Did you ever notice that different authors sprinkle words in Pennsylvania Dutch into their novels?
I was recently reading a book written by another Amish author. It was an older book that was in my library. While reading it, I noticed that a lot of words were sprinkled into the book. A LOT. Not just a word here and there but entire phrases and sentences with no translation. Frankly, I found it distracting.
When I write my novels, there are certain words and phrases that I use. The reason is quite simple: I want the reader to hear the Amish speaking. For example, I’ve never heard an Amish person say “Yes.” Instead, they will say “Ja” or “okey” pronounced “Yah” and “Ew-key” in a sing-song type of way. I choose not to use “okey” because I fear readers will think it’s a typo. Some authors will use the semi-phonetic version of the word YES which is “ya”. In my opinion, it’s a disservice to the Amish and their language. I like to keep things accurate.
Another word play that I’ve noticed in books is the words for children. Amish will often say “daughter” and “brother”, but they pronounce it with an accent which make those words sound similar to Pennsylvania Dutch so I choose to use the Dutch words to add the flavor of Amish to the stories: dochder and bruder. You see, reading novels about the Amish should provide the reader with an experience. That’s my goal when I write my novels such as Newbury Acres (due out in June by Love Inspired) and The Amish Cookie Club (due out at the end of May by Kensington).
However, authors should be consistent in dialogue when using such Amish words. An Amish character would not use both the Amish version and the Englischer version in the same sentence, that’s for sure and certain!
Of course, each Amish community speaks differently. For example, in Shipshewana, Indiana, my friends use the phrase like “What. Ever” to express disbelief. But in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, my friends will say “Oh help” for the same reason. I will include both phrases in my books, usually selecting “Oh help” over “What. Ever” regardless of the location. I’ve heard the expressions used in both locations but I like the consistency so that my readers are not distracted.
Some authors will use different spellings of words, too. For example, most authors write “Denki” for thank you while I use “Danke.” I find it distracting to read the other word and, while some Amish might spell it that way, in actual Amish publications, I always see “Danke”. As for the word for Mom (Mamm or Maem) and Dad (Datt or Daed), I chose the latter in both cases. To be perfectly frank, most Amish will refer to their parents as Mother and Father. When addressing their parents directly, they will use the Dutch version. The proper spelling is Maem and Daed, but many authors will use the other version because it sounds more like their actual pronunciation.
Finally, the Amish grew up learning German as children. This is often reflected in how they formulate sentences in English. One of the best examples is an Amish person asking someone to give hay to their cow. They would likely say, “Throw the cow over the fence some hay.” Sometimes I will slip in such phrases but I don’t do it too often, again for fear that readers will think it’s a typo or poor proofreading.
The bottom line is that integrating a few words into the novels, whether spelled properly or not, adds a more authentic experience for the reader. But authors should not include too much as it can become distracting.
Sarah Price is the author of the Plain Fame series and the Amish of Ephrata series, among other books. She comes from a long line of devout Mennonites, and her writing reflects accurate and authentic stories based upon her own experiences with several Amish communities. Visit her at sarahpriceauthor.com and on Facebook.