Looking at the translations of the English word "butterfly" (insect) on Wiktionary I was surprised to see it translated as Fleddermaus in Pennsylvania Dutch1. I would have expected something more like Schmetterling or Summervogel (with Fleddermaus instead meaning "bat" as in Standard German). Out of curiosity I checked the translation of the English "bat" (mammal) into Pennsylvania Dutch but none was given.

Is the translation of Fleddermaus as "butterfly" correct (for Pennsyslvania Dutch) and what is the word for "bat" in that dialect?

1 The following quotation is given as a usage example:

Un hie un do sehnt mer noch en Fleddermaus, as widder zu Gnaade kumme is.

Source: 2006, Deutsch-Pennsylvanischer Arbeitskreis (eds.), Mit Pennsylvaanisch-Deitsch darich's yaahr: A Pennsylvania German reader for grandparents and grandchildren, Tintenfaß (publ.), page 118.

  • Welcome to German.SE. I'm totally unaware of these abroad German(s). And no, the PD wiki was no help, too: pdc.wikipedia.org/wiki/English/Pennsylvania_German/… (just surprised it has its own wiki^^) Commented Dec 16, 2021 at 14:27
  • I doubt that "Fleddermaus" means "butterfly". But a definite answer can only be given by a speaker of Pennsylvania Dutch.
    – Paul Frost
    Commented Dec 16, 2021 at 19:42
  • @PaulFrost It could be that the meaning shifted over time. i.e. Maus taking on the meaning of "small animal" instead of "rodent". (I agree that only a PD speaker could give a definitive answer.) Commented Dec 17, 2021 at 5:17
  • @AlexHajnal Sorry, I deleted my comment. It was, why does Pennsylvania German look like Dutch? I am German native speaker. The sentence you provided in your post is far away from German. I need quite a lot of fantasy to recognise its meaning: "Das sieht mehr nach einer Feldermaus aus, die wieder zu Gnade gekommen ist." Commented Dec 17, 2021 at 11:42
  • @rexkogitans The "Dutch" in "Pennsylvania Dutch" is Deutsch (poorly) transliterated into English. In other words "Dutch" is how (American) English speakers (hundreds of years ago) spelled Deutsch. So here the word "Dutch" really means "German", not "Dutch". The sentence in my post is written in the Pennsylvania Dutch language which is a type of German spoken in parts of the state of Pennsylvania in the United States. It is also spoken in small parts of nearby states and in parts of Ontario in Canada. Commented Dec 17, 2021 at 11:43

3 Answers 3


We need to realize that Pennsylvania Dutch is a German (Palatian) dialect "frozen in time" - So we need to go back a few hundred years and see what your examples meant by then in German - Grimm's Wörterbuch says for "Fledermaus" (amongst several meanings, including "bat"):

unter fledermaus verstand und versteht man den schmetterling (flätterling) der abends in das licht fliegt: ër tuot mir als dër vlëdramûs daʒ lieht. MS. 1, 9ᵃ, wo die andre lesart gibt: dër viwerstëln (oben sp. 1441). im voc. ex quo heiszt es papilio ein zweifalter vel fleddermusche. Alberus hat zu fleddermaus auszer vespertilio auch: papilio, vermiculus alatus, hepiolus, quo nullum animal imbecillius est, fleddermaus odder zweifalter, fleugt ins liecht. noch heute sagen Pfälzer und Odenwälder für schmetterling fledermaus, für vespertilio speckmaus, weil sie an den speck in den schornsteinen gehn soll.

(Note the mention of Palatian, also note the "butterfly" meaning is rather a "moth" - Fledermaus seems to be exclusively used for insects flying at night)

Incidently, the Grimms also help us with "bat" (Latin vespertilio) - it's "Speckmaus" according to them in Palatian - and, also in PD which is backed by this

We simply need to accept that old German dialects weren't too picky with taxonomy: What flaps around in the dark is all the same ;)

  • 1
    That reminds me of ancient texts (Christian/Jewish ones come to mind) that call everything that swims a fish and everything that flies a bird. Perhaps likewise Maus can have a more flexible meaning? Commented Dec 17, 2021 at 10:05
  • @AlexHajnal Maus is just a mouse, and yes, seems to stand for anything small and fluffy. And yes, language is not always biologically exact - see guinea pig, for example, in English.
    – tofro
    Commented Dec 17, 2021 at 10:23

Not an answer, but some extended comments. I think I'm probably the only regular here who has even heard Pennsylvania Dutch spoken live. (Please let me know in the comments if I'm wrong about this.) It's not spoken in Europe, and in the US the speakers are generally members of somewhat insular religious communities, the Amish and Mennonites. Pennsylvania Dutch does sound like German (to an English speaker at least), but there enough differences that I doubt that a native German speaker would be able to understand much of it, though they might have a chance if they are familiar with the West Central German dialects used in the region from where the Pennsylvania Dutch orginally immigrated. Here are links to the English and German Wikipedia articles on Pennsylvania Dutch, and a link to the Pennsylvania Dutch Wikipedia with about 2000 articles.

