Investigating language practices in an Old Order Amish community

Jansson, Johanna Mikaela

Åbo Akademi University, Finland


Research among the Old Order Amish (OOA) gives us valuable opportunities to investigate the interplay between language and society. The language practices of the OOA serve to mark their identity, and shape the Old Order community and culture.

This paper will report on an on-going research project into language maintenance and shift among the OOA. Drawing on data gathered by means of participant observation, interviews and language journals during extended periods of residence in an Old Order community in Michigan, it will explore the language practices of this most traditional group of Amish. It will examine how the OOA use their three languages – Pennsylvania Deitsch (PD), English and High German – in different domains, such as the home and community, the school, and religious settings. PD is the language of the home and community; English is the written language, and the language used in school and for communication with outsiders; High German is the religious language. This paper will also discuss approaches to the methodological difficulties that confront researchers attempting such work in a highly closed community of this kind.

My research suggests that the social organization of the OOA is shaped by their language practices, as well as by tradition and religion. While in general it appears that being Old Order Amish means using PD, and that they maintain their mother tongue in order to exclude worldly influences, perhaps also because change itself is considered harmful, it remains that members of this community have no objection to using the English language per se, but rather to its use in certain contexts. All three languages have their specific domains, and overlapping is minimized.

It is not only interesting but highly important to study this aspect of the OOA, because it shows how a minority group has been able to preserve a minority language and a different way of life against the odds, for nearly 300 years in North America.

Session: Paper session
Shift 1 (Maintenance)
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 12