Throw Father Down The Stairs - Poem by gershon hepner
Throw Father down
the stairs his hat,
and send him to town
without a cravat.
Ve get too soon oldt,
and too late get schmart,
but once the bell’s tolled
it’s too late to schtart.
The hurrier we go,
the behinder we get,
and all that we know
we soon will forget.
Inspired by Dutchy talk from Lancaster PA, discussed by Roger Mummert (“Sounds Like Home, ” NYT, June 21,2008) :
Growing up, we took Sunday family drives in the countryside. When we spotted horses and buggies, we invariably slipped into Dutchy talk. “Throw Father down the stairs his hat! ” I’d say to my sister in an expression taken straight from a potholder sold at a tourist trap. “And throw the cow over the fence some hay! ” she’d counter. By college, however, I was determined to put miles between myself and Lancaster — and to purge myself of Dutchified phonic vestiges. The phrases that I cherish stem from the mix of cultures in Lancaster’s storied history. In colonial times, an influx of Germans, including Amish, Mennonites, Brethren, Lutherans and others, populated rural areas mainly in the eastern and northern parts of the county, while English-speaking settlers predominated in the city of Lancaster. In farm areas, communities were so strong that German continued to be spoken for the next two centuries, and the Amish speak a rarefied dialect of German today. Visitors can get an earful of what’s called Pennsylvania Dutch (or Deitsch, meaning German) at livestock auctions and country stores. One still hears German-scented English spoken by Amish merchants in Lancaster’s Central Market right off the main square. Over my last few trips to Lancaster, I’ve grown increasingly fond of hearing the hometown accent and the cornball sayings that derive from awkward translations from German (“The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.”) . And I scour the countryside for Dutchy talk. “Do you sell whole pies? ” I asked a waitress at a lunch counter, as I scraped clean a plate that briefly had held a slice of strawberry rhubarb. “Oh, no! ” she recoiled. “We daresn’t or the pie’d be all! ” As in all gone. Earlier, she had asked a couple over my shoulder: “Do yous want your coffee awhile? ” Meaning while you wait. Lapsing into Dutchy talk, which I tend to do when I see high school buddies, may seem to some outsiders like insensitive mockery, but Lancastrians see it differently. It’s a prideful connection with nativeness, and an ironic (or maybe twisted) commentary on the crass commercialism of the tourist trade that exploits the Amish from trivets with sayings (“Ve get too soon oldt... und too late schmart! ”) and billboards with grinning Amishmen (“Come essen, it’s wonderful gut! ”) . In fact, the people being mimicked by Dutchified English largely are not the Amish but rather the once larger German-speaking community that populated the rural areas. Distinct from being “plain folk, ” they were called the “gay Dutch” or “fancy Dutch” for allowing song, dance and colorful clothing — and for their sense of humor. “WHEN you hear the Amish speak English, they don’t really have a Dutch accent, ” said Keith (Butch) Reigart, who teaches classes in Pennsylvania Dutch at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. He said the deep Dutchy sound now is heard more in rural areas where the non-Amish continued to speak German in their homes rather than to assimilate with English speakers, and where each language influenced the other. In 1942, German speakers in the southeastern part of the state were estimated at 500,000, with plain folk (Amish and Old Order Mennonites) being about 10 percent of that. Because of anti-German sentiment during the World Wars, Mr. Reigart explained, people stopped teaching German to their children. “It was thought, let’s leave this Dutch business behind, ” he said. While the Amish keep Pennsylvania German alive, only smatterings of non-Amish now speak the dialect in their daily lives. Over the years, Dutchified English proved rich fodder for humorists, who performed under Dutchy monikers: Professor Schnitzel, Maria Budderfuss and Jakey Budderschnip. Hoping to inherit this audience today is Gary Gates, author of the two-volume series “How to Speak Dutch-ified English.” He performs at festivals and banquets under the moniker Professor V. Gates. I called up Mr. Gates, and he said that Pennsylvania Dutch humor has a long history going back to colorful preachers in colonial times and that it celebrates the inner wisdom in country folk. “People put us down for our accent, ” he told me in parting, “but let’s make the best of it and enjoy it! ” If you scratch a native Lancastrian, it’s said, you find a little Pennsylvania Dutchman beneath, and I suppose that’s true of myself. In conversations with a cousin, I was reminded that our common grandparents both “got along pretty well” in Pennsylvania Dutch. Our grandfather grew up hearing German in the home, and our grandmother, a European-born Jew, grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home at a rural corner of Lancaster County. Somehow, this unlikely duo found common linguistic ground.
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