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Die wunnerbaare Sprooch: Pennsylvania German

As a native eastern Pennsylvanian, I tend to get a little misty-eyed when dreaming of shoo-fly pie or spotting a hex sign – such as the ones on the barn in the picture above.

However, shoo-fly pie and hex signs are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the culture and tradition of the Pennsylvania Germans, passed down over the centuries from their ancestors: the German and Swiss families of the 17th and 18th centuries who settled not only in Pennsylvania, but also in states like Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana. Along with food, music, and staunch Protestantism, they brought with them several German dialects that would eventually—merging and borrowing heavily from English—become the surprisingly homogeneous Pennsylvania (PA) German language spoken by about 250,000 people today.

Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch: a brief FAQ

What is the difference between Pennsylvania Dutch and Pennsylvania German?

There is no difference. In fact, both the term Pennsylvania Dutch and the term Pennsylvania German are interchanged frequently, and either one can mean the language or the people (or, adjectivally, of or relating to these people).

But aren’t the Dutch from the Netherlands?

“Dutch” is actually a misnomer: Pennsylvania Dutch settlers did not originate in the Netherlands. Instead, Dutch may be a corruption of Deutsch (German for German) or perhaps a remnant of a now-obsolete sense of Dutch, n., which meant the German language in any of its forms.

Are all the Pennsylvania German Amish?

No! The Amish (as well as the Mennonites, the larger Anabaptist group from which the more conservative Amish sect split in 1693) comprise only a portion of the Pennsylvania Germans. People from many different walks of life claim PA German heritage and speak the language today; it has no single religious affiliation.

And now on to the really important lesson: neat words, histories, and linguistic connections in Pennsylvania German!

Esse: Cuisine

Where to begin? For many people living in the vicinity of the Pennsylvania Germans, their dishes—and words for their dishes—form part of the common grocery store experience. I mentioned shoo-fly pie: a super-sweet, cake-like pie made with molasses and a crumble topping (from which flies understandably must be shooed). The PA Germans will call it shoo-fly boi—close to the English—but also more traditionally Melassich Riwwelkuche. Riwwel is another word for the large doughy crumbs made by rubbing together egg and flour between the fingers, and may come from the German reiben, to rub. Kuche, of course, means cake (or pastry).

Another famous Pennsylvania German food is the Faasnachtkuche—sometimes also known as fastnachts in English, or more simply doughnuts. However, in PA German tradition, these potato-based doughnuts are eaten primarily on Shrove Tuesday (also known as Pancake Day), as part of that final enjoyment of indulgent food before the forty days of Lent begin. Indeed, Faasnacht comes from the German verb fasten—to fast—and Nacht, night: the night (or eve) of the fast.

And what are you going to wash down all that Riwwelkuche and Faasnachtkuche with? Bug juice, of course! Or, more literally, beetle brew: die Kefferbrieh. However, this is not to be confused with the artificially-colored, sugary drink consumed by thirsty youth at summer camp; instead, it’s the PA German word for liquor. Bug juice can also mean liquor in English, though typically in reference to liquor of low quality.

Not to imply that Pennsylvania German menus consist solely of dessert and alcohol, of course: their cuisine also makes use of fresh produce such as Grumbiere (literally ground-bulbs, or potatoes), Aerbse (peas), and Temaets (more obviously, tomatoes). Along with these crops, the United States is also known for its corn, which the early Pennsylvania German settlers christened Welshkarn, purportedly because anything foreign or strange to these German and Swiss settlers could be described as Welsh (though, etymologically speaking, Welsh is cognate with the Old Icelandic word valskr meaning foreign, and there are early Old English examples of this sense of Welsh as well). And speaking of thoroughly American food: we can’t forget apples, or Ebbel (singular Abbel). The PA Germans are known for turning them into sweet, creamy apple butter, or Lattwaerig (from the German Latwerge or fruit puree, it’s excellent on cottage cheese or bread).

Sprichwarte: Sayings

Pennsylvania German also has its fair share of idioms and sayings. Here are a few, listed from easiest to most difficult for English speakers to understand:

Wu Schmook iss, iss aa Feier

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire!” No explanation needed.

Barye macht Sarye

“Borrowing makes sorrowing.” Again, no explanation needed.

Eegeloob schtinkt

“Self-praise stinks!” (Perhaps in English: A man’s praise in his own mouth stinks.) Schtinkt is a giveaway, but Eegelob is a little trickier; it comes from the German Eigenlob, eigen­- meaning self and Lob meaning praise, cognate with the obsolete English noun lof, also meaning praise (or a hymn of praise).

Kinner un Narre saage die Waahret

“Children and fools speak the truth.” Kinner is somewhat reminiscent of the word children, but it may sooner remind you of the kinder in the German loan word kindergarten (literally, children’s garden). Narre here comes directly from the German Narre, or fools; Narr may stem from the Latin word for narrator, especially as Narre also refers to the storytelling court jesters of yore.

Guut gewetzt iss halwer gemaeht

“Well whetted is half mown,” or more popularly in English, “well begun is half done.” Gewetzt is the past participle of the verb wetzen, which is the same in German; it is related to the English verb whet. Gemaeht is the past participle of maehen, also the same in German (though more commonly written mähen), and related to the English verb mow.

Was mer net weess macht eem net heess

“What you don’t know won’t make you hot”; that is, hurt you. Here, the verb weess comes from German wissen, related to the English verb wit, to have knowledge; in modern English use the verb wit is mostly used in the phrase “to wit”.

Tradition

Rumspringa

If you’ve read anything about the Amish, you have probably read about this: literally meaning “jumping around”, Rumspringa refers to the coming-of-age rite in which Amish youth (typically at the age of sixteen) are encouraged to leave their community in order to spend some time in the non-Amish world. At the end of this period, they are faced with a serious decision: whether to be baptized into the Amish church, or to leave their communities.

The tradition of Rumspringa most clearly reflects the Anabaptist beliefs of the Amish; the ana- in Anabaptism comes from the Greek ἀνά, meaning ‘over again’. That is, Anabaptists—originally a radical Protestant sect of 16th-century Europe—were given the name because they would baptize converts who had already been baptized at birth; they believed (and still believe) that baptism should be administered only to adults capable of declaring their faith.

Die Schnitze-paerdi

Also known in English as “schnitzing parties”, these see Pennsylvania Germans getting together to schnitz or cut apples to prepare them for making Lattwaerig (apple butter, as described above). “Schnitz” certainly sounds German in origin, and you may be reminded of schnitzel, of Wiener Schnitzel fame. However, Schnitzel means slice—schnitzen, to slice. Paerdi comes from the English word party—making Schnitze-paerdi an interesting, and truly Pennsylvania German combination of both German and English. Along with cutting up the apples at the Schnitze-paerdi, participants will chat and spin yarns; more traditionally, the boys would play tricks on the girls while the girls would play games to determine the names of their future husbands

Though Pennsylvania German is still spoken by over 200,000 individuals—and many Pennsylvania German traditions are still very much alive and well—both language and culture are threatened by extinction. World War II may be to blame in part; as anti-German sentiment increased in the United States during the early 20th century, it follows that Pennsylvania-German-speaking parents may have been more hesitant to use it or to teach it to their children. Whatever the reason, it’s worth learning about—and protecting—this rare, living link to the origins of not only Pennsylvania, but of the United States as well.

So if you’re ever in Oscht-Pennsilfaani (eastern Pennsylvania), let me know. We’ll talk about what we can do to preserve Pennsylvania German—after a large slice of shoo-fly boi, of course, since we know guut gewetzt iss halwer gemaeht.