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Keeping Pa. Dutch alive: Fate relies on new speakers

Jana Benscoter
505-5438/@jbenz51
  • Pennsylvania Dutch Heritage Group meets in York monthly, where they read, speak and sing songs in Pennsylvania Dutch.
  • Germans, recruited by William Penn, were mainly from the southwestern Palatine region of Germany. Penn offered them a place to farm and escape from religious persecution.

When 77-year-old Rachael Gromling used to troll the kitchen for a post-supper, late-night snack with her seven siblings, her dad used to say “schleckerie.”

Rachel Gromling sings during the Pennsylvania Dutch Heritage Group meeting at Providence Place in Dover. Jana Benscoter/photo

It’s a Pennsylvania Dutch word that means dainties or sweets, and it’s one that she won’t forget.

She worries, however, that the German-rooted language once common in southern Pennsylvania might fade altogether from our collective memory.

Gromling’s parents spoke Pennsylvania Dutch fluently. However, they never passed the language along to her and her siblings, and the Manchester resident has been trying to learn it for 22 years.

Gromling is part of what social scientists say is an aging demographic trying to maintain its heritage.

As a way to feel connected to her family and upbringing, Gromling joined the Pennsylvania Dutch Heritage Group in 1995. At that time, she said, there were at least 30 people who would regularly attend meetings.

More than 20 years later, the number attending has dwindled year after year to about eight people.

Special events such as holiday parties and picnics lure attendees, Gromling added, pointing out that there are plenty of Pennsylvania Dutch foods available.

Whether the occasional pot pie can keep the language alive remains to be seen.

William Penn: Members of the Pennsylvania Dutch Heritage Group said Germans were lured to Pennsylvania by founder William Penn.

They were mainly from the southwestern Palatine region of Germany, where the soil was similar to that in central and eastern Pennsylvania.

Penn provided the Germans a place to farm and a haven to escape religious persecution.

When Penn offered those who are now known as Pennsylvania Dutch a new life in 1683, Germany was still forming its boundaries and government as a country.

The new settlers spoke their native language, but they also had different dialects, members of the local group explained. When Germans immigrated to Pennsylvania, segregated Pennsylvania Dutch groups continued to speak their native tongue and their learned dialect.

Slow fade: Dale Moyer, president of the Pennsylvania Dutch Heritage Group, said there are several reasons why the language seems to be disappearing, such as changes in employment, education and mobility, as well as technological advances.

“When Pennsylvania Germans were at their height, 80 to 90 percent of all Americans worked on farms,” Moyer said. “It was a very cohesive, very stable community. You didn’t move around, you stayed and you worked on your farm.”

When a more formal approach to education emerged in the 1800s, he said, lessons were taught in church, where students were more likely to learn in a different language. As the nation's education system developed, however, teachers began to speak English.

The Pennsylvania Dutch Heritage Group reads, sings and speaks in Pennsylvania Dutch at Providence Place in Dover. Jana Benscoter/photo

Churches, such as the Lutheran and Reformed congregations where Pennsylvania Dutch was spoken, also began to change around the 1860s, when other, non-German congregations moved into the area. Church leaders wanted a united language, and that was English, Moyer said.

Technology only hastened the demise of Pennsylvania Dutch.

“Up until the time of radio, most of the things they heard was from a local paper, books, but there was no mass communication,” Moyer said. “Radio came into the picture, and they spoke English. That began to break down communications.”

With the advent of television, “English was poured in, and very little Pennsylvania Dutch was learned by kids,” he said. “Those are the reasons why learners of the language (are) declining.”

Preserving the language: Today, nearly all fluent Pennsylvania Dutch speakers are elderly.

Gromling said the Pennsylvania Dutch Heritage group was created to preserve the language and their ancestors’ way of life. The group meets monthly in York, where they read, speak and sing songs in Pennsylvania Dutch. The group also hosts a variety of activities.

Most of the group's members are older adults. They do not spend time recruiting younger members through social media sites, such as Facebook or Twitter, Gromling said. They just recently launched a website. To promote the group, Gromling publishes a newsletter that she sends to 80 members who reside in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Oregon, New York, Vermont and Illinois.

One of the largest turnouts for the group is their summer picnic, which will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 17, at the Spring Grove Lions Club building. To find more calendar events, visit the group’s website at http://pennsylvaniadutchheritagegroup.weebly.com/.