Thursday, July 28, 2011


Today I received a notification via Twitter - specifically, the Twitter feed of the local newspaper - that a library in the area will be offering lessons in Pennsylvania Dutch. This amuses me.

The Pennsylvania Dutch, the people, are a specific group of Germans. To be considered Pennsylvania Dutch, your German ancestors must have settled in Pennsylvania in the year 1800 or earlier. (My family has been in this county since before the Revolutionary War. Haven't left yet.) Germans who settled after 1800 are regarded as Pennsylvania German. That's not the official distinction, but it's close.

We have a lot of things about us that are, for lack of a better way to phrase it, a little odd. We have hex signs - round pieces of art hung on the local barns. The symbols on the signs used to have significance regarding driving off bad fortune or evil spirits; nowadays, they're really there more for the simple Dutchy reason of "just for nice." We have some peculiar foods, like ring bologna and potato candy. No, really, potato candy. My grandfather used to make it. It sounds bizarre; it tastes delicious, but it's so rich that I could never stand to have more than a piece or two in an entire year.

The language, however, is a bit harder to clarify.

To speak Pennsylvania Dutch is to speak a localized dialect of German. My grandfather-in-law spoke it; the last Christmas he was with us, we were sitting at Christmas dinner and he said something I couldn't understand. My mother-in-law objected: "Daddy, you know I don't understand Pennsylvania Dutch!" I'll never forget the mischievous little grin he got on his face, like a little kid - whatever he'd said, he'd said it because none of us could understand it!

However, and I do wonder if this will be included in the lessons being offered at the library, it's very common to hear locals speaking what we call "Dutchified English." That's an incredibly fun thing to hear, especially when you're in the presence of people who don't know what it is - if you understand it, it's great fun to act surprised when others don't. In truth, until I went away to college and met people who hadn't been hearing these peculiar phrases all their lives, I had no idea they were anything particularly out of the ordinary.

In the words of Sherlock Holmes, "Only the Germans are so discourteous to their verbs." When our German ancestors learned English, they didn't rearrange the order of the words in their sentences. This results in some interesting sentences, like "Throw me down the stairs my pants." We also have expressions like "The coffee's all," which my college roommate considered a particular headscratcher; it means, simply, that there's no more coffee. In a similar vein, there's "You want to come with?" which, if you think about it too hard, admittedly makes no sense at all - and yet it makes perfect sense (to us) in context. Sometimes the language is a bit of a hodgepodge of English and German, too, which is the only conceivable explanation for telling anyone to "Outen the lights."

And then there's "say." I'm not sure exactly why, but that's a very Dutchy thing to do. Tacking "say" onto the end of a declarative sentence turns it into a question, inviting the other person in the conversation to share their opinion on the subject. "It's a nice day out, say?" "That pizza was great, say?" This one is best used sparingly, lest you sound like you're nuts.

But I think this entry's all. It's run on too long, say? Time for me to put in the cat's dish some food and outen the lights before I go to bed.


  1. I believe my paternal great-grandparents were Pennsylvania German, at least briefly, on their way to Nebraska.

    A couple of things I miss about Pennsylvania include hearing someone say "aggs" for eggs, and Fastnacht day.

  2. OMG! You are SO right! It's something you get used to over the years, so you don't really notice. Now that I'm thinking about it, I realize that I kind of miss it down here in FL. And, at times, I find myself saying something like "outen the lights" or something similar. At least my mom, who was born and raised in the Lehigh Valley, understands!


Photo contest! Check it out! (These are mine.)