Oberlin Blogs

The Amish and Languages in America (and at Oberlin)

October 15, 2008

Charles Grim

Somewhere near the Isthmus of Panama (re-posted by request May 20, 2009)

Here I am on board TACA Airlines flight 661 from Jose, Costa Rica, to Quito, Ecuador, continuing my travels through Latin America. I was joined at the airport in San Jose by three colleagues from other schools with whom I'll be traveling over the next weeks. Sarah Ziesnitz from Hamilton will be with me through Lima, Peru, while Laura Kaub from Barnard and Jillian Baird-Bennett from Wesleyan will be "going with" all the way through Brazil.

You probably noticed that I used the expression "going with" rather than the grammatically correct "going with me" in the previous paragraph. "Going with" is an interesting regional US expression that seems to come from the Chicago area - although I have heard it spoken by others, including one of Oberlin's Conservatory professors, David Breitman, who hails from Toronto, Canada. Anyway, I used this expression as a segue to today's topic of languages.

Last night I visited the United World College in Costa Rica and had the pleasure of speaking with a prospective student from Spain. Xiana is a native speaker, not of Spanish, but of Galacian. This got me thinking about differences in language diversity within countries. In Spain, for example, there are significant numbers of native speakers of at least four distinct languages: Spanish, Galician, Catalan, and Basque. Yet in the United States, a MUCH larger country, there are really only three or four surviving languages that are represented by any significant number of speakers. I'm not including recent immigrants who speak a whole host of languages, but rather of populations that have been present for generations, yet still speak a distinct language. Obviously, there are English speakers. There are pockets of Spanish speakers in the southwestern states as well as Florida, New York, and other urban areas. Other than that, pretty much the only other native speakers are small pockets of French speakers near the Canadian border in Maine and in some remote areas of Louisiana and small pockets of German speakers located in a handful of thriving Amish and Mennonite communities sprinkled through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin primarily.

I don't really have anything to say about the English or French speakers, but I will return to the German and Spanish speakers in a little while. What fascinates me is why the indigenous languages of the US mostly died out, but why they survive in other parts of the world. I think this is a pretty neat question and probably one that linguists have already thought about. If these kinds of questions are interesting to you, or even if you just like to learn new languages, Oberlin is a place worth investigating. If my memory serves, Oberlin offers 13 languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Latin, Greek, Italian, Hebrew, Russian, Japanese, Chinese (Mandarin), Korean, and Arabic. Most of these are offered from the beginning level all of the way through to literature. Some, though, are currently only offered at the beginning or intermediate level (e.g. Italian and Arabic).

Early in the history of the United States, groups of German speakers immigrated to Eastern Pennsylvania and founded an agricultural community that became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. Due to distinct Protestant Christian religious practices, these people remained, and to a large degree still remain, separate from mainstream America. They are generally farming families - although over the last few decades, many have begun developing small-scale low-tech industrial activities - particularly furniture making. At various periods in time, portions of these populations have moved westward, first to Ohio, then later to Indiana, and within the last 30 or so years to Wisconsin in search of reasonably priced agricultural land.

The Amish (as they are usually called - although there are actually other sects as well) practice agriculture the old fashioned way. They farm with horses and generally forgo the use of electricity. They dress very traditionally in clothes that often seem "quaint" to contemporary Americans. Most of these people avoid the use of cars and travel from place to place in horse-drawn vehicles of various sorts. And they speak a dialect of German at home, although virtually all do speak English as well.

The center of the second largest Amish community in the United States is located about 45 miles south of Oberlin, but that fringes of the community extend as far north as Lorain County, where Oberlin is located. In fact, you can often see Amish buggies just a couple of miles from campus. As you choose a college, consider the importance of America's rural roots. It isn't hard to imagine that the close proximity of these interesting people could be of immense benefit as you study American literature, sociology, or even German.

Finally, I'll close this blog with a brief mention of Lorain, Ohio. Lorain is located just 12 miles north of Oberlin on Lake Erie. Lorain is home to one of the largest Hispanic communities in Ohio, perhaps the largest in percentage terms. Think of the opportunities that this presents to those of you interested in Hispanic or Latin American Studies. For those of you who might be native Spanish speakers yourself, Lorain also offers an opportunity for you to perform community service as there are often local families who need help completing US government forms in English.

I hope you'll keep these interesting learning opportunities in mind as you think about which American college is right for you. Who knows, some day you may even have a friend from Chicago that lets you "go with" as he or she goes home for a school vacation.

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