A Look Back in History: A Shared German Vernacular

Pa. Dutch were working true-grit individuals. Pictured is an old photo  of farmer John Hoch of the Oley Valley. Photo taken in the early 1900s by Amandus Moyer.
Pa. Dutch were working true-grit individuals. Pictured is an old photo of farmer John Hoch of the Oley Valley. Photo taken in the early 1900s by Amandus Moyer. Submitted photo - Courtesy of American Folklife Collection

This proper Americanism, Pennsylvania Dutch, has always indicated a broader group of immigrants who came to America in the pre-American Revolutionary period from Europe’s Rhine Valley, which should be preferred by all serious scholars over the term Pennsylvania German or German-American, since the latter of which are not Americanisms. Hardly had William Penn became the proprietor of the British colony of Pennsylvania in the New World when German Protestants accepted his invitation, as early as 1683, to begin a Holy Christian settlement by his “Society of Friends,” known as Quakers. These German Quakers and Mennonites arrived in his “City of Brotherly Love,” Philadelphia, under their leader, Francis Daniel Pastorious, and founded a suburb of Philadelphia, known as Germantown.

This is where Christopher Sauer printed the first German Bible in the Free World, and thus, Quakers and Mennonites were able to worship God without being forced to join a national church or get any government interference within Penn’s Commonwealth. In time, Germantown became the printing center for the PA Deitsch religious texts and documents for the Pennsylvania Dutch Protestant religions, until the Ephrata Cloister’s press was begun. Shortly thereafter, PA German printers were established in all the major cities of the PA Dutch Country where the Christian religion was followed. The lure of going to America where there was both freedom of opportunity and an abundance of farmland and material resources warranted many Rhinelanders to sell themselves into servitude just to pay off their ocean passage by Colonial sea captains.

These large numbers of Germanic peasants, begging for a new beginning, soon outnumbered William Penn’s English colonists to number a third of the settlers in the early Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The fact that so many Continental Europeans shared a German vernacular, did not seem right for them to be given a German label by Dr. Arthur D. Graeff, a very strong advocate of the term, “Pennsylvania German” in the 1960s. Only could Pennsylvania German be proper when referring to folk art, namely illuminated birth certificates of these people, since the basic text used on these documents was in German, written in an 18th Century script known as Fraktur. But when talking about the social interaction of the Pennsylvania Dutch culture that evolved from 1683 to the present, among the several groups of Swiss Amish and Mennonites and French Huguenots, the exclusive use of the term “German” is not fair to these other assimilated groups of varying ethnicity!

There cannot be any mistake that the German dialect is still the tongue that binds all the Pennsylvania Dutch. But “Pennsylvania German” proponents of the past and present have been blinded to the melting pot process, that through acculturation, the Pennsylvania Dutch culture is in and of itself a unique American institution. As a more urban Pennsylvania Dutchman who graduated from college, I was not exposed to the Pennsylvania German Dialect, and amused by old-timers whom I interviewed early on teased me. A small narrow-minded group of Pennsylvania Dutch who did not believe my pedigree, because I could not “Schwetz Deitsh” (speak Dutch).

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Always admiring the research and writings of Doctors Shoemaker, Yoder, Stoudt, Weygeandt, Kauffman, Robacker, along with historians and folklorists Frances Lichten, Frederic Klees, Robert Bucher, Richard Shaner, Alliene DeChant, Florence and Russell Baver, among numerous others, I was certainly knowledgeable of the culture and its rich, near 350-year history.