Pennsylvania German: A Dialect without a True Name, by Heinz Kloss (1938)

A living tongue deserves, nay, needs a living name, concise and precise, convenient and full of meaning. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania German has never enjoyed this privilege.

The every words “Pennsylvania German” form a circumstantial clumsy definition rather than a real name. The matter is even worse, by the way, in German. We have side by side the terms “Pennsylvaniadeutsch,” “Pennsylvaniendeutsch” and “Pennsylvanisch-Deutsch,” furthermore “Deutsch-Pennsylvanish,” the latter term being, however, applied merely to the people themselves and not to the dialect.

In the dialect, we hear sometimes “Pennsylfawnish-Deitsch,” sometimes “Pennsilvani-Deitsch,” or “Pennsylfawni-Deitsch.” Three significations, all of them equally clumsy!

Pennsylvania German in its present form, while most closely akin to the speech of the Palatinate, is at the same time a new tongue, born and shaped amidst the hills and mountains of the Keystone State. As a new tongue it did not bring over from Germany an inherited name. Being the speech form taken on by the German language in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it was defined by the words “Pennsylvania German,” i.e. the German language as made over in Pennsylvania. But again, this is a circumlocution, no true name.

We have a close parallel in the fate of the Dialects of the Boers. Originally a dialect of Holland Dutch, it underwent certain changes in the new surroundings of South Africa. Representing a new tongue, it was called, at first and for many years, by the contemptuous name of “Hottentotten-Hollandisch,” (Dutch of the Hottenots). Upon being acknowledged as a legitimate dialect of literary Dutch it was defined by the name of “Cape-Dutch” (Kaap-Hollandisch, Dutch of the Cape-Province) which still lingers on among the less educated abroad. Gradually, however, the Boers gained a new spirit of self-assurance, a consciousness of kind and tongue and no longer content to define it by the circumlocution “Cape Dutch,” they christened it after the continent which they inhabit, and today thee recognised name of the dialect of the Boers is Afrikaans, to wit: thee tongue of Africa. They do not care a bit whether this bold application is correct in a historical sense, whether there are otheer tongues living on and being used by other tribes or nations in Africa.

What, now, is the conclusion we might arrive at? The Boers inhabit only the southernmost corner of the African mainland. It is a gross exaggeration to maintain that they have been, in the past, or are, in the present, the dominant factor in African life, moulding the surface of the continent. Still, they went through with their new name. Conversely, the Pennsylvania Germans are the recognized keystone of the Keystone State. Though the dialect has lost its foothold in perhaps the greater part of the coherent German territory in Eastern, and the whole diaspora in Western Pennsylvania, yet Pennsylvania s a whole breathes the spirit of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Just as the Yankee is looked upon as the representative figure of New England, so the popular figure of the Pennsylvania Dutchman represents, all over America, the commonwealth which is permeated by his sweat and toil, by his tilling of soil and filling of barns, by his artcraft and by his orderliness.

The Pennsylvania Germans are fully entitled to name their ancestral tongue after the commonwealth they have made great and prosperous. Thus, the future name of the Pennsylvania German language might fittingly be “Pennsylfawnish” in the dialect and “Pennsylvanisch” in High German. But how are we to call it in English? Why, “Pennsylvanish” of course. At first sound, that may seem odd and outlandish. Yet this is a legitimate way of forming adjectives in English. We speak of the Spanish, Polish, Swedish, Turkish, Irish, Finnish, and even of the English languages—why not Pennsylvanish.

It may seem hard to derive “Pennsylvanish” a noun in order to denote dialect speakers, “Pennsylvanians” being customarily employed to denote the populace of the commonwealth. But we have Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotchmen—why should we not say ‘He is a Pennsylvanishman” if we want it understood that a man speaks Pennsylvania German. In the dialect it is even more easy to say “er is en Pennsylfawnisher,” while “er is en Pennsylvanier” would continue to express the fact of the man being just an inhabitant of the State. Don’t carry modesty and deference too far. What fits the Anglo-Saxon tongue is within the reach of its Pennsylvania Germans too. Come on, boys. Mir saage: Pennsylfawnish.

The Morning Call, May 7, 1938

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One response to “Pennsylvania German: A Dialect without a True Name, by Heinz Kloss (1938)

  1. Pingback: A Working Bibliography for the Study of the Pennsylvania German Language and Its Sources | Richard Mammana

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