The non-localizable language

Watching a documentary on the practice of rumspringa (“running around,” sometimes also referring to the whole period of adolescence), when 16-year-old Amish kids release themselves from their normal boundaries and go out into the world (or out into the back field) to taste and see if they want to live as others do, or else join the Amish church, I heard Pennsylvania Dutch for the first time since I was about 6 years old. 

“That’s some German derivative,” I said to my co-watcher.

“It’s called Pennsylvania Dutch,” my co-watcher pointed out.

I insisted that it must be a misnomer. More interestingly, this is one endangered/minority language whose speakers may actually continue to grow in number, due to the high birth rate of its population — even given that around 10 percent of Amish teens decide not to join the church, which is almost intrinsically tied to the broader community and the practice of speaking their own language.

Localization into this language would probably not work very well, however, even if a large number of people spoke it, since the point of its existence is to create a barrier from the outside world, consumerism, corrupting technology, and excess. The Amish also seem perfectly capable of speaking English if they need to.

This is not to say that they are completely closed off from English or “the English,” i.e. mainstream Americans et al.

My parents made friends with an Amish family over 20 years ago as they traveled through Pennsylvania, and were invited to stay. I’m really not sure how rare this is, but I’m assuming that there was a certain amount of mutual respect there, since my parents also thought TV and material excess were bad ideas. I remember wearing a corduroy skirt out of deference to their culture and playing with a drawer full of buttons, although nobody had buttons on their clothes. I saw a chicken running around headless in the yard, ate the chicken that evening with dumplings, searched for eggs in a giant henhouse (I broke one), watched my dad help build a barn one night with the neighbors. I shut myself in a dark room expecting to find a light switch and screamed until someone came and lit the lamp. Everyone was kind, and always busy; sweeping the stairs, cooking, walking around with those terrifying chickens in their hands. For how plain everything was supposed to be, it was very vivid and happy.

Katie Botkin
Katie Botkin is a freelance writer. She has a master’s degree in English with an emphasis on linguistics and has taught English on three continents.


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