Monday 24 September 2012

Hutterisch – the Mother Tongue of Hutterites

            Hutterites speak a Carintian German dialect, originating from the province of Carinthia in Austria, which we fondly call Hutterisch. This language is spoken on a daily basis. However, it’s unfortunately generously sprinkled with English words as well. Some of this cannot be altered as there are numerous things for which we have no Hutterisch word. These include, farm equipment, mechanical parts, cooking ingredients, medicines, and some kitchen utensils.

            All Hutterites speak Hutterisch, although there are dialect shifts and various lilts and other interesting nuances from colony to colony. This is even more evident among the three groups, Schmiedenleut, Dariusleut and Lehrerleut; e.g. one group uses certain words that the others don’t even know. Would be interesting to know where they learned those words, given the fact that our history is the same. But, perhaps the better question would be, how did the other groups lose them?
            Hutterisch is for the most part an oral language tradition. Yes, people do sometimes attempt to write it, in notes, text messages and emails. However, with no standard spelling system these can be quite challenging to read, with a confusing and often amusing mix of Hutterisch and English sounds, dialect shifts and everything in between. Still, I appreciate every attempt at Hutterisch communication in the written form and relish the challenge of deciphering them.

            When I worked on my German children’s book, ‘Lindas glueklicher Tag’, (Linda’s Happy Day) a German language consultant suggested I change all dialogue to Hutterisch to make it more authentic. Initially, this sounded like such an odd concept and which I wanted no part of. One of my arguments, “Ours is not a written language,” did not change this consultant’s mind.

            “Then make it a written language.” He stated nonchalantly. Easier said than done, I soon learned. In hindsight though, I do not regret this decision and both Hutterite and other German speaking people don’t have as much trouble reading it, than I initially thought. This probably opened the door to another interesting project I was a part of a few years ago.

We were approached by Dick Mueller, a Wycliffe Bible Translator/Linguist, asking if we’d be interested in translating a set of children’s Bible stories into our language. This was a long, tedious process, but worthwhile in the end – three books in this set of five are now published and available on Amazon and HB Book Centre. These books are especially enjoyed by young children, since Hutterisch is the only language they know. Each book comes with a CD. assessment. When I was in Germany and introduced myself as Canadian, someone asked me, “But, why don’t you have an accent?” Of course the answer is that ours is a German dialect.

While we were working on these books, we collected all the words in a special Wycliffe computer program and have since kept adding to the collection. This is not going anywhere fast, but we’re hoping to one day have a Hutterisch dictionary.

As mentioned before, Hutterisch originates from Austria, the land of our forefathers. A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit this beautiful country. I was grateful to visit friends and see an historical place – das Goldene Dachl, in Innsbruck, where Jakob Hutter was burned at the stake in 1526. I especially appreciated speaking my mother tongue with non-Hutterites. Of course, listening to this dialect in Austria has more High German than ours. Nonetheless, we could communicate and understand each other, which, for me was priceless!

I always find it interesting what people say about our accent when speaking English. Most often they can not figure out what it is, saying that it doesn’t sound like a German accent. Listening to Germans speak English, I’d have to agree with that
            Quite frequently we hear that our accent has an Irish lilt to it. After a recent conversation, someone told me, “The sound of your voice reminded me of a couple of friends I have in Europe, Estonia to be precise.  You have a Baltic lilt to your voice.”
            If you’ve ever heard a Hutterite speak, I’d love to hear your thoughts!


  1. Hi, I get a kick out of the way Hutterites say "Reeeeeelly!"
    Of course that is an English word, but for some reason it intrigues me. :-)
    I have been trying to read German the last year or so, so that I can read the old Anabaptist writings such as in the Hutterischen Episteln. Is Hutterisch different enough from standard written high German that Hutterites struggle to understand it if they read it?

  2. I'm not sure what you mean by Hutterischen Episteln, Mike. Hutterisch is a German dialect, so there are similarties between Hutterisch and High German. I think it's modern High German that many have problems with.

  3. It is a shame to loose our Mother Tongue, if it is other than English in an English speaking country. I have relatives where the husband's roots are Amish and the wife's are Hutterite. From the very beginning of their marriage they decided their children will know and speak all three languages or dialects. So he spoke Amish, she spoke Hutterite to their children and so without effort their children know all three fluently.

  4. Somewhere on the hof we have a Hutterite dictionary put together by a prairie-leut person. It is interesting, there are words included which I once knew but haven't heard in a while. I will see if I can come up with a link. I bought it from the author online.

    This is all I can find. He had a website, which I suppose is still somewhere.

  5. Katie, wow and good for them. That happens very seldom. Usually they just go with English and the other languages fall by the wayside. Would be interested in knowing who that couple is or where the wife is from.

  6. I have that book, Kathy. You're right, it is interesting. I also have another Hutterisch dictionary by Herfried Scheer, a German professor who studied our language for many years. That one I find even more interesting.

  7. I've never heard the Hutterite language unless I've heard it and didn't know it was Hutterite. I can't remember if I told you I work at the library and a woman came in whose last name was Hutter. She said it was her married name and I asked if her husband was related to any Hutterites. She said she never even heard of Hutterites but she was very intrigued. I've always wanted to see her again and ask what came of her research. Sorry if I shared that story already, I couldn't remember. I know she still comes in because I see books for her on the hold shelf, but it must be on days I'm off or something. :)

  8. Hutter is not a Hutterite family name, but I can see why you think so. (:

  9. A very interesting post!! I would have to agree with the tinge of Irish (or maybe even something akin to Maritime Canadian) in the accent of many Anabaptist folks. What's really interesting, however, is that I've heard it in the speech of virtually *all Anabaptists* - Amish, Old Order Mennonite - and now, based on what's here, among the Hutterites too.

    This is all the more fascinating when considering the small differences that you note as being present in the speech of different colonies - the fact, that there is a common linguistic trait binding other Anabaptist communities together.

    I really enjoy this topic.

  10. I recently moved to North Dakota and I don't think I been to Walmart once without hearing Hutterisch spoken. I'm fluent in Hochdeutsch, and so it always catches my ear, but then, it's not quite the same. :) Just curious, how easy is it to have an intelligible conversation between someone speaking high German and someone speaking Hutterisch?

  11. Thanks for stopping by, Rose Green! If Hutterisch is spoken slowly enough you would understand it, and most Hutterites understand High German, but are rather hesitant to speak it, as they seldom have a chance to practice it. Just try is one day, see what happens. And please come back here and tell me about it. Would love to hear about it1

  12. I have attempted to speak German to Hutterites from the Hof here in Alberta because I worked at a farmers market that they were. They did not like that at all, they would rather you spoke to them in English. They asked if I spoke Hutterisch because my last name is Mennonite but no I do not :(

    1. Unfortunately we do not get to practice speak German often enough, and the German skills of many Hutterites are limited, so I understand that they wouldn't like it. Persönlich aber, schätze ich jede Gelegenheit mein Deutsch zu üben,den nur dadurch kann es ja verbessert werden. Vielen Dank dass du für mein Blog Zeit nahmst. Das schätze ich auch.


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