[ Suffering from server envy? ]

Deitsch: A Dying language?

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour...

You may remember this from high school as the first lines of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; whether you do or not, the remarkable thing about this passage is that it is - unquestionably and without qualification - written in English. One could draw an unbroken line between Chaucer's 14th-century language and the modern English we speak today. No wholesale alterations have swept through the language. No concerted efforts at overhaul brought about any particularly effective reforms. Languages just change - gradually, almost imperceptibly. They flourish, they evolve, they shift ... and they die out. No massacres need occur to kill a language, just a gradual decline in its use, as successive generations forget the old and embrace the new.

Sometimes, in hindsight, the loss of a language comes to be viewed as a tragedy. The final speakers of a dialect make an effort to pass on the legacy of the language - the unique forms of expression that help to define a cultural heritage. Sometimes these efforts succeed to the extent that important texts are preserved, and professorial chairs are endowed. Other times, as with the Gaelic tongue in Ireland and certain Native American tongues in North America, younger generations learn the languages of their ancestors as a way of reconnecting with a culture they may have been on the verge of losing. Other times, the effort comes too late; the last speakers die without linguistic heirs.

We publish skew from Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, near the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. Perhaps you've seen the linguistic vestiges of the Dutchmen in kitsch stores and souvenir shops: trivets that say "We grow too soon oldt and too late schmart," or maps of the area with amusing place-names such as "Intercourse" and "Bird-in-hand" highlighted. Businessmen have found quite a market for the local German culture-within-a-culture. (The Pennsylvania Dutch are in fact German, Dutch being a mistranslation of Deutsch, which is German for German.)

German families lived in this area literally for centuries without assimilating into the "American" culture, even to the extent of learning English. There was no need; as of 1924, almost two-thirds of the local inhabitants spoke the Pennsylvania German dialect, known as Deitsch, and one-third used it constantly (1). Business is rarely transacted in the dialect now; certain words and phrases, however, persist in everyday use and have even spread to people who don't have a Pennsylvania-German heritage. For the most part, though, as a medium of daily interaction, English has supplanted Deitsch.

At this stage in its life cycle, the Pennsylvania German dialect can claim few native speakers - people who learned it before they learned English. It does, however, have a growing contingency of supporters - students at Kutztown University and other local colleges, members of cultural preservation societies - who hope to maintain its currency as a unique means of expression. "Every language contains forms of expression that are unique to their culture and that express that culture," says KU Professor David Valuska, who was recently appointed director of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center. "I wanted to preserve [the language], because I could see it fading away from us."

"Can you catch flies?"

At 24, my own knowledge of Deitsch is limited to a few words and phrases, picked up during my childhood from my grandmother. I get reutschy during long meetings at work. My hair gets faheudelt by the end of a humid day. When I'm cleaning my apartment, I have a tendency to schussel. When I worked at a summer camp, and a camper hurt himself, I used to badly mispronounce the verse my grandmother said to my cousin and me when we bumped into things: "Heili heili pussie dreck. Bis marrije frie ifs alles weg." Loosely translated, it means, "Heal, heal, with cat poop. That'll make it all better." My grandmother never really translated it for us.

My cousin, Michelle, learned more Deitsch than I did; apparently, when she took German in grade school, she asked about it, for purposes of comparison. She says her favorite phrase is, "Can you catch flies?" which, as it turns out, is the first half of an old Dutchman's joke: "'Can you catch flies?' 'Yes, when I keep my mouth open.'" My younger brother and sister know fewer phrases than my cousin and I, and my mother and aunts know only a little bit more Deitsch than we do. In my family, my grandmother represents the end of the line, in terms of speaking the dialect.

Even she doesn't claim to be fluent. If you ask her how much Deitsch she speaks, she'll tell you, "glei bissel" - not much. "The whole neighborhood used to speak it when I was growing up," she says. "But I know mostly ... maybe you could compare it to slang words, like ferschmutzed, muddy, or hussa, which is underwear." She laughs sheepishly when she translates hussa. I know what that means; I used to hear it all the time as a kid. I've never heard my grandmother refer to underwear as anything else.

Her father, my great-grandfather, grew up in a home where Deitsch was the primary language, and his parents learned English relatively late in life. Her family went to visit relatives in the country (my grandmother lived in town) who spoke little or no English at all. But when my grandmother was growing up, her father seldom spoke Deitsch around the house. "If you came from Germany, the parents insisted that you learned English," she explains. "You were American." Also, her father used to take a ribbing from his father-in-law for being what we might call today a red-neck. Speaking Deitsch only enhanced that undesirable image.

