My Thoughts About One of My Favorite Places--Northeastern Indiana's Amish Country

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Yoder, Miller, Bontrager




Yoder, Miller, Bontrager…  Names one sees on mailboxes and home businesses all over Amish Indiana.  Lately I did a little research into the most common names there.  That led me into learning about the two distinct Amish ethnic groups found in Indiana today.  (I am indebted to the book “An Amish Patchwork” by Thomas Meyers and Steven Nolt for helping me to get the details right.)

The main Amish ethnic group in Indiana, the one found in Lagrange and Elkhart Counties, is the “Pennsylvania Dutch” (the word “Dutch” actually meaning “Deutsch,” or German).  These people are descendants of early German settlers—Amish and non-Amish such as Lutheran—who came from Europe and settled in Pennsylvania in the 1700s.  Those settlers were called “Pennsylvania German,” or more commonly, “Pennsylvania Dutch,” and they spoke a form of German called by the same name.  The Amish among them retained the old language, but the non-Amish lost it as they adopted English over the years.

Then in the mid 1800s, some of these Pennsylvania Amish moved westward to Holmes County, Ohio, and onwards into northeastern Indiana (Lagrange and Elkhart Counties), where, today, they make up the third largest Amish settlement in America.  Their most common surnames are (in order) Miller, Yoder, Hostetler, Bontrager, Lehman, and Troyer.  Their language is still called “Pennsylvania Dutch” or just simply “Dutch.”  (It is quite different from both present-day German and Dutch.)  These are the Amish I am familiar with.

But there was a second stream of Amish into Indiana in the mid 1800s.  Those Amish came directly from Switzerland and settled farther south in Indiana, in Allen County and Adams County.  Their most common surnames are (in order) Schwartz, Hilty, Graber, Lengacher, Schmucker, and Eicher.  Their dialect is usually called “Swiss.”

So the differences go beyond surnames.  The two groups don’t have very much interaction, and tend not to intermarry or live in the same communities.  My friend Glenn once told me that, on the rare occasion that he has interacted with downstate Swiss Amish, their dialects are so different that they must switch to English to be able to communicate.   

The Swiss Amish in central Indiana tend to be more conservative than the Amish farther north in Lagrange and Elkhart Counties.  For example, they drive only open buggies, even in the winter.  They are more conservative in matters of dress, housing, and lifestyle.  They don’t use the hydraulic compressed-air forms of power that are common in northeastern Indiana (nicknamed “Amish electricity” by outsiders).  They mark their graves with simple wooden stakes instead of simple stone markers.  And, remarkably, they still practice yodeling!

Getting back to the northeastern Indiana Amish:  A funny thing about the “Pennsylvania Dutch” language is that it is a spoken language only.  Their written language is English.

Thus, my Amish friends are actually tri-lingual.  They learn “Dutch” as their first language, and it is the language they speak at home and socially all their lives.  They learn English (spoken and written) when they enter school at age six or seven.  And they learn the old “High German” in school, since it is the language of their two most important books—the Bible and the Amish Hymnal (the Ausbund).  Luckily for me, they switch back and forth easily!


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