Pennsylvania German Proverbs

As I dig deeper into the literature of the Pennsylvania German heritage so as to get a better sense of the culture from which the Amish emerged, I am enjoying fun reading. I just borrowed a book Proverbs of the Pennsylvania Germans by Edwin Miller Fogel from the Five College Library system Some of these sayings are funny, others are philosphical, and still others are mind twisters. But nearly all of them remind me of what it was like to "think Amish."

The book is organized alphabetically by stichwort (key word). So far I'm only into the Bs, but I've come across several that I marked to share here on my blog. These are written in the dialect, in English, and in High German. In some of the cases below, I changed a word or two in English when I didn't agree with the author's translation.

For easy reference, I'm putting the sayings in bold print.

Most people have heard the proverb, "The apple does not roll far from the tree" as a way of saying that someone is like his or her parent. How is this for a variant of that?

"The apple does not roll far from the tree except when the tree stands on a hillside." So does this mean that there are times when we don't turn into our parents? If so, it seems it has to do with the parents' vantage point. That turns the modern parenting way of thinking upside down — we think it has more to do with our sons' and daughters' life choices than our our parenting.

I like this one, "Wann der appel mol zeitich is fallt er runna" (When an apple is ripe, it will fall.) 

This one is most ironic: "Most-careful fell down the steps and broke is neck."

Here is one that is a bit more optimistic than some: "Well begun is half done."

This one is a man's way of thinking, "It costs nothing to take a look." I'm thinking it has to do with looking at women, but I could be wrong.

The author claims that some of these sayings overlap with sayings from English-speakers, so it's hard to know their true source. I found one like that. I've been watching the Lark Rise to Candleford series, which is based on Flora Thompson's autobigraphical novel of the same name. I found a proverb in Fogel's book that corresponds to something the narrator said in Lark Rise. "To be poor is no disgrace but inconvenient."

Here is one that I've often realized, but maybe not in such pithy words: "Better to be poor and healthy than sick and wealthy."

And here is one more that deals with wealth and poverty: "Arm oder reich, der Dod macht alle gleich" (Rich or poor, death makes us all the same).

This is a very Amish way of thinking: "Rest goes well when the work is done."

And so is this: "When you love what you do, it is not work."

Here is one that was used to describe parents' responsibility of raising their children. And for the parents who were so inclined, I'm afraid it gave them permission to be forceful: "Bend the tree when it is young because you can't when it's old."

This one is often used at Amish funerals to remind people that they need to be prepared to die at any time: "As the tree falls, so will it lie."

Most of these sayings are more poetic or pithy in German than they are in English. but here is one I actually liked the English version better. It is poetic and it paints a vivid picture in my mind, "The higher the mountain, the deeper the valley."

I saved the mind-twister until last: "If it does no good, it will do no harm."

If you can interpret this one, please let me know.

So here are a few proverbs that took me down memory lane or made me think in a new way.

Do you have a favorite saying?

Sharing is caring

24 thoughts on “Pennsylvania German Proverbs”

  1. When I was growing up,I stayed as often as I could with a favorite aunt and uncle. My aunt would tell me to do something and alot of the time, I would say, I don’t know how to do it. Her response was always this, Well, you can’t learn any younger. So, I learned how to do alot from her and her saying has stayed with me.

  2. That last one is so opposite of what we have been taught, depending in which circle of thinking we are, which also depends on which group of people we are with. “If it does no good, it will do harm.” is the way we are supposed to think.

    That Bend the tree when it is young… I have heard that too many times in Amish preaching services or at school meetings…

    1. Katie, what does that saying mean, though, “If it does no good, it does no harm?” I’m not understanding it.

      You and me both, hearing too many times the part about bending a young tree.

      I hope you have a Merry Christmas, Katie.

    2. shimke Levine

      There is a similar saying in Yiddish – “es ken nisht shatn” meaning literally ‘it can’t hurt – it cannot do any harm’. I think the meaning is less ‘ignore it’ then as a response when someone tells you your idea won’t help (can be serious or a parody of that response). The traditional story linked to it takes place in the populist Yiddish theater of lower Manhattan in the 1920s. The spectacle has to be interrupted because the main actor has died on stage. Wehn they announce that this great actor is dead, someone from the crowd shouts out “Apply suction cups!” [an old traditional remedy for anything and everything). The announcer explains in all seriousness that ‘You don’t understand. He is dead. Suction cups (“bankes”) won’t help! Again the voice comes back from the back of the theater “Es ken nit shatn” – It can’t hurt!

    1. Elva, that is a funny way of saying it, but perhaps you are right. I’m thinking it has to do with something that is ineffective, but I don’t really know.

      Merry Christmas to you at the North Pole!

  3. A lot of interesting proverbs! One that comes to my mind every time I try to carry everything in one load rather than make two trips is “I’m not sure how to spell it in Deitch.): “Un fallah esel schaft sich dot.” A lazy mule works himself to death.

    “If it does no good it will do no harm.” might be a way of saying something is worthless, powerless, useless or of no effect in our lives. How is it worded in German or Deitch.

    1. Aleta, my mother used to use that saying all the time. There is another part to it, “A lazy mule carries himself to death, and a foolish mule walks himself to death.” (The last part is for someone who does one little thing at a time.)