Most of the Pennsylvania German my grandmother knows, she learned from her grandmother, who lived with the family off and on for the last four years of her life. "When my parents went out, she was our babysitter," my grandmother recalls. "And if she told us [my grandmother and her brother, Jay] to do something, like wash the dishes, and we didn't, she would tell on us in Pennsylvania Dutch." She also spoke Dutch when she was angry about something and, increasingly as she got older, when she got frustrated trying to think of the English word for something.

"It was just the language that they knew"

My grandmother says she wishes now that she knew more Deitsch than she does. One gets the sense, from listening to her reminisce, that there are parts of the story that would be better expressed in some Pennsylvania German word she heard long ago but never learned, or that she has forgotten. "It's part of our heritage," she says. "I think it's a neat language - a colorful language."

She says, though, that at the time, none of her family thought of speaking Deitsch as something of which to be particularly proud. "It was just the language that they knew." Only recently has it occurred to her, and to others of her generation, to want to preserve the Pennsylvania German culture through its language.

George Unangst, a Whitehall resident who also grew up in the area, was immersed more thoroughly in the culture as a child than my grandmother was. "I've been speaking [Deitsch] ever since I could talk," he says, "and I'm 87 years old." His family has been speaking Deitsch ever since their emigration from Germany in the 17th century. The language is falling into disuse, he says, primarily ... well, because of its falling into disuse. Fewer people know it than used to, and those who do have in large part become accustomed to using English.

"If you don't have anybody to speak with you, or speak to you, or speak to, you kind of lose the dialect," he says. "My wife is often reprimanding me for not speaking it more to our two sons, that she could've picked up some of it." Mr. Unangst learned English, he says, in first or second grade. His wife never heard the language when she was a child, and his sons grew up speaking English. Mr. Unangst, too, is the last of the line, at least in terms of family.

Even when he speaks English, Mr. Unangst sounds like the "old Dutchman" that he calls himself. His vowels tend to be broad and Germanic; some of the consonants get lost in the weeds. When he refers to a location in Bethlehem, Allentown's slightly smaller neighbor to the east, he says, "Are you acquainted in Bethlehem?" Bethleum, he says. He got his current position as secretary of the Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Culture Society because, as he puts it, "I guess I stuck my neck out like a dumb goose." It's a colorful dialect.

"He was practically ashamed of it"

The Folk Culture Society, like the sister organization that Prof. Valuska directs in Kutztown, hopes it can help to keep some of the unique qualities of the Pennsylvania German culture alive for those who grew up in the German community, and for their children and grandchildren. "As far as the dialect dying out, this organization I belong to out in Lenhartsville is doing as much as possible to prevent that from happening," Mr. Unangst says. He first got the idea that dialect is something worth preserving when his cousin came back from World War II.

"He didn't want anyone to know that he spoke Pennsylvania Dutch" before he went overseas, Mr. Unangst reports. "He was practically ashamed of it, if you want to know the truth." But then he was stationed in Germany, and he overheard German soldiers discussing a plan to bomb the area where his regiment was holed up. He reported the plan to his superior officer, and the regiment evacuated the area. Sure enough, it was bombed the next day. "When he came home, he started to talk Pennsylvania Dutch to us like a ... what they call a Dutch Brother."

Still, among members of Mr. Unangst's generation, speaking Deitsch carried a stigma with it. When he heard someone speak with what sounded like a Dutch accent in downtown Allentown, and he tried to talk to the person in Deitsch, he often would get a quizzical response. "Some people's English was so broad that it's hard to believe that they don't understand you," he says. "But they must've been in that group that was too proud to admit that they spoke it." Either they had lost the language, or their parents had, or else they just wished that they could lose it.

In 1995, the cloud seems to have lifted, amid plans to develop the new cultural heritage center alongside Kutztown University's campus and to launch a new Heemet Fescht (Home Festival) in Kutztown. The Heemet Fescht will replace, in June of 1996, the famous and long-running Kutztown Folk Festival, which, many complain, has gone to commercial seed during its last few years in town (2).

Perhaps the new festival is the harbinger of a renaissance in the local culture - a move away from the trite, commercialized representation of the Pennsylvania Germans, and toward something more substantive. The well-attended Deitsch classes offered at KU may be another such omen - a sign, perhaps, that there are those who would like to be able to hear what old Dutchmen like George Unangst have to say.

For those who do wish to see the culture preserved, now is none too soon. As Prof. Valuska observes, "The people that are maintaining the culture are seventy and eighty years old now, and unless we start getting their history down and getting their traditions down, ... it'll be too late."

(1) Marcus Bachman Lambert, A Dictionary of the Non-English Words of the Pennsylvania-German Dialect, Lancaster, Pa., Lancaster Press, 1924.

(2) Bob Wiottman, "New Pa. German center aiming for authenticity," The (Allentown) Morning Call, B-3, 2/26/95.

home Back issues Feedback