This site is meant to cover German and its dialects, which I interpret to include the varieties listed here. But while questions about Pennsylvania Dutch may technically be on-topic for the site, it seems unlikely that you'll get a knowledgeable answer. (I think the same issue exists with Yiddish.)

In general, I wouldn't put a lot of trust in the translations sections of Wiktionary. But this same information is given in a main entry here, with a quotation: Un hie un do sehnt mer noch en Fleddermaus, as widder zu Gnaade kumme is. On the other hand, an on-line Deitsh-English dictionary here here gives the meaning as "bat". Since these sources seem to contradict each other, it comes down to either trusting one source more than the other or trying to find something more reliable. In any case, I have a feeling that you'll need to ask elsewhere for first-hand answers.

  • Thanks for your feedback. I knew it was a long-shot when I posted it but reckoned it wouldn't hurt to ask. I get the impression that PD might not be a homogeneous language but rather one with a lot of local dialects that sometimes use the same word to mean different (sometimes contradictory) things. Again, your answer is much appreciated! Commented Dec 17, 2021 at 5:09
  • @Alex Hajnal: That's a good point; the Wikipedia article does mention some differences between PD in different regions, specifically a variety spoken Lancaster County. So it seems reasonable to assume that the same word could have different meanings according to region.
    – RDBury
    Commented Dec 17, 2021 at 5:28
  • I tend to challenge your initial claims of PD being hard to understand for Germans - It's actually relatively straightforward after some getting used to it, especially if you have some familiarity with southwest German dialects. The hardest part is filtering out the English accent and realizing what you hear is indeed German (I constantly got caught in trying to understand English words instead of German ones because of the melody).
    – tofro
    Commented Dec 17, 2021 at 8:34
  • @tofro: That fits with a video I found of a PD speaker telling about his travels through Germany. In some areas he could speak PD with no problems, in others, he had to switch to Hochdeutsch which he also knows. And yes, PD is heavily influenced by American English. (My impression is that people from the more isolated PD speaking communities speak with less of an American accent. It's hard to prove though; there aren't a lot of Mennonite YouTubers.) What did you make of the Fleddermaus example from Wiktionary? There's no translation given and I didn't even bother trying Google Translate.
    – RDBury
    Commented Dec 17, 2021 at 12:38
  • @rdbury For Fleddermaus see my answer. It actually used to stand for butterfly or, rather, moth in palatian dialect spoken in Germany. And yes, a PD-speaking person could still communicate in palatian dialect pretty easily, I guess. PD has, over the centuries, adopted quite a number of English terms that weren't present in their original language - An interesting example is "Grundsau" (groundhog) which is a direct re-translation into German where that word (for obvious reasons, there are no groundhogs in Palatia ;) ) simply doesn't exist.
    – tofro
    Commented Dec 17, 2021 at 12:45

In Palatine German, from which Pennsylvania German is descended, Fledermaus signifies both butterfly and bat; see Pfälzisches Wörterbuch, PfWB: Fledermaus.

Note that the Pfälzisches Wörterbuch has made an effort to include Pennsylvania German. Quoting from the introduction:

Auch das Pennsylvanien-Pfälzische wurde, soweit es in gedruckten Quellen zu erfassen ist, in die Sammelarbeit einbezogen, indem die Wörterbücher von Horn [sic], Danner und Lambert sowie wissenschaftliche und schöngeistig-mundartliche Literatur der Pennsylvanier, die uns die Heimatstelle Pfalz unter Dr. Fritz Braun dankenswerterweise zur Verfügung stellte, für das Wörterbuch ausgeschrieben wurden.

The mentioned references are Horne's Pennsylvania German Manual and Lambert's A Dictionary of the Non-English Words of the Pennsylvania-German Dialect. Lambert is cited in PfWB: Fledermaus for the meaning butterfly (see also Lambert: fleddermaus), and Horne for bat. However, the dictionary editors must have made a mistake, as the quotation from Horne is actually about a butterfly:

Horne: Birdie Cries

De gal fled'r-mous kumt, / Un pikt 'm fĕgli de awgă rous.
The yellow butterfly comes, / And picks birdie's eyes out.

For bat, Horne has shbĕkmous (Horne: bat). This concurs with PfWB: Speckmaus (which has Lambert concurring, see Lambert: schpeckmaus).

Note that all of this does not exclude the possibility that Fledermaus, in Pennsylvania German, has the same ambiguity it has in Palatine German, i.e. it could theoretically still signify bat as well as butterfly.

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