Lenape Introductions

In one of the old Delco newspapers in the mid-late 20th century, I saw that for a while they ran a regular column with a few Lenape words. The Lenape were the tribes that lived in this region, as well as parts of Delaware, New Jersey and New York at the time the first European settlers arrived. Some Lenape intermarried with German settlers (with whom relations were apparently much better than they were with English settlers) while others were forcefully relocated to the west or went with the Iroquois to Ontario. Lenape tribes now live in Bartlesville and Anadarko, OK.

The textbook, originally designed to teach Lenape children.

The Lenape language has been in decline for a long time with few fluent speakers remaining (the count seems to have hovered around 4 for much of the last 40 years). One of them, Shelley DePaul built her work on that done by Nora Thompson Dean, who’s recordings (among others) form the basis of the Lenape talking dictionary. Shelley has created a book and series of instructional CDs and now teaches classes to keep the Lenape language alive. Swarthmore students and faculty have been invited to participate in this class at least a couple of times now. The class teaches the southern Unami dialect of the language with the aim of teaching new instructors for future classes.

Here is a brief introduction. A few notes, one is that the Lenape had no written language at the time of their contact with Europeans, so spellings vary widely because the written language was created by Europeans (and the Lenape tribes each have differing dialects as well). The Lenape do not use inflections to denote questions, instead the word hech turns a sentence into a question (but its hard for English-speakers to break the habit of inflecting questions). Some consonant combinations form a different sound – so nt sounds like a d and mp sounds like b. Finally, instead of gender, the Lenape divide everything into animate or inanimate. So crows, squirrels and humans are all tried the same way grammatically. It doesn’t always make sense though – bucket is animate for no known reason.

Person 1: He. (hello)

Person 2: He, kulamalsi hech? (Hello, how are you?)

Person 1: Nulamalsi, temike. Nteluwensi Joe. Kteluwensi hech? (I’m fine, come in. My name is Joe. What is your name?)

Person 2: Nteluwensi Ellen. Wanishi. (My name is Ellen. Thank you.)

Person 1: Katupwi hech? (Are you hungry?)

Person 2: Ku. Nkatamen mpi, ksi. (No, I would like water please)

Person 1: Mpi nen. (That is water)

Person 2: Awen hech nan? Xanikw hech nan? (Who is that? Is he/she a squirrel?)

Person 1: Shkakw nan! Ikalia! (He/she is a skunk! Go away!)

Person 2: Lapich knewel! (I will see you again!)

The Lenape have no word for goodbye – although “lapich knewel” and its variants are used as a farewell, it literally translates to I will see you again. Here is my audio version of this conversation – keep in mind I’m still in beginner Lenape while the links above link to recordings of native speakers.

Categories: Lenape