Pennsylvania Dutch: Structure, Pronunciation, and Popular Expressions

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The Pennsylvania Dutch Language

In the river valley plains of south central Pennsylvania, you won’t need a time machine to return to an earlier century. Simply bypass mid-sized towns like York, Lancaster, or the Pennsylvania capitol city of Harrisburg, and you’ll find yourself squarely in the early nineteenth century. But, more than an all-natural environmental life awaits there, for these folk speak a German language-descended variety of English which for “outsiders,” can be both interesting and very different from “standard” English.

The Origins of the English Language

When you delve into the origins of the English language you find that English is not a Romance language descended from Latin and related to French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, and Romanian but rather that the origins of English stem from the Low German branch of the Germanic language family group which actually includes Afrikaans, Dutch, Flemish, modern low German, and Frisian. This is partially why versions of English, like that of Shakespeare, have Germanic words and endings such as sayest, thee, thou, ye, brethren, hath, lifteth and a host of others along similar veins.

Much of the colloquial speech of popular Pennsylvania Dutch phrases is commonly said to be “Dutchie-fied English” although it’s not derived from the Dutch language, but rather from German, the German word for which is Deutsch. The alteration of the pronunciation, while largely understood without difficulty in the region by locals, can be exasperating and uniquely different for visitors when they hear statements like, “You talk so fancy like a body can’t understand you.” Just try saying, “Haw naw brawn caw?” like a Pennsylvania Dutchman. The Pennsylvania Dutch language is a English variety derived from the Germanic roots of past generations dating back to the 1700s.

Pennsylvania Dutch Words, Terms, and Expressions

Here are a few other uniquely Pennsylvania Dutch words, terms ,and expressions you might find interesting:

  • “They drink milk for an achey belly (stomach ache).”
  • “Spread me all over with apple busser (apple butter) a piece of bread.”
  • “When he was punished, our boy brutzed (pouted) for ares (hours).”
  • “Their car cunked awt (conked out) on them.”
  • “He has a big crotch (garage) for his small truck.”
  • “He is so doppick (dumb, not too bright).”
  • Erector” (as in to destroy or demolish something) “Remember his old buggy? Erector!”
  • Fernhoodle” (to confuse, perplex or puzzle) “He speaks fernhoodled English that one does.”
  • The expression, “Gookamoedoe!” means “Look at that!”
  • Gruntbecky!” is an expression of difficulty. “Gruntbecky! This vell (well) is difficult to dick (dig).”
  • “h_urrieder_” (to do something faster or more quickly) “Tell them to work _hurrieder_. A storm’s coming.”
  • “Make yourself up boy wunst (one time, once). You’re all strubly (generally meaning disheveled, disordered, unkempt.”
  • Eat yourself full” and “Drink your mouth empty” are also very commonly heard.
  • Even my late Grandmother used to sometimes say, “It’s gonna make down wet” when rain was imminent.

Different and Interesting

Some pronunciation points to consider when speaking or trying to understand the Pennsylvania Dutch language are:

  • sounds of “w” are pronounced as “v” as in “ve” for “we,”
  • “b” is replaced by “p” as in “sop” for “sob,”
  • hard “g” is replaced by “k” as in “dick” for “dig,” and
  • “f” often substitutes for the sound of “v” in words like “liff” for “live.”

But, wait, there’s more:

  • “g” is substituted by “ch” as with “cheneration” for “generation,”
  • “ch” can also substitute for the “j” sound,
  • as a short “o” disappears so the “u” can replace it such as saying “cummin” for “common” as in “cummin sense,
  • “grudge” is more commonly pronounced as “crutch,” and
  • “mouth” actually sounds a whole lot more like “mawth.

Yes, it takes some broadening of the ears to follow at first, but you’ll soon get enough of the hang of it if you spend any time in York, Dauphin, or Lancaster County Pennsylvania. “Meppy” (maybe) you’ll get to try talking in the Pennsylvania Dutch language, but “you didn’t still” (haven’t done it yet). Just remember watch out for the changed English language grammar usage, too.