PHILADELPHIA – On any Amish homestead, after labor’s last push and a check for 10 fingers and 10 toes, family members have heard one of two things for centuries.
“Sis en Bu” or “Sis en Maedel.” “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl.”
That language is Pennsylvania Dutch, and the gender announcement isn’t some old-fashioned tradition the Amish use only during childbirth. They “talk Dutch” about horse manure and carrots, about the weather, and whether a buggy’s wheel needs mending before a trip to the market.
“It’s common for our people to pass it along to the next generation,” said Moses Smucker, an Amishman who runs Smuckers Quality Meats at the Reading Terminal Market. “We spoke it to them as soon as they were born.”
The notion that Pennsylvania Dutch could go fallow is absurd to the Amish, who have been doubling their population every few decades.
“It’s actually considered the fastest-growing small-minority language in the United States,” said Patrick Donmoyer, director of Kutztown University’s Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center in Berks County. (The Pennsylvania Dutch language — this can get confusing — is German, not Netherlands Dutch.)
But outside “plain” communities, Pennsylvania Dutch is becoming rarer. Donmoyer, whose family moved to Lebanon County from Philadelphia in 1732, said that about 400,000 people speak Pennsylvania Dutch in the United States (principally in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana) and Canada. Its influence is deepest in about 14 counties in Pennsylvania.
“They are hardworking, proud and stubborn people with an agricultural background,” said Doug Madenford, of nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch. The Reading native grew up hearing the language on a family farm. “We don’t like change and we like to hold onto our values.”
Among the Amish, the average age of a speaker of Pennsylvania Dutch is 17, Donmoyer said. For nonsectarian speakers, the average age is 75.
“I speak only Pennsylvania Dutch to my kids,” said Madenford, who teaches German in the Keystone Central School District. “In my generation, people in their 30s and 40s, it’s hard to find somebody who can speak it. … My goal is to make sure it doesn’t completely die out.”
What Donmoyer finds most interesting about the language and culture is how it relates to today and immigrants’ struggles to retain language and culture while becoming American. “Here is a culture that managed to hold to its language, not because we were being stubborn and saying we’re going to hold on to a European identity,” he said. “They kept it because keeping your culture was a way of being American. They were emphasizing their American-ness by saying, ‘We have the right to be who we are.’ ”