The Pennsylvania German English - the Language of the Pennsylvania Germans

Varieties of American English

Seminar Paper, 1993

25 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Pennsylvania German English
2.1. The beginnings
2.2. Geographical distribution of Pennsylvania German speech areas
2.3. Social Aspects of the Pennsylvania German society

3. Lexical borrowings
3.1. Adlexification
3.2. Relexification

4. Phonological borrowings
4.1. The consonants
4.1.1. Plosives
4.1.2. Fricatives
4.2. Vowels
4.3. Later and earlier borrowings

5. The Pennsylvania German Syntax
5.1. Preservation
5.1.1. The subject-object-verb structure
5.1.2. The finite verb remains in second position
5.2. Converge
5.3. Innovation

6. Intonation
6.1. The rising and falling of the terminal pitch
6.1.1. The rising terminal pitch
6.1.2. The falling terminal pitch
6.2. The rise-rise-fall pattern

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The long persistence of Pennsylvania German English for nearly two centuries in an English-speaking territory which was settled by English, Scotch-Irish and Welsh as early as by Germans[1], naturally brought about a certain contact between English and German language that influenced both, the generally spoken English and the specific dialect formation that languages borrowed from each other.

This paper is an attempt to show in how far this language contact has caused mutual language borrowings, which were by no means restricted to vocabulary items but also extended to phonological and syntactic features, having as well influential effects on intonational patterns.

2. The Pennsylvania German English

2.1. The beginnings

“Pennsylvania German is,” maintains A.F. Buffington, “a German dialect … that resembles most closely the dialects spoken in the eastern half of the Rhenish Palatinate.” It was brought to the south-east of Pennsylvania and some other parts of North America by the early German settlers who came for the most part from Middle and South Germany, but also to some extent by those who descended from Würtemberg and Switzerland. The settlers spoke a German dialect which was peculiar to the sections from which they came. Several German dialects were blended over the years and a new dialect called “Pennsylvania German” emerged, still until today predominately prevailed by the Rhenish Palatinate dialects.[2]

The early immigrants, mostly religious sects such as e.g. the Mennonites, the Amish, the Schwenckfelder, and all very similar in their religious belief to the Quakers, came to the “New World” looking for economic, personal and religious freedom leaving a Germany where war prevailed. They first arrived in Philadelphia before the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and then began to move towards the fertile areas of the Appalachian Mountains.[3]

2.2. Geographical distribution of Pennsylvania speech areas

Although Pennsylvania German English was and still is spoken in complete isolation from the mother country, it exists as a relatively homogeneous dialect spoken across an English-speaking country.

The main southeastern Pennsylvania counties are Berks, Bucks, Carbon, Dauphin, Lebanon, Lehigh, Lancaster, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Northumberland, Schuylkill, Synder, and York- counties that cover an area of more than 8.000 square miles. For an overall view of the Pennsylvania German locations I recommend Reed/Seifert Base Map of Southern Pennsylvania[4] as an interesting source.

Apart from these counties, Pennsylvania German moved further into North America: they have spread into Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, into certain parts of Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Oregon, and into the Canadian province Ontario (counties Perth and Waterloo)[5].

2.3. Social aspects of the Pennsylvania German society.

Among the Pennsylvania German speakers there are two different social groups: sectarians and non-sectarians – those who belong to sects and those who do not. The sectarian groups, e.g. the Old Order Mennonites or the majority of the Old Order Amish, referred to in this paper as Plain Pennsylvania German speakers (PPG) , usually live in narrow farm valleys that are very often surrounded by mountain ridges and boarded by rivers. As a consequence, these regions have been to the greater part excluded from the speeding process of urbanization and industrialization, and the Pennsylvania Germans who reside here maintain the family farm tradition of their ancestors. Until today they still speak Pennsylvania German English as a native language in their communities, homes and during worship services; English is only used in school and outside their community.

The relationship of Pennsylvania German toward American English is a stable bilingualism , meaning that each of the two languages is restricted to its proper domain equal to one another.

