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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

Appendix 2. Non-English Dialects in America

1. German

THE GERMAN dialect spoken by the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch of lower Pennsylvania is the oldest immigrant language to remain in daily use in the United States, and so it shows very extensive English influences. The fact that it survives at all is due to the extreme clannishness of the people using it—a clannishness chiefly based upon religious separatism. The first Germans came to Pennsylvania toward the end of the seventeenth century and settled in the lower tier of counties, running from Philadelphia westward to the mountains; a few continued into Maryland and then down the Valley of Virginia. They came, in the main, from the Palatinate; the minority hailed from Württemberg, Bavaria, the lower Rhine, Alsace, Saxony and German Switzerland. The language they brought with them was thus High German; it came to be called Dutch by the American colonists of the time because the immigrants themselves called it Deitsch (=Deutsch), and because Dutch was then (and has remained, to some extent, ever since) a generic American term to designate all the Germanic peoples and languages. This misuse of Dutch is frequently ascribed to the fact that the colonists were very familiar with the true Dutch in New York, but as a matter of fact Dutch was commonly used in place of German by the English of the seventeenth century and the colonists simply brought the term with them and preserved it as they preserved many other English archaisms. The Pennsylvania Germans themselves often used Pennsylvania Dutch in place of Pennsylvania German.

Their dialect has produced an extensive literature and has been studied and described at length by competent philologians; in consequence there is no need to deal with it here at any length. Excellent specimens of it are to be found in “Harbaugh’s Harfe: Gedichte in Pennsylvanisch-Deutscher Mundart.” That part of it which remains genuinely German shows a change of a to o, as in jor for jahr; of the diphthong ö to a long e, as in bees for böse, and of the diphthongs ei and äu to the neutral e, as in bem for bäume. Most of the German compound consonants are changed to simple consonants, and there is a general decay of inflections. But the chief mark of the dialect is its very extensive adoption of English loan words. Harbaugh, in his vocabulary, lists some characteristic examples, e. g., affis from office, altfäschen from old-fashioned, beseid from beside, boghie from buggy, bortsch from porch, diehlings from dealings, Dschäck from Jack, dscheneral-’leckschen from general-election, dschent’lleit (=gentle leut) from gentlemen, Dschim from Jim, dschuryman from juryman, ebaut from about, ennihau from anyhow, gehm from game, kunschtabler from constable, lofletters from love-letters, tornpeik from turnpike and ’xäktly from exactly. Many English words have been taken in and inflected in the German manner, e.g., gedscheest (=ge±chased), gedschumpt (ge±jumped) and gepliescht (=ge±pleased). The vulgar American pronunciation often shows itself, as in heist for hoist and krick for creek. An illuminating brief specimen of the language is to be found in the sub-title of E. H. Rauch’s “Pennsylvania Dutch Handbook”: “En booch for inschtructa.” Here we see the German indefinite article decayed to en, the spelling of buch made to conform to English usage, für abandoned for for, and a purely English word, instruction, boldly adopted and naturalized. Some astounding examples of Pennsylvania German are to be found in the copious humorous literature of the dialect; e.g., “Mein stallion hat über die fenz geschumpt and dem nachbar sein whiet abscheulich gedämätscht.” (My stallion jumped over the fence, and horribly damaged my neighbor’s wheat.) Such phrases as “Es giebt gar kein use” and “Ich kann es nicht ständen” are very common on Pennsylvania German lips. Of late, with the improvement in communications, the dialect shows signs of disappearing. The younger Pennsylvania Germans learn English in school, read English newspapers, and soon forget their native patois. But so recently as the eighties of the last century, two hundred years after the coming of the first German settlers, there were thousands of their descendants in Pennsylvania who could scarcely speak English at all.

An interesting variant dialect is to be found in the Valley of Virginia, though it is fast dying out. It is an offshoot of Pennsylvania German, and shows even greater philological decay. The genitive ending has been dropped and possession is expressed by various syntactical devices, e.g., der mann sei buch, dem mann sei buch or am mann sei buch. The cases of the nouns do not vary in form, adjectives are seldom inflected, and only two tenses of the verbs remain, the present and the perfect, e.g., ich geh and ich bin gange. The indefinite article, en in Pennsylvania German, has been worn away to a simp’n. The definite article has been preserved, but das has changed to des. It is declined as follows:

Acc. den-derdiedes-’sdie

In brief, this Valley German is a language in the last stages of decay. The only persons speaking it are a few remote country-folk and they have reduced it to its elements: even the use of polite pronouns, preserved in Pennsylvania German and so important in true German, has been abandoned. It has been competently investigated and described by H. M. Hays, from whom I borrow the following specimen of it:

  • ’S war wimol ei Mätel, wu ihr Liebling fat in der Grieg is, un’ is dot gmacht wure. Sie hut sich so ang gedrauert un’ hut ksat: “O wann ich ihn just noch eimol sehne könnt!” Ei Ovet is sie an ’n Partie gange, aver es war ken Freud dat für sie. Sie hut gwtünscht, ihre Lieve war dat au. Wie freundlich sie sei hätt könne! Sie is ’naus in den Garde gange, un’ war allei im Monlicht khockt. Kschwind hut sie ’n Reiter höre komme. ’S war ihre Lieve ufm weisse Gaul. Er hut ken Wat ksat, æver hut sie uf den Gaul hinner sich gnomme, un’ is fatgritte.…
  • The German spoken elsewhere in the United States is much less decayed. The hard effort of German schoolmasters and the extensive literature that it has produced tend to keep it relatively pure, even from English influences. But a great many loan-words have nevertheless got into it, and it shows some phenomena that instantly arrest the attention of a German arriving from Germany, for example, the use of gleiche for to like, by false analogy from gleich (=like, similar). The German encountered in German newspapers printed in the United States is often very bad, but this is simply due to the that much of it is written by uneducated men. Nothing approaching a general decay is visible in it; in intent, at least, it is always good High German.