2009-03-05 / Local & State

Pennsylvania Dutch Dialect Alive And Well

By Jason Weitzel

READING, Pa. (AP) - It's hip to be Deitsch.

That's good news for Pop- Pop, bad news if you bet the farm that Pennsylvania German would disappear from the face of the Earth during your lifetime. But it's still here.

Any way you say it, Pennsylvania German, Pennsylvania Dutch, Deitsch or Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch is not just alive, it's actually gaining some measurable traction, as a younger generation - two generations removed from fluency - have moved past the historic stigmas and have embraced the culture.

It's a complete reversal from the oldest living generation of dialect speakers who made a conscious choice not to pass it down, particularly during World War I and World War II.

"We're on the cusp of a resurgence of people who are from the culture learning the language as something that is part of their own personal lives,'' said Zach Langley, 25, a graduate student studying 1930s dialect radio scripts at Kutztown University, which offers courses in Pennsylvania German studies.

Aside from the 20th-century decision by dialect speakers to discourage the spread of the language, receiving a formal Pennsylvania German education has never been easy.

"For a long time, it was called 'the dialect' because it was solely an oral tradition,'' said Robert W. Reynolds, executive director of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University. "Kids knew they weren't supposed to learn it in the classroom. It doesn't mean it was completely rejected; they still held dialect church services, for example. But they weren't encouraged to speak it. Many who did learn it learned it from an uncle in the barn on the sly as a way for mom not to find out.

"That group is now the oldest group alive today. The group that's now in their 50s and 60s may only have a familiarity with the language. Then you have the youngest group - two generations removed from fluency - some of whom are trying to learn the dialect because it's part of their heritage. There's a sense that it's important again. And now that it's been more codified, most linguists would consider it the Pennsylvania German language.''

Students at Kutztown can follow course tracks built around the study of Pennsylvania German. Part of that is made possible by advances in resources, including updated textbooks and other materials. However, experts say there's much work to be done.

"Pennsylvania German has actually been written down since they (the Germans) got here,'' said Rob Lusch, instructor of Pennsylvania German at Kutztown. "The big problem is the concept of standardized spelling. Each region has its own variation in spelling and usage. That's the challenge. I would like to see one universal spelling system across the board.''

"Among old orders of Amish and Mennonite, the dialect is still the first order of language in many cases,'' Reynolds said. "But the variety of vocabulary is not being maintained, words like 'computer.' There is great debate about that. If you put a bunch of dialect speakers from different regions in a room you're ready for a fight.''

Regionally, including northern Lehigh County, Kutztown and west toward Lebanon, Reynolds said the language is still vibrant among first-generation speakers, evidenced by the turnout at the Grundsau Lodge Groundhog Day festivities across the region earlier this month.

With roots dating back to 1933, the Grundsau Lodge and its 17 affiliates were formed during wartime on the basis of preserving and perpetuating the Pennsylvania German culture through teaching. Over 300 men attended the Numeral Ains Grundsau Lodge gathering in Germansville, Lehigh County, including Paul Kunkle, 82, former schoolmaster for the Grundsau Lodge dialect schools.

"I made a prediction a couple years ago that 15 years from now you're not going to hear very much Pennsylvania Dutch anymore,'' said Kunkle, who first learned the language against his parents' wishes by eavesdropping on co-workers at a grocery store.

But he was wrong. Since the Grundsau Lodge started offering 14-week classes on the dialect, 4,040 diplomas have been awarded. He said he constantly runs into former students who have found some practical application for the language. He also believes it's important to adhere to the culture's many life lessons.

"Every time I speak about the importance of propagating the language, I like to quote the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: 'What you have inherited from your forefathers, you must earn over again for yourselves or it will not stay yours.' That's something I would repeat to any group interested in the language'' he said. "I look back and see what our forefathers have done. They were thrifty, they helped one another, they rebuilt the barns, they were not just greedy for their own benefit.''

That type of reverence is nearly universal today, especially for those like Kunkle, whose own mother warned neighbors not to speak the language around her son.

"We're now beginning to appreciate what a distinct, unique culture we have here amongst ourselves,'' Lusch said. "We Pennsylvania Germans are hardest on ourselves and we don't recognize the value of our own heritage. We tend to joke about it or reduce its importance. We actually have a lot to offer. And now you have a young generation on the whole who are starting to feel like they missed something, partly because of the stigma and mental trauma of World War I and II.''

Lusch said he'd like to see the day when Pennsylvania German, or "Deitsch'' as he prefers to call it, is no longer considered German's little brother. In fact, German linguists have pushed hard for Pennsylvania German language research here in the United States as they continue to set standards for their own language.

"It (Pennsylvania German) has its own language and culture separated by 300 years and two major wars,'' Lusch said.

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