Pennsylvania German and the Old Order Mennonites in southern Ontario

The history and current status of affairs

Woolwich county in the Waterloo-Kitchener area, approximately 100 km west of Toronto, is home to a dense population of German speakers and has been so for a very long time. Up to this day, German is still the most common immigrant language in the area (Statistics Canada 2016). The region is not only very German, but also contains a huge variety of Mennonite and Amish communities (Fretz 1989: 45). The Old Order Mennonites, with whom I have worked, are Anabaptists of Swiss-German origin. Due to religious persecution, their ancestors left Europe for Pennsylvania where they were promised freedom of religion by the early 18th century (Frantz 2017: 131–2). After the American War of Independence, some left Pennsylvania with the majority settling in Waterloo county, where they still reside today (Burridge 1998: 72). The Old Orders have maintained Pennsylvania German (also called Pennsylvania Dutch) as a first language, and still use it at home, in the community, and in church, while their second language English is restricted to more formal contexts, including school and doing business with the outside world. For the Old Orders, Pennsylvania German symbolises group identity. Maintaining the language does not only mean preserving their traditions and marking group membership but also represents resistance towards and separation from the secular world (cf. Johnson-Weiner 1998). Consequently, language is a very important tool for the conservative Mennonites, while the more liberal communities, having abandoned Pennsylvania German first in church and then in all other contexts, have all shifted to English within the last fifty or so years. When asked whether Pennsylvania German might be lost in the future, locals – that is both non-Mennonites and the more liberal Mennonites – count on the Old Orders, also known as the horse and buggy people, to hold on to it.

Horse pulling a Mennonite buggy.
View from inside a Mennonite horse and buggy. (Photo: Miriam Neuhausen)

Linguistic research

Within the framework of Sali Tagliamonte’s research project ‘Dialects of Ontario’ at the University of Toronto (see, I spent five months with the community and recorded conversations with Pennsylvania German-speaking Mennonites. Thereby, I spoke to members belonging to both the aforementioned conservative horse and buggy people (who do not drive cars) and the more liberal churches (who drive cars and use modern technology).

My research focuses on language change and variation. To me, Pennsylvania German is highly fascinating because it has survived for such a long time in this area. In the community, the two languages – Pennsylvania German and English – strongly influence each other. Pennsylvania German resembles the Palatine dialect in southwestern Germany (Seifert 1947: 291) mixed with Canadian English, while the Old Olders’ English is sprinkled with German words, grammar, and intonation. For example, you might hear ‘tsh’ for ‘dj’ as this first sound in words like German and likewise ‘z’ for ‘s’ in words like song. In addition to that, most speakers say words like about the American way instead of the Canadian way (which sounds more like a boat). This feature is exactly what I am examining more closely: whether the Old Orders say about the American or the Canadian way.

“My mom war Deutsch like.”

(My mom was German like.)

Language change

The language change from about to a boat began in Ontario around the 1880s (Chambers 2006: 107), roughly 100 years after the first Mennonites arrived in Canada (Epp 2002: 17). Nowadays, the majority of people in Canada use the new pronunciation a boat. The traditionally isolated Old Order Mennonite community has largely resisted the language change owing to their deliberate separation from the secular world – and are thus about users. Now that at least some of the members are in increased contact with the outside world, some speakers have adapted to the change in pronunciation and use both the new and the old pronunciation. For my research, I look at when they use which vowel and what they say while doing so. My findings show that specific words tend to be pronounced a boat, while the majority of words can be variably pronounced either way. This could mean that the new vowel is associated with specific words, and other words might potentially gradually follow in the future. By contrast, other words show mixed pronunciations, which may indicate that some speakers are using the different vowels for performative functions. For example, when they take specific stances, they might use the a boat pronunciation to show belonging to the Canadian speech community; alternatively, they may use the about pronunciation to mark distinctiveness and show Mennoniteness. Whether speakers do this or not seems to depend on the degree of their exposure to the outside world. What I find most interesting about the linguistic situation here is that even though the community deliberately isolates themselves from the outside world, new linguistic forms seem to gradually arrive in the community, apparently due to the growing exposure to the outside world. It is super interesting to see who adopts these and why and when. These preliminary findings are super exciting and need to be investigated further!

I absolutely loved working with the community – everybody was so open and welcoming. I am so grateful for having been introduced to such wonderful people and their lifestyle. I have learned so much about a minority language that is kept alive in an increasingly globalised English-speaking world and a culture that conforms to norms and values that are so different from what I knew before. Last but not least, I learned how wonderful life without technology can be in times of globalisation, and I learned so, so much about myself.

Mach’s gut!

Miriam Neuhausen


“Do you think Pennsylvania German will die out soon?”

“I don’t think so, net so lang es noch zu Hause ist.”

(I don’t think so, not as long as it is still at home.)


Burridge, Kate. 1998. Throw the Baby from the Window a Cookie. English and Pennsylvania German in Contact. In Anna Siewierska & Jae Jung Song (eds.), Case, Typology and Grammar, 71–93. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Chambers, Jack K. 2006. Canadian Raising Retrospect and Prospect. The Canadian Journal of Linguistics 51(2/3). 105–118. (27 May, 2019).

Epp, Marlene. 2002. Mennonites in Ontario. An Introduction. 2nd edn. Waterloo, ON: The Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario.

Fretz, Joseph Winfried. 1989. The Waterloo Mennonites. A Community in Paradox. Waterloo, ON: Wilfried Laurier University.

Johnson-Weiner, Karen M. 1998. Community Identity and Language Change in North American Anabaptist Communities. Journal of Sociolinguistics 2(3). 375–394. (16 December, 2019).

Seifert, Lester W. J. 1947. The Diminutives of Pennsylvania German. Monatshefte 39(5). 285 293. (16 December, 2019).

Statistics Canada. 2019. Proportion of Mother Tongue Responses for Various Regions in Canada, 2016 Census. (05 December, 2019).