Pennsylvania Dutch Dispute (New York Times, 1930)

To the Editor of The New York Times:

A letter from me concerning the dialect of the Pennsylvania Germans, or Pennsylvania “Dutch,” appeared in THE TIMES of July 7. This letter was rather extensively reprinted, particularly in the newspapers of Pennsylvania, the German-American newspapers, and a number of newspapers in Germany. But there are many additional facts that will appeal to these large circles of readers, especially those pertaining to the characteristics of this language and to several important works in the field which were not mentioned in my previous article.

Although, as stated in my other article, Horne’s Pennsylvania German Manual is, so far as I can learn, the only popular general manual that has gone out of print, there are a number of other important works on certain phases of the dialect that should receive serious attention. I refer especially to Lambert’s Dictionary of the Pennsylvania German Dialect and Fogel’s Proverbs of the Pennsylvania Germans. Both works were published in the annual volumes of the Pennsylvania German Society, whose present address is Norristown, Pa., and whose activities have recently been resumed more energetically under the executive and financial leadership of Ralph Beaver Strassburger of that city. Lambert’s Dictionary is in Volume XXX, published in 1924; Fogel’s work is in Volume XXXVI, which was issued only a few weeks ago.

Lambert’s work gives a very comprehensive, and, with one deplorable exception, correct system of spelling and pronunciation, and a list of about 16,000 dialect words with the definitions and derivations. There are some regrettable omissions, for instance “henn” for German “haben” (English “to have), one of the most distinctive words of the dialect. Nevertheless, the work is in the main a highly scholarly one and indispensable to every advanced student of the subject. Fogel’s work gives a very large number of the old and familiar sayings of these people, together with the English and standard German renditions and equivalents. It is of course delightful reading. This writer’s spelling and pronunciation, like Lambert’s, are correct in the main but are wrong in at least one extremely important respect.

The error committed by both writers is in the pronunciation of g in the middle of words. For all words they change it to j—the equivalent of the English y, instead of only in a few words—morje or marje; “morgen,” morning, and several other words, as was done by Horne, who was evidently a careful observer and spoke the dialect all his life.

The medial g sound varies somewhat in different localities, but in the main it has always been as follows: German g changes to dialect j, English y, in most words in which it follows a, especially in merje or marje, aerjets and naerjets; German morgen, irgend and nirgend; English morning, anywhere, and nowhere. It weakens and approaches but does not reach j after the front vocals, German e, i, ie, ei, ä, and ai. Examples: Rejer, leje (German Regen, legen, English rain, lay). The strong German ch sound remains after the back vowels, a, o, u, and au. Examples: Dialect Waage, Aage, froge; for German Wagen, Augen, fragen, and English wagon, eyes, to ask. The hard g sound, as in English, or almost the hard sound, occurs in words with double g, or words ending in el; Naeg’l, for nail, &c.

Professor Lambert says in his introduction, and correctly I contend, that the Pennsylvania dialect in the main is homogeneous, and not several distinct dialects, but he errs in saying it most closely resembles that of the Westrich section of the Pfalz, the portion west of the Haardt Mountains, which extend north and south, just west of Dürkheim and Neustadt.

Professor Fogel, in his introduction, reiterates a view he has held for years that there are two distinct dialects: the Palatine in Berks, Lehigh and adjoining Pennsylvania counties, and the Swiss Alemannic in Lancaster County and vicinity. If this were true, he should have presented two sets of proverbs in his work. But he says the quest for Alemannic proverbs gave unsatisfactory results, and he almost implies there are no Alemannic proverbs. May I suggest there was a very compelling reason for finding no such proverbs in Lancaster County? There are none; there is no Alemannic dialect there, save a very few surviving words. There is only one Pennsylvania German dialect, except for minor variations.

My own people lived in Lancaster County or sprang from there. The dialect we used differs only slightly from that further north. Moreover, a questionnaire I recently circulated in Lancaster County confirms the view that almost no Swiss dialect survivals remain. More than that, the Swiss vernacular was probably never used much in Pennsylvania. One reason was that the pioneers of Lancaster County, while natives of Switzerland, came by way of the Palatinate and sojourned there for several years; another reason is they were always outnumbered by the Palatines. Moreover, there was probably a recognition that the Pfalz dialect is inherently simpler, more euphonious, and in many other respects preferable to the Swiss.

Ludington, Mich. Dec. 30, 1929.

The New York Times, January 5, 1930

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Filed under Bibliography, Pennsylvania German

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