The Language Milieu of the Old Order Amish: Preserving Pennsylvania Deitsch

Johanna Jansson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceedingChapterScientificpeer-review


Languages are dying at a rapid speed: by the end of this century 50–95 % of the world’s 7,000 languages may be extinct, if nothing is done. Language endangerment today takes many forms. When the pressures on minority speakers to shift to a dominant language, for practical as well as ideological reasons, are often overwhelming, when intergenerational transmission is no longer occurring naturally, and when attitudes towards the minority language among dominant language speakers, as well as minority speakers themselves, may be negative, prospects for language maintenance and revitalization can seem bleak and discouraging indeed. In these situations, we may wonder whether it lies in the power of any individual or group, however well-intentioned, to fight these processes.

By contrast, this paper reports on a more positive scene, one that offers some grounds for cautious optimism. It presents findings from an on-going ethnographic research project on language maintenance among an Old Order Amish community in Michigan. Despite having been in North America for almost 300 years, the Old Order Amish still speak a minority language, Pennsylvania Deitsch (PD), as their mother tongue. PD is a community language lacking a standardized written form and official status. It is not the medium of instruction in the Old Order Amish schools. PD speakers make little attempt to exclude English, which is used for most literate practices. Therefore, according to usually accepted criteria for language maintenance, PD should be seriously endangered if not extinct by now. This especially as PD speakers are not significantly concentrated in one specific area, but dwell in isolated language islands. Yet, the language is thriving; it is being used on a daily basis by around 280,000 people facing considerable pressure from English. This paper discusses some of the reasons for successful language maintenance in the Amish community; it examines the importance of home and family, community, traditions, beliefs and religion, domain allocation and attitudes, and suggests a more nuanced understanding of the factors involved in saving threatened languages.

Original languageUndefined/Unknown
Title of host publicationMajor Versus Minor? Languages and Literatures in a Globalized World
EditorsTheo D'haen, Iannis Goerlandt, Roger D. Sell
PublisherJohn Benjamins
ISBN (Electronic)9789027268549
ISBN (Print)9789027201287
Publication statusPublished - 2015
MoE publication typeA3 Part of a book or another research book


  • Amish
  • Community language
  • Domain allocation
  • English language
  • Ethnographic research
  • Language endangerment
  • Language maintenance
  • Minority language
  • Old Order Amish
  • Pennsylvania Deitsch
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Threatened languages
  • United States--US
  • intergenerational transmission
  • linguistics

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