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The Lenape Language

John Conway
Posted 5/3/24

Neversink, Minisink, Mamakating, Shawangunk-- most people who have lived in Sullivan County for any length of time, or have visited here regularly, are aware of these rather strange sounding place …

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The Lenape Language


Neversink, Minisink, Mamakating, Shawangunk-- most people who have lived in Sullivan County for any length of time, or have visited here regularly, are aware of these rather strange sounding place names. Far fewer people are likely aware that these names sound different because they are derived from the language of the Lenape, the Indigenous People who inhabited this region for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived.

Because, like many of the indigenous tribes, the Lenape had no written language—save perhaps for some pictographs carved into stone—the Lenape language was largely lost for generations, but the Delaware Tribe of Indians in Oklahoma has spent years now trying to reconstruct that language.

It should also be mentioned that modern historians are much more prone these days to identify the Indigenous People of this region as the Munsee, as opposed to the Lenape. For many, many years, historians postulated that the Lenape tribe was divided into three different sub-tribes: the Munsee, or the stone people, the Unami, or river people, and the Unilactigo, or the ocean people. Each of these sub-tribes had their own language, culture,  and totem—the wolf for the Munsee, the turtle for the Unami, and the turkey for the Unilactigo.

More recently, it has been decided that the language and culture of the Unami and Unilactigo were so similar that they were not separate sub-tribes, and today we most often hear of the Munsee and the Unami as the only different branches of the Lenape.

Although there is no real consensus on this, it appears that when it comes to place names, there are three sounds that predominate, and that seems to be the case in the local place names that have survived. Still, translating these names accurately is almost impossible these days, and the translations that do exist for local place names are speculative at best, as well as often in contradiction to one another.

The sound “unk” is sometimes written that way in the English recording of Lenape places, but alternately appears as “ung” or “ong” or even sometimes as “onk.” Examples of these words include the aforementioned Shawangunk, and also Mohonk, Cushetunk (later Cochecton) and Kerhonkson. It appears that this sound at the end of a place name indicates a place of higher elevation or a mountain, a notion lent credence by the fact that the Lenape supreme being, who resides in the highest heaven, is named Kishelemukong note the sound at the end of that name).

The word Shawangunk, by the way, shares the same root as the Lenape words Shawnee, for another tribe of Indigenous People, and their word shëwanahkòk, used to describe white men or women. The name Shawnee is variously translated as “people from the south” or “people from the salt (ocean).” That is similar to the translation for shewanahkok.

On the other hand, the sound “ink,” which sometimes appears as “ing,” usually denotes a low lying area such as a valley. Examples of that sound in local place names include Minisink, Neversink (or Navasing), and Mamakating, although again, attempting to accurately translate these words is challenging.

The third sound that appears often in local place names is usually written “ack,” and seems to often refer to valleys or small streams. Examples of these works include Lackawack, Homowack, and Mahackamack.

Keep in mind that as in all Lenape words, spelling was optional—and varied greatly--- when the Dutch and then the English began to write these words down following their arrival here and their subsequent interaction with the tribe.

Almost as interesting—and as frustrating-- as attempting to accurately translate Lenape place names is trying to ferret out those names that purport to be of Lenape origin and yet are probably not.

One of the most obvious of these words is Tennanah, as in Tennanah Lake, supposedly named for a Lenape chieftain. Of course, as has been written many times in recent years, the renaming of Long Pond and the community of Woodville was an undertaking of local residents who thought they needed names that would be more attractive to prospective tourists. The Tanana River in Alaska had been in the news at the time due to a gold strike there just after the turn of the 20th century, and seemed like an easily promoted name, especially if spelled in such a way that made it appear to be from the Lenape language.

There are other examples of these kinds of local place names, as well— words that are supposedly derived from the Lenape language, but are not. These place names, which may be surprising to many, will be part of an upcoming program to be presented by this columnist, your Sullivan County Historian, at the Seminary Hill Orchard and Cidery in Callicoon.

The program, entitled, “Lenapei Lixsewakan: How We Use the Lenape Language Every Day,” starts at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 5. The Seminary Hill Orchard and Cidery is located at  43 Wagner Lane in Callicoon.

“Lenapei Lixawakan” incidentally, translates as “language of the Lenape.”

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


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