Pennsylvania Dutch by Mark L. Louden

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Pennsylvania DutchPennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language
by Mark L. Louden
Johns Hopkins University Press, 504 pp., cloth $59.95

The controversy over the origins, identity and persistence of one of America’s most misunderstood minority languages has been positively settled by Louden’s unparalleled presentation of Pennsylvania Dutch, for which even the proper name has been the subject of disagreement for generations. With a balanced and thorough approach, as well as a copious use of primary sources, Louden clarifies the sociolinguistic and cultural climate that produced this unique language in early Pennsylvania and traces its growth through four centuries of development and change.

This work boldly asserts the accuracy of the hotly debated term “Pennsylvania Dutch,” as opposed to “Pennsylvania German,” and closely examines the basis for its linguistic status as a language rather than merely a dialect. Drawing upon a broad spectrum of sources, both literary and oral, popular and folk, sacred and secular, this “story of an American language” leaves no doubt that Pennsylvania Dutch is not a “pitifully broken mishmash of English and German,” as some have erroneously proclaimed over the centuries. It is instead a language that has maintained a high level of original integrity from its Palatine source and has been enhanced, rather than diluted, by its history of unavoidable contact with English. Louden gently dispels many myths promoted by the tourist industry pertaining to the language’s confusion with the Dutchified English accent and the use of nonsensical idioms invented to sell tourist novelties.

Although there are abundant literary passages in Pennsylvania Dutch, in each case such texts are accompanied by full translations and thus pose no obstacle to the readability and quality of the text for those unfamiliar with the language. Interestingly enough, although the subject may be near and dear to Pennsylvanians, Louden challenges readers to see a larger American context that exceeds the geographical and cultural boundaries of the half-dozen counties in Pennsylvania where the language developed and extends to the heart of the continent where the largest concentration of native speakers are located in the Midwestern sectarian communities of the Old Order Amish, optimistically confirming, despite a decline among nonsectarian speakers, the potential for a dynamic and healthy future for the Pennsylvania Dutch language. While maintaining a highly academic orientation, Louden captures the spirit of the folk-cultural narrative and remains engaging, accessible and entertaining to a wide range of audiences.

 

Patrick Donmoyer is site manager of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University.