other central or high German variety. Yiddish is based on late mediaeval city dialects of central German and the German element is readily comprehensible to a German speakers after getting to grips with some of the Yiddish specific vocalic changes. The difficulty in understanding Yiddish for the German speaker lies in the vocabulary with its strong Hebrew and some Slavic adstrate. This would be the same for a German German speaker as it would for a Swiss German speaker. I imagine a Viennese dialect speaker would get quite far with Yiddish, not only because the Western Yiddish variety traditionally spoken in Vienna (alas, almost extinct after the Holocaust), was closer to Viennese and also gave a large chunk of colloquial vocabulary into the local dialect.

  4. Ian says:

    I also noticed the following features:
    * Fronting of GOAT (which isn’t too out of place in Pennsylvania)
    * A “clear l” in colors at 0:47
    * Fairly open TRAP by American standards

    • dw says:

      Sounds like RP 🙂

    • trawicks says:

      The open trap vowel is most noticeable at the end, when the young woman asks, “How many miles does it have?” Then again, a more typical ‘American’ TRAP vowel is heard at a few points. You might also notice that the vowel in LOT varies between a rounded and unrounded vowel. It suggests there might be two competing influences here, perhaps an older PA Dutch dialect (of English) and the local “English” dialect.

      • Ian says:

        The thing is though, even a “proper [æ]” (if the recording here can be taken to be a “proper [æ]”) doesn’t sound like my typical realization of TRAP. To me the [æ] on that website sounds like what I thought [a] was supposed to sound like. And the [a] sounds way too “[ɑ]-ish”, if that makes any sense to anyone at all. And the [ɑ] sounds too “aw-ish”. Maybe I have the NCVS and just didn’t realize it until now. Wow 🙂

        • dw says:

          The [æ] on that site sound correct to me.

          However, I agree with you that both [a] and [ɑ] sound wrong, the former being too front and the latter too rounded.

        • dw says:

          In my experience, hearing a [æ] in TRAP/BATH words is a rarity in North America outside a few specific areas. It’s usually fronter/closer, especially in a pre-nasal environment.

  5. Lauren says:

    Kate Burridge did her PhD thesis on Pennsylvanian Dutch back in 1983. In 1998 she published the excellently named “Throw the baby from the window a cookie English and Pennsylvania German in contact” in “Case, typology, and grammar: in honor of Barry J. Blake.” I think her focus is more syntactic transfer rather than accent features but you might find something interesting in there.

  6. boynamedsue says:

    I’m surprised at Danny’s info, while not doubting him. The German spoken by Mennonites in Paraguay is very different from standard German, to the point where I would question whether it was always intelligible. It contains a lot of calques from Spanish, which is strange because only a minority of Parguayan Mennonites speak Spanish to native level.

    At Santa Cruz airport, I once saw two secular-looking mennonites starting a conversation with their plain-dressed coreligionists by saying “Sprakze Alemansch?” (a rather unnecessary question, but social conventions are the same everywhere). Bu that phrase certainly wasn’t in my school German textbook.

    • Danny Ryan says:

      Sorry, I should have clarified that I was speaking about the Old Order Mennonites that originated from Pennsylvania. They basically spoke the same dialect of German as the Amish. There are Mennonites in other areas of the Americas whose origin goes back to very different areas in the German speaking areas. Many Mennonites in Texas and adjacent areas speak varieties of Low German, which really are quite different from Standard German.
      I afraid I don’t know anything about the Mennonite community in Paraguay, so I cannot comment on it.

  7. trawicks says:

    @Lauren,

    Thanks, Lauren! Syntactic transfer would be interesting to know about, since most of what could be gleaned from the above clip was just pronunciation.

    @boynamedsue,

    I’m still looking for some kind of comparison between the two types of German. There’s a side-by-side comparison in this Wikipedia entry, but it’s perhaps a little dubious.

  8. Pingback: Friday's Featured Accent: The Amish | Friday's Featured Accent | The Accent Lab

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