In English, when something is happening, -ing goes on the end of the verb.
For example, we might say, “We walk.” when talking about something you do in general. But if you were in the middle of a walk, you would say, “We are walking.”
It’s the same in Pennsylvania Dutch. When talking about actions that are happening right now, or ongoing, those verbs need an -ing to go along with it. But instead of adding something to the end of the verb, in Pennsylvania Dutch, you use the separate word am in front of the verb.
But you do not add am in front of just any -ing verb. How do you know when?
The quick answer is, use am:
- When the action is happening right now, or it’s an ongoing action.
- When imaging yourself in a past situation or and discussing an action that was currently happening at that time.
Talking about the present in Pennsylvania Dutch
Let’s look at a couple of examples when talking about the present.
EN: Learning deitsh is not easy.
PDC: Deitsh lanna is nett eesi.
In English, the word learning has -ing at the end. But in Pennsylvania Dutch, there’s no need to use am in front of lanna (learning) because this is not specifically talking about an action that’s happening right now.
Let’s look at another similar sentence using the same verb.
EN: I am learning deitsh.
PDC: Ich binn deitsh am lanna.
In this example, lanna (learning) is something that is ongoing, so it does need am in front of lanna. That is to say, you are continuing to learn.
Let’s see another common sentence.
EN: One way that we can do this is by praying.
PDC: Ay vayk es ma dess du kann is bei bayda.
Here, bayda (praying) does not need am because it’s just talking about praying in general; not something being done right now.
Let’s look at one more example. This one is interesting because it has two verbs that would have -ing on the end of them in English.
EN: A lot of people enjoy reading the book and it is helping them.
PDC: En latt leit enjoya ‘s buch laysa un ‘sis si am helfa.
Here, laysa (reading) is not talking about something that’s being done right now. So laysa does not need am with it.
On the other hand, helfa (help) needs am because the [information from the] book is currently helping them.
Talking about the past
When talking about the past, you normally don’t need am since it’s likely not currently happening. You would normally use past tense verbs in those situations anyway.
But here’s the exception: When imagining yourself in the past.
EN: Who was he probably talking about when he said: “Forgive them?”
PDC: Veah voah eah andem am shvetza diveyya vann eah ksawt hott: “Fagebb si”?
In this sentence, you’re asking your listener to imagine themselves in this situation that happened in the past.
So even though it happened in the past, it’s like you’re being asked to put yourself there. Since this person was talking (shvetza), and it was happening then, you need am.
It’s as if you jump back in time and you’re there; imagining what is currently going on in the situation.
Let’s look at another example that common.
EN: From what Mark 12:41 says, what do you think was happening?
PDC: Funn vass Markus 12:41 sawkt, vass denksht du es am haebna voah?
Again, talking about a past event, but asking the listener to travel back in time and imagine what was happening (am haebna) then. You need am in this situation.
You only need to use am in front of verbs when:
- The action is happening right now, or it’s an ongoing action
- Imaging yourself in a past situation and discussing an action that was currently happening at that time.