Interview with Douglas Madenford for Thesis
1. As a PA Dutch man that also speaks PA Dutch, what do you find is the biggest misconception about PA Dutch people and language?
I think the biggest misconception is that all PA Dutch are Amish. As you know, in post WWII America there was a push for more tourism to PA Dutch Country, the Amish were the image that was advertised. I continually meet people with no knowledge of the PD and when I tell them that I speak PD, they almost always ask, “Was your family Amish?”. We too are to blame for this. Over the years, our unwillingness to show outward pride in our culture and language mixed with generations of PD wanting to fully integrate into the stereotypical American society has greatly helped speed up this process. Now we have a generation of PD (in their 20s-40s) who are finding a need to reconnect with their cultural heritage and identity and all that is available, as far as resources go, are sectarians (who all too often are not willing to engage in conversation with non-sectarians). It is sadly our humility that has helped put us in the situation that we find ourselves today.
2. As I get further into my research it appears that making fun of PA Dutch and the way they talked is actually what started the fake traditions of the PA Dutch kitsch booklets and products that were produced in the 50's-80's. The invention and exploitation of the "Dumb Dutchman" (fascinating read 'Pennsylvania German in Public Life' by Marion Lois Huffines PA Folklife 1990). I feel that the work you do educating PA Dutch people and the public about the real traditions and authentic language of the PA Dutch is so crucial to not only preserve the language but also to empower PA Dutch people and help to educate the public whom have been mis-lead to believe that we are all Amish (lol). Why do you do the work you do?
Thank you for those words. I agree with you that it is my work, and the work of many of my contemporaries, mixed with the power of modern technology that we can hopefully slow the trend of the demise of PD spoken among non-sectarians. I see myself as one of the last “Mohicans” of our tribe. I grew up in a family where PD was still spoken and with grandparents who interacted only in PD with friends. That was the reality of my youth. We went to church picnics and other social events where PD was still used. Now, less than 25 years on, that is almost non-existent. I attend Versommlings and other PD events and look out over a sea of gray-haired PD women and men. There are times, when I can see my people dying. I often lament at the future of PD, but with a firm and steadfast resolution to continue and pass it on, I work. I also hope that through my work, I can bring honest and real information to the uninformed. Dispelling stereotypes and myths that have invaded our culture is hard work, but it must be done. I feel that that can only be accomplished through education and the exchange of information. I don’t want to be the last guy at the bar who turns the proverbial lights out on our language and culture. *** On a side note, this is a topic that I personally wrestle with often.
PS – I like aspects of the “dumb Dutchman” especially through our humor, however, when one digs below the surface of that stereotype, one will quickly realize that what comes off as dumb is not dumb at all. Resourcefulness, frugality, work ethic, pride, humility, love of the land, a strong faith are all quality character traits. Look at how immigrants who don’t speak strong English are viewed today. That stereotype is perpetuated still in 2017 and I doubt that it will go away in the future.
3. As a parent that is teaching their children PA Dutch language and about the culture, what do you think it the most important part of our culture to share with them?
I cannot answer the question with just one part. I see all of the parts as a whole. From the language, to food ways, to cultural observances, to traditions, to music, and on and on. Teaching and exposing my children to all of these aspects shows them who they are and where their forefathers, their people, came from and how they have survived. It gives them their identity. Teaching high school students, I all too often encounter teenagers who have no idea or concept of their cultural identity. I cannot fathom living life not knowing who you are or where you come from. That was such a major part of my childhood. Growing up in the PD culture is what made me who I am today. I only hope that the parenting that I and my wife bring to our children can give them a similar experience.
Doug & I with our German friends :)