When I’m writing a novel, one of my goals is to put enough Pennsylvania Dutch into the books that readers get the feel of the language as well as a sense of being inside the Amish world. A few readers have asked for the pronunciation of some of those words. They’ve also asked why different authors spell the same word in different ways.
Some authors spell words based on how they sound, which gives readers the advantage of pronouncing the words as they read. Others prefer to use a resource such as a Pennsylvania Dutch dictionary. But each author has her or his own favorite references, and not all references use the same spellings.
My spellings come from a woman who has Old Order Amish connections, who’s studied the Pennsylvania Dutch language for decades, and who teaches it. She is very skilled at finding the most correct usage for a specific sentence. She prefers to stay very behind the scenes, so I’m not at liberty to say much about her. But I am very grateful for all her help!
The Old Order Amish often use words in an order that we would find confusing. For example, the phrase Heem geh (pronounced “hem gay”) would be literally translated as “Home go.” But non-Amish (English) children would say, “Go home.” Most authors, for the readers’ sakes, put words in an order that makes sense to the average English person. This helps balance authenticity with one of the cardinal rules of fiction: “Don’t pull the reader out of the story.”
Many Amish words are spelled differently depending on whether the person being spoken to is male or female, adult or child, or even whether the child being addressed is very young or older. So you can see why I rely on a skilled source for the sprinkling of Pennsylvania Dutch I include in my novels.
The rules for capitalizing words are different in Pennsylvania Dutch than in English. For example, we capitalize the word dad when it’s used as a proper noun (as in “I think Dad wanted to go too”) but not when it’s used as a common noun (as in “I think my dad wanted to go too”).
The general rule for Pennsylvania Dutch is that all nouns are capitalized. So dad (Daed) and mom (Mamm) are capitalized in all usages. Words like horse, house, and baby are also capitalized. Sometimes authors lowercase these words—again, to avoid taking readers out of the story when they see a capitalized word in the middle of a sentence that is not a proper noun.
Below are some of the words that I am frequently asked about. To make it easy, I’ve used lay terms for descriptions and rhyming words for pronunciation rather than diacritic symbols.
Bobbeli means “baby.” The first letter sounds like the b in baby, but the first syllable (bobb) rhymes with pup. The second syllable (eli) sounds like the ly at the end of the word friendly. So the word is pronounced “bup-ly.”
dabber schpring means “run quickly.” The first letter sounds like the d in dab. But the a sounds like a short o, the double b is pronounced like a p, and the er sounds like uh. In the second word, the sch sounds like sh. So this phrase is pronounced “dop-uh shpring.”
Daadi Haus means “grandfather’s house.” The first part of Daadi is pronounced like the word dawn without the n—rhyming with awe. The second half of the word is pronounced like the name Dee. Haus sounds like our word house, but it’s spoken with a German accent, which elongates the “ou” sound and often slurs the s to something between an s and a z. So this phrase is pronounced “dawe-dee housz.”
Daed means “dad” or “father.” It rhymes with that. So it is pronounced “dat.”
denki means “thank you.” The first syllable is pronounced just like it looks: “den.” In the second syllable, the k sounds like a hard g (as in the word good) and the i sounds like key without the k. So this word is pronounced “den-gee.”
die means “the.” The word is pronounced “duh,” as in the pop-culture saying, “Well, duh!”
Fraa means “wife” or “woman.” It rhymes with the word awe. So this word is pronounced “frawe.”
Gaul means “horse.” It sounds like the word all with a hard g in front of it. So it is pronounced “gall.”
Grossdaadi means “grandfather.” The first syllable sounds like our word gross and rhymes with roast without the t. The pronunciation for Daadi is given above. So this word is pronounced “gross-dawe-dee.”
Grossmammi means “grandmother.” The first syllable sounds like our word gross. The second syllable (ma) rhymes with paw, and the last syllable (mi) sounds like the word me. So this word is pronounced “gross-mawe-me.”
gut means “good.” The g is hard, like in the word good. The word rhymes with foot. So this word is pronounced “goot.”
Ich means “I.” The first letter has a long e sound, as in the word eat. The last two letters sound like the ck in the word back, but with a guttural throat sound. So this word is pronounced “ee-ck.”
Mamm means “mom” or “mother.” It sounds like our word mom, but with an elongated “aw” sound. It rhymes with lawn. So it is pronounced “mawe-m.”
Mammi means “grandma.” The first syllable (mam) rhymes with lawn, and the second syllable (mi) sounds like me. So this word is pronounced “mawe-me.”
Lieb means “love.” The b at the end has a p sound. This word is pronounced “leap.”
Rumschpringe means “running around,” and it is used to describe a period of time during adolescence. The first syllable (rum) is pronounced like room, but you say it fast, so the oo is very short. The sch is pronounced “sh.” The next part (pring) is like ring with a p in front of it. And the e at the end sounds like “uh.” So this word is pronounced “room-shpring-uh.”
ya means “yes” or “yeah.” It rhymes with “Pa,” a common nickname for “Father.” In some Amish books, this is spelled “jah.” I usually spell it “ya,” but I used the “jah” spelling in one series because of the setting. Both spellings are correct. My Pennsylvania Dutch word expert and my Old Order Amish friends have said the Amish almost always say the word with a y sound at the beginning. But some use a j sound, as in the word jelly. So this word is usually pronounced “yah” but sometimes “jah.”
One of my favorite Pennsylvania Dutch pieces is from The Hope of Refuge, which is book one in Hope Crossing.
Ephraim, a handsome, gentle bachelor who has a will of iron has a saying he quotes to an English friend—Die Sache, as uns zammebinne, duhne sich nie net losmache, awwer die Sache as uns ausenannermache schtehne immer fescht. Translated: The things that bind us will never loosen, but the things that separate us will always stand firm.
Do you enjoy reading a sprinkling of Pennsylvania Dutch in books about the Amish?
If you’ve come across any other words you’re curious about, please leave a comment below. As time allows, I’ll try to create another blog with the pronunciations and meanings of those words.
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