Dialect Stories

Chapter 6

The Alsatian German dialect that developed in the United States as Pennsylvania-Dutch/German remains the native language of Old Order Amish groups in the U.S. and Canada. Children learn to speak it as their first language and it remains the language spoken at home, although a version of High, or Standard, German is used in Amish church services and English is used in public discourse and writing. It is also the native language of Old Order Mennonites, although other Mennonites gave up German for English, beginning around the time of World War 1. Mennonites may have a few verses of German printed in their hymnals, and they may retain German words, phrases and inflections in their speech, but nowadays their use of Spanish probably rivals their mastery of German.

The continued use of German by the Amish makes them one of the last—and certainly the most recognizable--"German" groups in the U.S. and Canada. Hence, the Amish tend to become the brunt of most or all of the old dialect stories that make fun of people who speak German rather than standard English. Mennonites may remember a few such stories from their own background, but the dialect stories they tell most often make the Amish the brunt of the joke. In telling such jokes, acculturated Mennonites can separate themselves from their own "backward" past, as well as from the Amish, who are a visual reminder of that past and whom outsiders too often confuse with Mennonites—to the Mennonites' chagrin.


The humor of many dialect jokes comes from a word or phrase spoken in one language being misunderstood for the hilarious meaning of the same sounds in the receiver's native language.

*Some city folks from Chicago or New York came to Goshen [Indiana] to look at some Amish. When they saw some walk down the street, they tailed them closely, hoping to overhear them talking Pennsylvania Dutch. The Amish were quiet for quite some time, until finally one of them said to the other, "Was sachs du?" To which the city-slicker responded, "I think they lost."

In Pennsylvania Dutch Was sachs du? means "What do you know?" Of course, the city folks think the Amish are talking about the Red Sox or White Sox baseball team. Here the English city-slickers are ridiculed, not the dialect-speaking Amish

The punch line of the following story depends on knowing that hira (pronounced hire-a) means marry in Pennsylvania Dutch:

*A man once came to an Amish family . . . and they had a family of girls. The mother was on the porch sweeping. He comes up and says that he has a family of children. He needs to be away and he needs to hire a babysitter. Could he hire one of her daughters? "Which one would you want?" "Oh, it doesn't matter. Any one of them will do." And then she took after him very angrily with the broom. -- J. C. Wenger

The unlikelihood of an Amish woman even considering a proposal of marriage by an English man suggests that this story is one that has migrated to the Amish from an earlier Pennsylvania German culture.

One Amish story is based on the pronunciation of English v as w in German.

*There was an Amish man who didn't have any luck with his wives. He was married three times. Each time his wife died. He was at the funeral of his third wife—at the viewing—and all of a sudden he fainted. The preacher leading the funeral saw that he had fainted, and said, "Don't worry, folks. He will re-wive."

Two final stories based on puns are located in particular Mennonite communities—Wauseon in northwestern Ohio and Spring House in eastern Pennsylvania—although originally they might have been attributed to non-Mennonite speakers of German from the same areas:

*An Amishman went for a ride in Ohio, on this train ride. Obviously it was something new for him and the conductor kept coming through the passenger cars, announcing the next station. "Wau-see-on! Wau-see-on! Wau-see-on!" He said this about three times in the car where the Amishman was riding. And he said, "Conductor, he was on but he got off at Toledo."

*There's a little town outside of Philadelphia called Spring House. The story is told of the conductor of Reading Railroad who, as he was from Souderton, had a Dutchified accent. Some Mennonites were on the train that day and the conductor called out, "Shpring Rouse!" And all the Mennonites jumped out.

German spring rous means “jump out.”

Mistaken Words and Idioms

Even more stories are based on failure to learn idiomatic English. Often the humor comes from translating German literally into English, sometimes in regard to single words but more often in regard to idiomatic phrase structure.

*There are more Southeastern Iowa stories. The [telephone] party line was really going—a man who lost his third or fourth wife. On the party line they were saying, "Joe Miller's wife died again."

