Myth #1: Amish teens have the freedom to choose whether to remain inside the Church; that’s what rumspringa is for.
Rumspringa as portrayed in pop culture is a myth that does untold damage to those of us stuck inside who want a different future. We don’t get a choice to not leave the Church; and we’re not officially allowed to party or break the rules. Just as in big cities, the more teens there are, the harder it is to control them and the easier and more likely it is that teens can get together and defy socially acceptable behavior and laws. In many smaller communities, the teens are so tightly controlled that experiencing the world outside is extremely difficult, often impossible.
No matter what community you come from, it’s always understood that you are never to leave the religion. Your only “choice” is to get baptized and remain a member of the Amish Church* for the rest of your life. We’re neither encouraged nor supported to look into alternatives to the Amish Church. One of the baptismal vows is to remain a practicing member until your death. It’s more sacred than your marriage vow, which says a lot, because the Amish don’t allow divorce.
*There’s a loophole in the religion that allows a baptized Amish person to transfer out of the Amish Church and into a very short list of other fundamentalist/conservative Anabaptist religions. But it’s not something that’s commonly known about and the vast majority of Amish children and youth grow up under the belief that there’s no safe exit from the religion, an exit that doesn’t put them at risk (or certainty) of going to hell.
What rumspringa means literally is “running around” and it refers to a period of time. That’s it. It’s the period of time from age 16 or 17 (depending on the specific community you come from) until you get married inside the Church.
I cannot emphasize this definition enough, due to the fact that reality TV, some documentary films, and self-proclaimed academic experts outright lie about what rumspringa really is.
Myth #2: The Amish speak English as a native language.
We speak Amish. It’s its own language but non-Amish self-proclaimed experts on us Amish refuse to recognize that and insist that it’s only a German dialect. The Amish language has evolved over the past 300+ years in the US and Canada and meets the sociopolitical criteria for qualifying as a language. In addition, we Amish neither speak nor understand conversational Standard German. Our Amish language has at least two distinct dialects: Pennsylvania Amish and Midwestern Amish.
Amish was a spoken-only language until I was around 15 years old, at which point someone translated the Bible into the Pennsylvania dialect of Amish (which is different from the Midwestern dialect that I speak). In practical terms, Amish is still only a spoken language. We use English to communicate in writing among ourselves, but our English vocabulary and grammar aren’t advanced thanks to a rudimentary Amish-only 8th grade education and limited interaction with native English speakers.
I still speak Amish fluently. Unlike most Amish who exit the Church, I’ve retained my native tongue because it’s one of the things I appreciate about my culture.
Still have questions? In my post, When You Know the Truth, You’ll Never Again Mistake Dutch for Amish, I go into more detail about people’s questions on whether Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch are different languages or if our language should be called Amish instead of Pennsylvania Dutch.
Click here for Part 2