      The Deitsch on that last saying, according to this book of Proverbs is, “Was nix bat schats nix.”

      Thank you for your thoughts, as always, and Merry Christmas to you.

  4. I think the last one is medical. Homeopathy hasn’t been proven to work and there are no side effects. Herbal medicine is natural but has been proved to work, and there can be some side effects. It’s like the side effects prove that something works. So you could say that homeopathy does no good, so therfore can do no harm.

    1. Fiona, your interpretation is kind of along the lines of what I was thinking… a way of saying something is ineffective. It could pertain to medical or anything else, too.

      Thank you for your thoughts.

      Merry Christmas!

  5. Isn’t it interesting how just about all of us heard in our youth over and over from our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles these sayings or ones very similar, all to teach us a lesson on life. In my case they either confused me or scared me. A favorite in our house was, “you can take a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” Or on the scary side, “idle hands are the devil’s work shop.”
    In our house the “apple” version went, “An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” unless of course you were talking about a certain person then you said, “that apple didn’t fall far from the tree”. That one was often said in the negative and in whispered tones!!!

    1. Pamela, you are right, it often is a way for elders to pass along “wisdom” to younger people. But what we often forget is real wisdom is acquired through life experiences… and struggles teach us faster than anything else.

      One of my Amish teachers used to say, “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink; you can lead a student to school, but you cannot make him think.

      I heard that idle hands one also. It didn’t scare me that much, I don’t know why. Perhaps because I could not imagine what a devil’s workshop was, and partly because there were so many other “warnings” of the wrath of God that were much more vivid in my imagination.

      Yes, in my community the apple saying was used just about like you describe.

      Thanks for stopping by, Pamela, and Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  6. My grandmother was full of those sayings, although if I remember correctly, she sometimes said them in English. Things like ‘A sunshiny shower won’t last half an hour’ and ‘Whistling girls and crowing hens always come to some bad end’. That last one was said to me when she heard me whistling a tune- and it hurt my feelings no end.

    Much later I recalled that she herself constantly whistled. :)

    1. Elva, I remember my mother repeating these sayings in English as well. I often wonder why not in our own dialect? We had a lot of weather sayings, but I never heard the one about the sunshiny shower. Mom and Dad always said that winter does not set in until the creeks and rivers are full. Over the years, I have noticed this one is right on. Then of course there was the well-known one, “Red sky in the morning is a sailor’s warning; red sky at night is a sailor’s delight.” And Dad always took notice of what time a morning rain began. He claimed, “Rain before seven will stop before eleven.” This is true most of the time, but I noticed it doesn’t work as well during Daylight Savings Time… unless you take that hour into account.

      Did you know that there is such a thing as a crowing hen? My sister keeps chickens, and she took a video of a hen crowing. It was bizarre.

      On a different note, my guess is that your grandmother was told that saying to get her to quiet her whistling when she was a girl. I love your last remark… I guess it didn’t work to get her to stop…

      Elva, I wish you a joyous Christmas. I still listen to the Gaelic psalms, and I always think of you when I do.

  7. Another version to the “faul essel” is a lazy mule will work himself to death with the first load…too lazy to make more than one trip. I’ve been guilty of that one!! I’m not really lazy, I just want to get done faster, ha, but sometimes it takes longer to take a heavy load than it does to make more trips!! Yes & yes, too many times to count have I heard the apple & the twig bending versions, esp at funerals or in whispered tones depending on the person or situation. Happy continued reading & maybe you can find more proverbs to take us down memory’s lane! Christmas Blessings to all!!

    1. Mary Ellen, I too, am guilty of being a “faul essel.” In fact, I hear my mother’s voice in my head every time I find myself carrying too much. But rarely am I a “foolish mule who walks himself to death.”

      Thank you for your suggestion of sharing more proverbs. I thought about it and given the response here, I just may do that. I didn’t want to bore people with the same theme, but the responses suggest that you all won’t be bored.

      Christmas Blessings to you as well, Mary Ellen.

  8. Hello Salome, I enjoyed your blog about the different “sayings” used by the Amish. I am sure the different sayings get used according to the circumstances of the place where the families live. My mother’s sayings were a bit different than my father’s because she had come from iowa and he from Mi. When I came to live in Holland my mother in law would always be using certain sayings to make a point, usually to show something I hadn’t done right. I would have no idea what she would be talking about and she would have no idea what I was trying to say if I would use a certain saying from my world. you can’t always accurately translate the sayings either if they are in another language. In translating, it loses the essence of what it is all about. It is facinating to be able to really understand the wisdom of what is trying to be said. I think that I have finally mastered the dutch language well enough to understand most of the sayings that are used here and I can even translate some of “my” sayings too.
    Greetings to you and I wish you and your family a blessed Christmas and the very best for the new year. Mary M.

    1. Mary, it’s great to see you here. I agree about the problem of translating. I think sometimes we lose the FEELING in the saying. This is why I am not always in agreement with the author of the book in the way he has translated it. One little twist or turn of phrase can make such a difference.

      So glad you have mastered Dutch. For some reason I imagine that Dutch is a lot harder to master than German. Perhaps German is in my blood…

      Likewise on the Christmas and New Year greetings… wish you and your family the very best.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top