Language has been an important part of Mennonite ethnic identity. Moving from place to place, language sometimes seemed like one of the only things that remained relatively the same; a bond that tied Mennonite groups together. As time went on, it continued to be an important element of what separated them from the "world" around them. In a sense, it became a symbol of their unique background as they moved to foreign lands.

Swiss Mennonites

Martyrs' Mirror Title page, 1748 Pennsylvania edition (13 Kb): The largest book printed in Colonial America.
Title page of the First American edition of the Martyrs' Mirror (1748)

The first immigrants from Switzerland and Southern Germany spoke German as their mother tongue. After arriving in the "New World," they came into increasing contact with English. After some time this German evolved from "high" or the Palatinate German dialect to a unique Pennsylvania Deutsch, or "Pennsylvania German."  This dialect was later dubbed "Pennsylvania Dutch" because of the English way of saying "Deutsch," not because it had anything to do with Holland.

The transition from German to English created some division within the Mennonite groups themselves. Some insisted that the German language was an important part of their faith and culture, and did not want English to become broadly used. Others did not think that adopting English was a bad idea, since it would help them to communicate with those of non-Mennonite background.

This discussion was transplanted into Canada during the migrations of the 17 and 1800s. In southern Ontario today some groups (such as the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite) continue to use "Pennsylvania Dutch." Despite having lost the actual dialect, many others of Mennonite ethnic background maintain some of this accent in their use of the English language.

Russian Mennonites

The Froschauer Bible, translation favoured by German Anabaptists (28 Kb): Conrad Grebel College Reference section
Title page of the Froschauer Bible (1531 edition)

Russian Mennonites have had a similar experience with their language. Although they emigrated from Russia, these people had lived quite isolated from their Russian counterparts; German was still spoken in their homes and taught in their schools. When these groups began to migrate to Canada, they came into contact with the English language. Most read and some spoke "high (formal) German," while many others spoke a more informal dialect called Plattditsch or "low German."

Again, the speed of and attitudes toward the transition from German to English created tension in the Mennonite community. The change was perhaps even more drastic for the Russian Mennonites, since they had emigrated from Europe more recently than most of the Swiss. Also, each new wave of immigrants used only the German language, which created additional tension between the groups.

Many Russian Mennonite churches in Canada continue to have German church services, and people still speak German regularly. The younger generations, however, are mostly speaking English. In Southern Ontario, specific groups such as the Old Colony Mennonites continue to conscientiously hold on to the German language or related dialects.

The Tradition Broadens

Today Mennonite churches in Canada are not limited to English and German. Groups meet regularly who worship in Laotian,  Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, Spanish, Japanese, French, Chinese (Cantonese, Mandarin), Hindi, and Punjabi. On a global level, the Mennonite church includes people of about 75 languages and over 100 cultural groups! Visit The Church Today and The World Church sections to catch a glimpse of this rich diversity.

Created 1998 by Derek Suderman
Modified 1999 by SJS