First of all, we can quickly dispose of the “Pennsylvania Dutch” misnomer. The term is more properly “Pennsylvania German” because the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch have nothing to do with Holland, the Netherlands, or the Dutch language. These people originally came from German-speaking areas of Europe and spoke a dialect of German they refer to as “Deitsch” (Deutsch).
In the English language, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the word “Dutch” referred to anyone from a wide range of Germanic regions, places that we now distinguish as the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
It is also easy to forget that Germany (Deutschland) did not exist as a single nation-state until 1871. Prior to that time, Germany was more like a patchwork of a variety of areas where various German dialects were spoken.
The settlers of the Pennsylvania German region came from the Rhineland, Switzerland, Tyrol, and the eastern parts of France or wherever the German language was spoken beginning in 1689. The Amish, Hutterites and Mennonites now located in the eastern counties of Pennsylvania and elsewhere in North America did not really come from “Germany” in the modern sense of the word. They did bring their German dialects with them, and in modern English could refer to this ethnic group as Pennsylvania Germans. Calling them Pennsylvania Dutch can be somewhat misleading.
Observers, including many Europeans, frequently assume, incorrectly, that the term “Pennsylvania Dutch” is synonymous with “Amish.” In fact, of the approximately 81,000 German-speaking immigrants who came to Pennsylvania during the eighteenth century, only a few hundred were members of the small, but very visible, Anabaptist sect known today as the Old Order Amish. Most were of either Lutheran or German Reformed (“nonsectarian”) background who, unlike the Amish and other “sectarians,” did not separate themselves for spiritual reasons from the social mainstream.
Some believe that the English-speaking Pennsylvanians simply confused the word “Deutsch” for “Dutch.” But then you have to ask yourself, were they really that ignorant—and wouldn’t the Pennsylvania Dutch themselves have bothered to correct people constantly calling them “Dutchmen?” Many of the Pennsylvania Dutch actually prefer that term over Pennsylvania German! They also use the term “Dutch” or “Dutchmen” to refer to themselves.
But one must accept the fact that the Pennsylvania Germans are linguistically German, not Dutch. Support for this opinion can be seen in the name of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, at Kutztown University. This organization, dedicated to the preservation of the Pennsylvania German history, language, folklore, and traditions, uses the word “German” rather than “Dutch” in it’s name. Since “Dutch” no longer means what it did in the 1700s and is very misleading, it’s more appropriate to replace it with “German.”