Wednesday, November 11, 2020

52 Ancestors - DIFFERENT LANGUAGE: Pennsylfaanisch Deitsch

The first time I traveled to Europe, I carried an English-Italian dictionary. Since then I have been to Hungary, Austria, Germany, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland and never packed a dictionary. One thing traveling has taught me is that English is an important language. In Europe, everyone learns English – well, people in the tourist and hospitality industries, at least.

That is now. What was it like to leave familiar surroundings and familiar language behind when my ancestors immigrated to America in the early 1700s? The Eppards and Armentrouts (then Eberts and Ermantraudts) both left the Palatinate region along the Rhine River and settled for a time in Pennsylvania.

Their language was far different from the English language spoken in America. No wonder these immigrants huddled together in the comfort of a common language and customs. While some learned English and later generations moved on and away from their old ways, the language persisted among many of those who stayed in Pennsylvania. Today we call that language “Pennsylvania Dutch.”

It took some research to understand exactly what that means. My understanding is that it is a mixture of German and English. That makes sense. Obviously, the Germanic language of the 1700s did not have words for discoveries and inventions of the 1800s and 1900s. However, Pennsylvania Dutch is more complex than that even. There was no Netherlands, no Germany, no Switzerland in the 1700s. The people who spoke the language in the 1700s came from numerous kingdoms and dukedoms all with unique dialects. There was no official language called “German.” The language that evolved in Pennsylvania sounds German but is barely recognizable to native Germans. 

My maternal grandmother said that her mother and grandmother often spoke Pennsylvania Dutch to one another when they didn’t want others to know what was going on. (I can’t imagine what was going on!) In a way, I find that hard to believe. After all, this family had been in Virginia since before the Revolutionary War. That was a long time to preserve a language in a place where it was not used. Yet, the language certainly is alive and well in Pennsylvania along with a culture that is uniquely “Pennsylvania Dutch.”

Here are two YouTube videos. One is a demonstration of the sound of Pennsylvania Dutch. The other is a discussion about the language itself, its history, its similarity to and difference from pure German. When I saw it was 21 minutes long, I thought I would watch a couple minutes and be done with it, but it was so interesting that time flew.


Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.


© 2020, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. Fascinating. I will have to watch the videos when I have more time. My mom spoke Polish as her native language and learned English in school from the Catholic nuns. She said each neighborhood where she grew up in Pennsylvania was their own ethnic group. Italian section with an Italian church/school, German section, Polish section, etc. You get the idea :) Funny that she didn't teach us Polish. We always knew something was up when she would be on the phone talking in Polish to her sisters :)


  2. I wish I knew another language - so fascinating!

  3. Wish I knew more than the few words and phrases that remain in use here in PA. Or even how to spell the words I say!! Love your post! Mel

  4. Super interesting. I had no idea there was such a thing. I do love how some groups work so hard to preserve their culture. I wonder if this next generation will do the same.