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The Pennsylvania Dutch

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What does Pennsylvania have to do with windmills, wooden shoes and The Netherlands?

Very little actually.

The Dutch did settle much of the Colony of New York, but Pennsylvania was mainly settled by the English, Germans and Scots-Irish.

The cultural group of Pennsylvania's population known as the 'Pennsylvania Dutch' take their name from a poor case of translating the German word Deutsch as 'Dutch'. So, in fact, the Pennsylvania Dutch are actually German descendants.

William Penn is responsible for bringing these Germans to America. He toured Germany extensively in the 1670s as a missionary for his Quaker faith. Later, his Quaker friends living in Pennsylvania published a book which was translated into German describing the virtues of Pennsylvania. Copies were sent to the same places Penn had visited years earlier.

Apparently, the Quakers believed the Germans' ascetic religious principles closely matched their own beliefs. The first permanent settlement of Germans in America was founded in 1683, just outside Philadelphia. Germantown was settled by 13 families of religious refugees from the Palatinate region of Germany.

Their first winter in Pennsylvania was one of extreme hardship, living together in four caves they had dug into a hillside. But soon the community's leader, Francis D Pastorius, displayed the determination and work-ethic that the Pennsylvania Dutch would become known for, turning the village into a prosperous community in no time.

In 1723, another group of Germans led by Conrad Weiser founded Womelsdorf and other settlements in the Tulpehocken region of Berks County. Eventually, the 100,000 German immigrants would make up about a third of the Pennsylvania colony's population.

Pennsylvania Dutch Language

The Pennsylvania Dutch generally speak American English. However, it is not uncommon to find German spoken in the home, especially among the older generation. Most linguists argue that the language of the Pennsylvania Dutch1 is a dialect of German and deserves further study. They estimate that about 15,000 still speak true Pennsylvania 'Dutch' and they fear it may disappear except for enclaves of the Amish who speak it among themselves and at worship.

But the Pennsylvania Dutch influence also leads to odd words and syntax entering into everyday English, even among those who do not have German ancestry. For example, it wouldn't be out of the ordinary to hear someone say:

Throw the horse over the fence some hay.

This translates to 'throw some hay over the fence to the horse'. Apparently this incorrect English syntax is proper in German. But for outsiders, it can draw some confused looks at times. Most common Pennsylvania Dutch expressions are like this - broken syntax like the example above - or they might include German idioms that translate oddly into English or German words and phrases mixed into an English sentence.

Some other 'Dutchie' expressions include:

Pennsylvania DutchEnglish equivalent
Make Wet?Is it going to rain?
Outen The Lights.Turn off the lights.
The Candy Is All.There is no more candy.
Red Up The Room.Clean the room.
It Wonders Me It makes me wonder
Dippy EggsEggs cooked 'over easy'
Butter Bread bread with butter
Hurrieder Faster
SpritzingDrizzly rain

Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking

Food is one of the most significant cultural contributions for which the Pennsylvania Dutch are recognised. The rich farmlands of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country are some of the most productive non-irrigated fields in North America. And you can taste it in the variety of foods which are the hallmark of these people.

Visit a farmer's market in Lancaster County or one of the hundreds of restaurants boasting 'homestyle Pennsylvania Dutch cooking' and you'll see that it is difficult to find something that won't appeal to some palate. From desserts like funnel cakes and fastnachts to chow-chow, hogsmau, scrapple, and red beet eggs, there is a variety of unusual treats - as long as you're not worried about counting calories.

Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore

The Pennsylvania Dutch brought a lot of folklore with them from the Old Country when they arrived in the Keystone State. And a good bit of it is still a part of the state's culture.


Folk medicine2 using so-called 'white magic' with religious overtones has existed in Pennsylvania for more than 200 years. Many of the techniques were brought with immigrants from Germany and Switzerland in the 1700s and are passed down from generation to generation. Pow-wowing is still being practised today, albeit not so publicly. One Researcher's aunt practised 'white magic' up until her death in the 1990s.

Here are a few samples of pow-wow health remedies:

  • To cure a headache, place a buckwheat cake atop your head.

  • To cure a tumour, rub it with the right hand of a corpse.

  • To reduce a swelling, put hog manure in a left shoe and tie it over the swollen body part.

  • To cure a cold, headache or toothache, sleep on a small, preheated pillow filled with hops.

  • To cure rheumatism, put dandelion roots in whisky. After letting it sit for six weeks, take a drink or two daily.

  • Another rheumatism cure was to wash the affected body parts in the water in which potatoes have been boiled.


Pennsylvania Dutch life was rife with superstitions. They ranged from sayings about the weather to things one should and should not do on religious holidays.

Some Good Friday superstitions include:

  • Getting a hair cut on Good Friday will prevent toothaches the rest of the year.

  • Digging in the garden will bring bad luck, but planting seeds will bring a plentiful harvest.

  • Placing an egg laid on Good Friday under a bowl in your attic will prevent lightning from striking your house.

Some Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas superstitions include:

  • Cows are given the power of speech on the night of Christmas Eve and anyone born on Christmas Day can understand what cows say.

  • For three minutes on Christmas night, the water in all wells turns into wine.

  • For good health, avoid bathing and changing your clothes between Christmas and New Years Day.

Some New Year's superstitions include:

  • To keep yourself healthy in the New Year, eat smoked sausage. For good luck in the New Year, eat boiled cabbage. But for the whole package of good health, wealth and happiness in the New Year, you should eat pork and sauerkraut

  • If a family serves chicken on New Year's Day, they will have financial difficulties for the rest of the year.

  • Changing your undershirt or underwear on New Year's Day can cause boils.

Some weather folklore includes:

  • When a woman sleeps with her leg sticking out from under the cover, it is warm enough to plant corn.

  • The weather on the fifth of the month will indicate what the rest of the month's weather will be like.

  • Early morning rain is like an old woman's dance - neither last long.

  • When a rooster sits atop a fence to crow, there'll be rain all day.

What About the Plain People?

It is no accident that we didn't mention the Amish and related Mennonite sects earlier in this entry. While they are also part of the Pennsylvania Dutch culture, they are a small (roughly 10%), albeit very noticeable, segment of the overall population.

There are literally tens of thousands of 'Pennsylvania Dutch' in Pennsylvania who have nothing to do with the Plain People. But movies like Witness with Harrison Ford and the tourist-pandering trade in Lancaster County make people think that the Dutch are the Amish and that the Amish are the only Pennsylvania Dutch.

1Linguists pedantically refer to them as Pennsylvania Germans.2The Guide cannot be held responsible if utilising these techniques proves to be ineffective.

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