Saloma Miller Furlong
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Amish Conference 2016, Part 3

Amish Conference

I now turn my attention to the plenary session by Professor Mark Louden from the University of Wisconsin called Continuity and Change in Pennsylvania Dutch. He has made the dialect of the Amish a focus of study. He actually speaks it better than I do, and I am (was) a native speaker. He began his talk by speaking in the dialect. He said this may be the only talk that started in that language from that stage. After several sentences, he then switched to English.

Professor Louden gave the history of the dialect, which is something I never knew when I was living an Amish life. He was kind enough to send me his PowerPoint presentation and gave me permission to quote from it, so below are several direct quotes from him.

  • Pennsylvania Dutch is a North American language that is closely related to German dialects of the southeastern Palatinate in central-western Germany, near Mannheim. It developed during the 18th century (esp. between 1750 and 1770) in southeastern Pennsylvania.

  • Originally the great majority of PD-speakers (95%) were members of Lutheran or German Reformed churches (Kirchenleute ‘church people’); the remaining 5% were members of Anabaptist and Pietist sects (e.g., Mennonites, Dunkards, Amish).

It was only last year that I learned that the Amish language actually developed in Pennsylvania. I kept thinking that if I were in the right part of Germany, I would hear them speak the dialect I grew up with, so I was very surprised to learn that this dialect was developed on this side of the Atlantic.

Professor Louden shared a great [translated from German] quote from a German traveler to Pennsylvania in 1783/4: “The language used by our German countrymen is a miserably broken mishmash of English and German with respect to words as well as their combination.”  – Johann David Schöpf.

I can only imagine the incredulity of the German traveler. Most Germans are fastidious about the way people speak their language.

Professor Louden went on to say:

  • In the second half of the 19th century, industrialization, urbanization, and improved access to education led to greater mobility for rural Americans, which led many nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch (church people) to shift to English.

  • Among Mennonite and Amish sectarians, progressives moved closer to the American Protestant mainstream, also leaving German and Pennsylvania Dutch behind.

  • The Old Orders, however, have conserved an agrarian faith-culture distinct from that of their English-monolingual neighbors and “kept Dutch” and German.

I believe that the Amish and Old Order Mennonites are the last holdouts to adhere to their language and traditions. The lesson learned as that once church Germans switched to English for their worship service, it left a clear path open to assimilation into the mainstream culture.

At least some Amish are aware that maintaining their language is closely linked to maintaining their culture. Professor Louden quoted an Amish person who wrote: “It is a well-known fact that losing our mother tongue and drifting into the world usually go together.” ~ Benuel S. Blank, author of The Amazing Story of the Ausbund.

By studying and helping to preserve the language of the Amish, I believe Professor Louden is also helping to preserve their culture and traditions. In a world in which the Amish are so often misunderstood (I will get to one of those ways in a moment), I believe Professor Louden’s research is validating the Amish adherence to their German roots through their language and traditions and that his work is filling in an important missing piece of research on Amish culture.


Dirk Eitzen, director of Film and Media Studies at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster presented a seminar called “Reality TV Amish.” He showed several clips of Breaking Amish and Amish Mafia. He told us from the start that he is not going to tell us about these films, but was going to ask us about them. He also said he was not going to defend them. He asked for a show of hands of how many people had seen a few clips of the films; how many had seen more than one episode; and how many people liked the shows. He asked for our impressions of the reality shows in general, and why we think they are so popular. He jotted phrases on the whiteboard as people gave their impressions. Then he watched our reactions as he played clips.

Mr. Eitzen knows Eric and Shannon Evangelista, who are the directors of Hot Snakes Media, who produce the shows. He had conversations with them about certain techniques they used to make certain scenes look plausible when they weren’t. The example he used was the way they filmed Lebanon Levi and his “gang” when they were supposedly “catching” a bishop in the act of visiting a prostitute. Eric’s response was, “How do you know it wasn’t real?” Mr. Eitzen happened to know who the actor was playing the part of the bishop.

Several audience members expressed strong feelings against the shows, including the obvious exploitation and distortions of Amish life, while giving the viewing audience the impression that this is “real” Amish life. One woman burst into tears, saying that this was her heritage. Sabrina Völz made the observation that these shows tell us more about the mainstream culture than they do about the Amish. Another person pointed out that the producers are taking advantage of the fact that the Amish won’t defend themselves.

As this seminar continued, it became clear to the audience that even though Mr. Eitzen may not defend the shows, or the Evangelistas for producing them, he was also not going to criticize them. Later, when I read his abstract, I realized that his approach was clearly spelled out:

In the last decade, there has been a spate of reality TV shows about the Amish. All of what is shown in these shows is contrived and a lot of it totally made up, in ways that deliberately confound and deceive viewers. It is natural for those of us who respect the Amish, as a people and as a culture, to be outraged at what we know to be deceptions or outright lies, especially because many of them seem disrespectful as well as dishonest. But to understand how the shows actually work–what their fans want and take away from them, what difference their deceptions make, and whether and how they impact viewers and Amish communities–one needs to step back and examine the shows from arm’s length–not uncritically, but cooly. One needs to count to ten, as it were. That is the presentation and the discussion that will follow.

I was right there with him, up to the word “But.” Mr. Eitzen’s approach is likely a whole lot easier for someone coming at the subject from a film studies point of view than it is from the perspective of someone who knows the Amish culture inside out. I have already expressed my feelings about these shows in the following blog posts:

The Amish: Misunderstood Again

Perceptions of the Amish

Hot Snakes Media Continues to Exploit and Slander Amish Culture

I should have followed my instinct and attended the session that was happening simultaneously called “Interfaces with Social and Health Care Services.” I might have actually learned something useful.

In my next (and final) post about the conference, I will focus on the last two sessions. Stay tuned!

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