Tuesday, December 09, 2008
Last summer on this blog Joe announced the completion of The Comprehensive Pennsylvania German Dictionary compiled by C. Richard Beam, a retired professor of German at Millersville University and a native speaker of Pennsylvania Dutch (as the language is popularly known). This project has garnered a fair amount of well-deserved attention in the press, including this recent TV news report. The dictionary is an amazing piece of work. The TV report is a nice one, though it gives the impression that Pennsylvania Dutch is on the verge of extinction. This is only partially true. Historically, Pennsylvania Dutch speakers have been divided into two general groups, defined according to socio-religious affiliation. Until the middle of the twentieth century, most speakers were of Lutheran or (German) Reformed background and did not differ outwardly from their non-Dutch neighbors in southeastern Pennsylvania (e.g., in terms of dress). The historical minority included members of conservative Anabaptist groups, of whom the largest and most visible are the Old Order Amish. Prof. Beam's roots are in the first group and he belongs to the last generation of speakers who learned the language fluently in childhood (born in the 1920s and 1930s). The language maintenance situation among the Old Orders, however, is quite different. Pennsylvania Dutch-English bilingualism has become an integral part of their socio-religious identity, thus children who grow up in Old Order homes become fluent in both languages. Thus the outlook for maintenance of Pennsylvania Dutch among these speakers, whose numbers are doubling every twenty years, is a bright one.
Posted by Mark Louden at 5:08 PM