The Pennsylvania Deitsch dialect (which is called “Penn Dutch,” though it has no relationship to Holland) originated in the Palatinate area of Germany over four hundred years ago and was brought to Pennsylvania in the seventeen hundreds with a wave of immigrants: Lutherans, Mennonites, Moravians, Amish, German Brethren, and German Reformed. Penn Dutch was, and is, an oral language; even today, people from different states can understand one another since the language has remained close to its origins.
“Most of what they [German immigrants] knew, they brought here from the Old World,” explains C. Richard Beam, retired full professor of German at Millersville University. “The further back you go, the richer the language.”
Today, only the Old Order Amish and the Old Order Mennonites have retained Deitsch as their first language. Beam worries that the language has been watered down and diluted over this last century, as the external culture has crowded out its rich heritage. Raised in Pennsylvania, Beam says that all four of his grandparents spoke Deitsch as their first language. “We spent time with aunts and uncles and grandparents. That led to a richness of the culture, a preservation of the language. This was prior to radio and television.” Beam is now 84 years old. “There’s a saying I was raised with: ‘’Every time the sheep bleats, it loseth a mouthful.’ That applies directly to the culture today.” The dialect is losing words, he says. “Language doesn’t stand still.”