Do you consider yourself “Pennsylvania Dutch”? A lot of us in the Lehigh Valley do. We live near the Amish; not far from Allentown you’ll find the Kutztown Folk Festival that celebrates the Pennsylvania Dutch way of life. But who are we?
Being Pennsylvania Dutch is a rather distinct thing. It immediately calls to mind a funny sort of broken English dialect (“throw the cow over the fence some hay”), hex signs on the barns, and some of the best darn cooking you can ever hope to eat. But what does it actually mean? Is there a difference between being Pennsylvania Dutch and Pennsylvania German?
Well…yes, and no.
For starters, and you probably already know this, being Pennsylvania Dutch has nothing to do with being Dutch in the sense of being from the Netherlands. Our Dutch is derived from Deutsch, the German word for, well, German. The dialect of German spoken by the Pennsylvania Dutch is derivative of Palatinate German and is commonly known as Deitsch, although it is regrettably beginning to die out. So thus far, the Pennsylvania Dutch are German.
Not entirely, though. See, the Pennsylvania Dutch are predominantly descended from a bunch of European refugees. Most, but not all, of these were Germans who fled the Palatinate of the Rhine when it was invaded by French troops during the War of the Grand Alliance. But some of them, particularly the ancestors of the Amish and Mennonite communities, actually came from German-speaking parts of Switzerland, and left it because they were trying to escape religious persecution. They found that the Palatinate wasn’t much friendlier to them than their native land, though, so they didn’t stay there long. They all came to America, where that crazy Quaker we call William Penn promised religious freedom for anyone living in his commonwealth.
It’s been said that a basic rule of thumb for determining whether you’re Pennsylvania Dutch or Pennsylvania German is to look at when your Germanic ancestors came to the area. If they immigrated before 1800, you can be considered Pennsylvania Dutch; if they immigrated after, you’re Pennsylvania German. This isn’t exactly accurate, but it’s got some truth to it, largely owing to the fact that Germany wasn’t a unified country for a long time. It’s also true because, as noted above, some of those ‘German’ immigrants were actually Swiss, so to call them Pennsylvania German wouldn’t be correct.
Bottom line, the generally accepted definition is that if you are descended from German or Swiss immigrants who came to Pennsylvania during the 17th or 18th century, then you are Pennsylvania Dutch. If your people came later, then you’re more accurately called Pennsylvania German. Either way, you still get to enjoy chicken pot pie.