*A student at Goshen College became a doctor and took up practice at Orrville, Ohio, and there are a good many Amish in that community. He discovered, after a time, that they were asking him to make house calls simply because they knew it didn't take him very long to drive out, but it took them a long time to drive horse and buggy in. This became rather disgusting to him, and he decided the next time somebody tries to get him to make a house call, he'll find out if it's really necessary. So in due time a woman called up and she said: "My man, he is sick. Could you come out?" And he kind of snapped at her. He said, "Is he bedfast?" Well, she didn't know that word. And she said, "No, he's just laying there—loose-like." -- J. C. Wenger.

*The people at the bank in Kalona [Iowa] got such a bang out of a check they saw. There was a Conservative [Mennonite] or an Amish man that was ill, and they hired a nurse to work for them. So when he wrote out a check to her, down below he wanted to write what the check was for—where it says "For?" And so he wrote, "Sick in bed—with nurse."

*When he first was teaching, probably in a one-room schoolhouse, . . . he had some students come in who were just learning to speak English. It was an Amish boy, or Old Order Mennonite. I don't know. It was raining heavily one day and it was doing some flooding and there was some water across the road. This little boy said, "Oh, look, the water's walking across the road."

Language Transition

Two stories involve church leaders confused by language during a time of transition from German to English:

*A [Mennonite] minister in Pennsylvania heard some young people express a desire for someone to preach in English. He said he could, and proceeded to do so. At one point he referred to girls with horz hair and pointed to the new convicts sitting in the front of the church. -- John Ruth

*My grandmother Hannah Clemens [1880-1977] told me about one of the song leaders at Souderton [Pennsylvania] Mennonite Church that she remembered from long ago. He would announce the number [of the hymn] 222: "Now, let's sing two-tooty-two."

One story depicts the plight of an Amish preacher who may use English in everyday affairs but gets confused due to the pressure of being in the public eye during the Sunday sermon, when he is supposedto be using Standard German, which he has not mastered.

*There's a story told about an Amish preacher who got so much English in. He was telling about what a brave man [the prophet] Daniel was and he said, "Und de lions and de Daniel warh net geharmed whatsoever."

The story was told by J. C. Wenger, who imitated Amish folk preaching style by adding a chanted, sing-song quality to the direct quotation.

Ethnics sometimes conceal their ethnicity when it is disfavored and, at other times, flaunt it when they can benefit from it. So, too, with language and dialect.

*Abe Moyer [of Souderton, Pennsylvania 1873-1952?] was driving a car with a number of brethren in it and a policeman stopped him. I forgot what he made—some minor blooper of some sort. And the policeman bawled him out. And Abe pretended he couldn't understand English. He turned to the other people in the car and he said, "Was secht der mann? [What's the guy saying?]" Finally, the policeman said, "Get out of here, you dumb Dutchman." -- J. C. Wenger

Finally, a story, told about a generic Pennsylvania German who tried hard to be English, illustrates that one cannot ever forget one's native language, no matter how hard one may try.

A young man grew up in that [Pennsylvania German] community and, of course, German was his mother tongue. He was gone from the community for three years and he came back and said, "I don't understand anything any more. I've forgotten it all completely. I'm now completely English." But he said one evening he walked across the lawn, and it was dusk and somebody had left a rake lie with the teeth up. He stepped on the teeth and the handle came up and hit him on the head. He said he not only knew the Dutch word for rake, he knew how to describe it! -- J. C. Wenger

In the history of human speech, the words that remain the most stable over time are those used intimately in homes. They include words for family relationships, everyday tasks--and obscenities and profanities.

Clashing Symbols
Image: Don Swartzentruber

Clashing Symbols

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck is Professor Emeritus of English at Goshen College, where he taught English, dramatic literature, postcolonial literature, folklore and Mennonite Literature, He was Fulbright professor of English and folklore at the University College of Belize and, following retirement, taught twice at LCC International University in Lithuania. He has published widely in his teaching fields, including articles on Mennonite and Amish folk arts and folklore, as in the books MennoFolk 1 and MennoFolk 2. He was an original co-editor of this online journal and a planner of the Mennonite/s Writing conferences at Goshen College in 1992 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.