Classroom Connections

The Lenape Language
Several years ago when I embarked upon the journey of The Cradle of Stone, I attended a Lenape language conference at Swarthmore College. The main thrust of the gathering was to remove the Lenape language from linguists’ books, place it into the mouths of tribal people, and bring it to life. The language had become as scattered as the people. The Munsee branch, whose Trail of Tears took them to Canada, the Unami branch who went to Oklahoma, and the Eastern Lenape who more fully assimilated and settled in the ancestral home of Pennsylvania, found that both words and syntax had diverged greatly. The three central issues at the conference focused on unifying the language into one form understood by all tribal members, teaching the language, particularly to the young people, and using the language in everyday living.

The most moving aspect of this conference to me was the prevailing idea that the Lenape language was a direct expression of the soul of the people. And it was clear that without the language, the People could not articulate how they viewed the world, and that the unique perspective that is Lenape was being lost. I learned the language is rich and highly complex, but that at its root is its direct ties with experience which gives the words and syntax a sense of immediacy and vitality. Colors such as red and blue are not nouns or adjectives, but actions that express blueness or redness. Actions themselves are more important than the agents of the actions, as pronouns are embedded within the verb form. An everyday activity, such as “using the bathroom,” is expressed refreshingly as “must go hide quickly.”

There is also a strong poetic element to many words and phrases. For example, the moon is referred to as “piskeweni kishux” which means “sun of the night.” “Weski Kishux,” the crescent moon, is translated as “moon of a little while ago.”
By far the largest category of Lenape words used in this story is animal. This was an easy decision. To compare the sound of these words with their English counterpart leaves one with the impression that the Lenape were so close to these animals that their words for them seem to be a direct extension of the animal, itself. Consider pamputis and snapping turtle, kwenoomuk and otter, kwikwinkum and duck, or temakwe and beaver. The Lenape names conjure up visions of the animal, not only in appearance but behavior and even personality. This emphasizes the Lenape view that all of creation lives on one level, and that all is connected through Kishelamukong, the Spirit Who Created the Universe in Thought. It is clear that the language and the people are one. Is Kishelamukong a who or a what?

Selected Resources

Readers can find a glossary in the book
Welcome to the Lenape Talking Dictionary (add text about why this resource is important)

Lenape Pronunciation
No attempt is made in the glossary to offer pronunciation for the words. There are online Lenape phonic guides for those who need precision. The words sound strange, but the letters correspond generally to the English language. A few general points can be made, however. The letter “i” has a long “e” sound, “u” is “oo,” “a” is pronounced “ah”, and “e” is long “a.” Many Lenape words end in “w,” suggesting the “w” sound followed by the briefest “uh” sound. For example, the Lenape word for “star” is “alonqw.” For such words ending with “w” I have substituted “ua” or “we.” So “alonqw” becomes “alonqua;” “temakw” becomes “temakwe.” In the case of the Guardian Spirit, the “w” at the end of “Mesingw” is silent, so the true spelling remains in the story. This reflects what is sometimes done with contemporary tribal members to facilitate the flow of the written language.

I have translated most Lenape words simply with their English counterpart. Some words, however, demand more attention. Such words as “opalanie” (eagle) and “sippu” (river) hold sacred meanings that need to be explored. In addition, I was unable to find Lenape equivalents for some words and names. An example would be “Sikon Taleka;” literally it means “singers of spring,” but it refers to the spring peeper. I found no Lenape name for this delightful creature, so I put a name together. This is not an attempt to play “fast and loose” with the language, but to find a way to fill in a blank while adhering to the spirit of the language and the people.

To use Lenape words in this story is not an attempt to reanimate the language. The purpose is to raise an awareness of the richness and beauty of the Lenape culture and worldview. It is hoped in turn this will awaken in the reader his or her own need to reconnect with this Earth. We live in a time that pulls us away from a living, breathing relationship with our true home, which even as we deny it through our modern lifestyle, is a deep part of our true selves.