The non-sectarians, referred to in this paper as Nonplain PennsylvaniaGermans (NPG ), are contrasting the Old Order communities. Here, an unstable bilingualism is predominant, marked by a gradual shift towards American English monolingualism.[6] The ability of Pennsylvania German children to understand the dialect is slowly reduced to not speaking it at all - a complete language death due to the fact that they usually grow up speaking English only at home and that theynow have more access to education in general compared to former times.[7] As a consequence, the Pennsylvania German society has been linguistically restructured as far as the speaker’s proficiency in dialect is concerned:

1. Native speakers of Pennsylvania German English
2. Nonfluent speakers using Pennsylvania German English only on special occasions and often exhibiting faulty grammar
3. Passive bilinguals understanding Pennsylvania German English but who are not able to speak.
4. Monolinguals of Standard English
5. Exiles who were born in Pennsylvania German areas, but left due to reasons of spouse and occupation and who are neither able to understand nor to speak the dialect.[8]

3. Lexical Borrowing

3.1. Adlexification

In the course of the German settlement in the “New World”, the early immigrants needed to designate new objects, places and concepts they had never encountered before in their own country. They began to borrow foreign words, so-called loanwords into their own language. The process of borrowing to which linguists refer to as adlexification was easier to be brought about than to create new words according to word formation rules of the receiving language. Such loanwords are e.g. “pepper”, “orange”, “lion”, “prairies” only to quote a few.

However, these borrowed words often carry stigmatized meanings within social interactions. The Old Order Amish People (PPG) e.g. consider their own community to be separate from the English mainstream culture to which they ascribe negative values. Thus, they use American English loanwords to describe negative phenomena which are more part of the English than of the Amish world, e.g. rubbish stands for “dirt; undesirable person” or the word rabble alluding to the American society.

3.2. Relexification

It is significant to note that not all American English loanwords are motivated by adlexification, but rather by relexification that may be complete or incomplete. Language economy is the keyword: easier to use a word of either dialect or received language than to maintain a bilingual repertoire.

The following words may serve as examples of an incomplete relexification, since, though American English loanwords were carried into Pennsylvania German English and were considered to be part of it, the loanwords only represent alternatives to their Pennsylvania German equivalents, but are not wholly accepted.

The Pennsylvania German word azwinge approximated the American English equal “to force on (someone)” in its loaning process creating the word fahrsse. The same process transformed fasande hinkel, in American English “hen pheasant”, into pheasant hinkel .

Contrasting this, the case of complete relexification is found in e.g. the German word “sich benehmen” that in Pennsylvania German English appears to be beheefe, in the received language “to behave”. Here, the converging process is complete.

Finally, the importation of loanwords into the Pennsylvania German dialect, characterized as lexical instability, is marked by two important aspects:

1. structural destabilization of the Pennsylvania German
2. increase and stabilization of the linguistic repertoire of the speech of PPG[9]

4. Phonological borrowings

Although the speech of all Pennsylvania Germans has to deal with the increasing influence of the national language on their own mother tongue mainly by means of mass media, schools, churches and other public organizations[10], Raith (1981) observed that “the relatively plainer (e.g. socially more conservative) the speaker, the less phonological interference between American English and the Pennsylvania German dialect, whereas older nonplain speakers tend to reveal the linguistic dominance of their Pennsylvania German in accented American English.”[11]


[1] A.F. Buffington, „The Pennsylvania German Dialect,“ “The Pennsylvania Germans”,

ed. Ralph Wood (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1943) 262.

[2] Buffington, 1943, 261.

[3] Heinrich Kelz, „Phonologische Analyse des Pennsylvaniadeutschen,“ University

of Bonn, 1969,8.

[4] Caroll E. Reed, Lester W. Seifert, A Linguistic of Pennsylvania German, (Marburg/Lahn,

1954)map II.

[5] Buffington 1943, 262.

[6] Mark L. Louden, Syntactic Variation and Change in Pennsylvania German,“ Studies on the

Languages and the Verbal Behavior of the Pennsylvania Germans II”, ed. W. Enninger

(Stuttgart: F. Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden GmbH, 1989) 29-31.

7 Marion Lois Huffines, The English of the Pennsylvania Germans: A Reflection of Ethnic Affiliation, German Quarterly 57 (1984): 175-176.

[8] Marion Lois Huffines, „Intonation in Language Contact: Pennsylvania German English,” Studies on the Languages and the Verbal Behavior of the Pennsylvania Germans I,” trans. W.Enninger (Stuttgart: F. Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden GmbH, 1986) 25.

9 Thomas Knodt, „Quantitative Aspects of Lexical Borrowing into Pennsylvania German,” “Studies on the Languages and Verbal Behavior of the Pennsylvania Germans I”, ed. W. Enninger (Stuttgart: F. Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden GmbH, 1986) 58-59.

[10] Kelz 1968, 111.

[11] Louden 1989, 34.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


The Pennsylvania German English - the Language of the Pennsylvania Germans
Varieties of American English
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Englische Philologie)
Varieties of American English
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Pennsylvania German English;, Linguistik Amerikanistik: Amerikanische Sprachwissenschaft;, Dutch People, Varieties of American English
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Kirsten Vera van Rhee (Author), 1993, The Pennsylvania German English - the Language of the Pennsylvania Germans, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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