Plain Talk about the Amish: Penn Dutch Proverbs

(C) Bill Coleman/amishphoto.com

(C) Bill Coleman/amishphoto.com

(C) Bill Coleman/amishphoto.com

(C) Bill Coleman/amishphoto.com

(C) Bill Coleman/amishphoto.com

"Fortune knocks once but misfortune has more patience." Amish proverb

If you want to know a people, know their proverbs.

Most every culture has proverbs that are unique to it. Whether called maxims, bromides, truisms, idioms, expressions, sayings, or just an old saw, proverbs are small, concentrated packages that let us peek into the window of a peoples' values and beliefs. They give us insight into a culture, its faith, folklore, history, language, mentality, psychology, worldview, and values. These pithy sayings are not meant to be universal truths. They contain general observations and experiences of humankind, including life's multifaceted contradictions.

"Proverbs," once said radio Bible teacher J. Vernon McGee, "are short sentences drawn from long experience."

The ancient Eastern world—Egypt, Greece, China, and India—is thought to be the home of proverbs, dating back to collections from as early as 2500 BC. King Solomon, who reigned in the tenth century BC, gathered many of them from other sources as well as editing and authoring others. Over five hundred were compiled into the book of Proverbs in the Bible. Proverbs were used in monasteries to teach novices Latin. Often colorfully phrased, at times even musical in pronunciation, proverbs served as teaching tools for illiterate populations that relied on oral tradition.

Interestingly, the proverbs have played a surprisingly prominent role in the speech of the Pennsylvania Germans, which includes—though isn't limited to—the Amish. "It is natural that the Pennsylvania Germans should use the proverb extensively," writes Dr. Edwin Miller Fogel in his book Proverbs of the Pennsylvania Germans "because of the fondness of the Germanic peoples for this form of expression. The proverbs are the very bone and sinew of the dialect."

"The ones that are common in the community are most likely in the oral tradition," says Dr. Donald B. Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania. "Not particularly Amish, but part of the broader rural tradition of the area."

The Pennsylvania Deitsch dialect (which is called "Penn Dutch," though it has no relationship to Holland) originated in the Palatinate area of Germany over four hundred years ago and was brought to Pennsylvania in the seventeen hundreds with a wave of immigrants: Lutherans, Mennonites, Moravians, Amish, German Brethren, and German Reformed. Penn Dutch was, and is, an oral language; even today, people from different states can understand one another since the language has remained close to its origins.

"Most of what they [German immigrants] knew, they brought here from the Old World," explains C. Richard Beam, retired full professor of German at Millersville University. "The proverbs were an integral part of Pennsylvania German culture. The further back you go, the richer the language."If you want to know a people, know their proverbs.

The cleverness of a proverb, though, can be lost in translation. Here's an example: Wer gut Fuddert, daer gut Buddert. "Good feed, much butter." Here's one that comes through a little smoother: Bariye macht Sarige. "Borrowing makes sorrowing."

Beam worries that the language has been watered down and diluted over this last century, as the external culture has crowded out its rich heritage. Raised in Pennsylvania, Beam says that all four of his grandparents spoke Deitsch as their first language. "We spent time with aunts and uncles and grandparents. That led to a richness of the culture, a preservation of the language. This was prior to radio and television." Beam is now 84 years old. "There's a saying I was raised with: 'Every time the sheep bleats, it loseth a mouthful.' That applies directly to the culture today." The dialect is losing words, he says. "Language doesn't stand still."

Today, only the Old Order Amish and the Old Order Mennonites have retained Deitsch as their first language. The Old Order Amish is a society that does not permit higher education. Theirs is a culture learned from the simplicity of their ancestor's lifestyles, and the Amish value this heritage. This simple lifestyle, passed virtually unchanged through the generations, provides an ideal base for the continual use of proverbs.

Within the last century, the use of proverbs in modern American society may have diminished, but not so for the Amish. In fact, the opposite is happening.

The Sugarcreek Budget is a weekly newspaper for the Amish-Mennonite community that began in 1890. Scribes from all over the world send in a weekly letter to the Ohio headquarters. At the end of most letters, a proverb is added, like a benediction. "The trend began about five to eight years ago," explains editor Fannie Erb-Miller. "We started to allow a saying on the end of a scribe's letter, and then it just caught on. Now, almost all of the letters have one. Early on, letters didn't include them. Mostly, they're sayings that pass from generation to generation. The proverbs are very relevant. They can speak to you. They can hit you."

Proverbs come from many sources—most of them anonymous and all of them difficult to trace. It is not unusual to find the same proverb in many variants. The saying, "Bend the tree while it is young, when it is old, it is too late" is a variation on the Bible's "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Prov. 22:6 KJV).

God plays a prominent role in Amish proverbs, as does nature: weather and seasons, agriculture and animals. In our modern world, the rural savvy may seem outdated. But look a little deeper. The proverbs are every bit as relevant in the year 2010 as they were in 1710: Der altBull blarrt als noch means "The old bull keeps on bellowing," or to give it a twenty-first-century twist, "The old scandal will not die down."

These sayings and proverbs, dear to the Amish, can help the English (non-Amish) better understand them. For example, here are two proverbs that reveal how the Amish value the virtue of patience: "Only when a squirrel buries and forgets an acorn, can a new oak tree come forth," and "Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience."

Proverbs are just as useful in our life today as they are to Old Order Amish families. They're just as relevant to us as they were to the Israelites in King Solomon's day. They help point us toward wisdom, toward good judgment, toward God's teachings. To please God, we must know what he values: What does he care about? What does he love? What does he hate? Proverbs teach us about God.

That is the ultimate goal of the proverb: to help others learn by experience and live wisely, pleasing to God. By perpetuating these same phrases, we constantly remind ourselves of their importance and their power to prevent us from forgetting the lessons they hold.

One thing is certain: There is no such thing as a simple proverb.

This story was excerpted with permission from "Amish Proverbs: Words of Wisdom from the Simple Life" (Revell Books, 2010).

About Suzanne Woods Fisher: She is an author of bestselling fiction and
non-fiction books about the Old Order Amish. Why the Amish? Well, Suzanne's
grandfather was raised Plain. She's always been fascinated by her gentle,
wise relatives. Learn more about Suzanne, her books, and Amish Wisdom, her
weekly radio show, by stopping by www.suzannewoodsfisher.com. Please subscribe to this blog and consider leaving a comment!

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