Delaware languages

The Delaware languages, also known as the Lenape languages, are Munsee and Unami, two closely related languages of the Eastern Algonquian subgroup of the Algonquian language family. Munsee and Unami were spoken aboriginally by the Lenape people in the vicinity of the modern New York City area in the United States, including western Long Island, Manhattan Island, Staten Island, as well as adjacent areas on the mainland: southeastern New York State, eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and coastal Delaware.

It is estimated that as late as the seventeenth century there were approximately forty Delaware local village bands with populations of possibly a few hundred persons per group. Estimates for the early contact period vary considerably, with a range of 8 000 - 12 000 given. Other estimates for approximately 1600 AD suggest 6 500 Unami and 4 500 Munsee, with data lacking for Long Island Munsee. These groups were never united politically or linguistically, and the names Delaware, Munsee, and Unami postdate the period of consolidation of these local groups. The earliest use of the term Munsee was recorded in 1727, and Unami in 1757.

The intensity of contact with European settlers resulted in the gradual displacement of Delaware peoples from their aboriginal homeland, in a series of complex population movements involving displacement and consolidation of small local groups, extending over a period of more than two hundred years. The currently used names were gradually applied to the larger groups resulting from this process. The ultimate result was the displacement of virtually all Delaware-speaking peoples from their homeland to Oklahoma, Kansas, Wisconsin, upstate New York, and Canada.

Two distinct Unami-speaking groups emerged in Oklahoma in the late nineteenth century, the Registered (Cherokee) Delaware in Washington, Nowata, and Craig Counties, and the Absentee Delaware of Caddo County. Until recently there were a small number of Unami speakers in Oklahoma, but the language is now extinct there. Some language revitalization work is underway by the Delaware Tribe of Indians.

Equally affected by consolidation and dispersal, Munsee groups moved to several locations in southern Ontario as early as the late eighteenth century, to Moraviantown, Munceytown, and Six Nations. Several different patterns of migration led to groups of Munsee speakers moving to Stockbridge, Wisconsin; Cattaraugus, New York; and Kansas. Today Munsee survives only at Moraviantown, where there are no more than one or two fluent speakers.


Munsee and Unami are assigned to the Algonquian language family, and are analysed as members of Eastern Algonquian, a subgroup of Algonquian.

The languages of the Algonquian family constitute a group of historically related languages descended from a common source language, Proto-Algonquian. The Algonquian languages are spoken across Canada from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic coast; on the American Plains; south of the Great Lakes; and on the Atlantic coast. Many of the Algonquian languages are now extinct.

The Eastern Algonquian languages were spoken on the Atlantic coast from the Canadian Maritime provinces to North Carolina. Many of the languages are now extinct, and some are known only from very fragmentary records. Eastern Algonquian is considered a genetic subgroup within the Algonquian family, that is, the Eastern Algonquian languages share a sufficient number of common innovations to suggest that they descend from a common intermediate source, Proto-Eastern Algonquian. The latter proto-language is hypothesized to descend from Proto-Algonquian.

The linguistic closeness of Munsee and Unamis entails that they share an immediate common ancestor which may be called Common Delaware; the two languages have diverged in distinct ways from Common Delaware.

As well, in some classifications of Eastern Algonquian languages the Delaware languages are grouped with Mohican as Delawaran, reflecting the relatively high degree of similarity between the three. Nonetheless Unami and Munsee are more closely related to each other than to Mohican. Some historical evidence suggests commonalities between Mahican and Munsee.

The line of historical descent is therefore Proto-Algonquian > Proto-Eastern Algonquian > Delawarean > Common Delaware + Mahican, with Common Delaware splitting into Munsee and Unami.

Geographic Distribution


Munsee and Unami are linguistically very similar. Despite their relative closeness the two are sufficiently distinguished by features of syntax, phonology, and vocabulary that they are not mutually intelligible and by normal linguistic criteria are treated as separate languages.

Munsee Delaware was spoken in the central and lower Hudson River Valley, western Long Island, the upper Delaware River Valley, and the northern third of New Jersey. While dialect variation in Munsee was likely there is no information about possible dialectal subgroupings.

Unami Delaware was spoken in the area south of Munsee speakers in the Delaware River Valley and New Jersey, south of the Delaware Water Gap and the Raritan Valley.

Three dialects of Unami are distinguished: Northern Unami, Southern Unami, and Unalachtigo.

Northern Unami, now extinct, is recorded in large amounts of materials collected by Moravian missionaries but is not reflected in the speech of any modern groups. The Northern Unami groups were south of the Munsee groups, with the southern boundary of the Northern Unami area being at Tohickon Creek on the west bank of the Delaware River and between Burlington and Trenton on the east bank.

The poorly known Unalachtigo dialect is described as having been spoken in the area between Northern and Southern Unami, with only a small amount of evidence from one group.

Southern Unami, to the south of the Northern Unami-Unalachtigo area, was reflected in the Unami Delaware spoken by Delawares in Oklahoma, but is now extinct.


Names for the speakers of Munsee and Unami are used in complex ways in both English and the Delaware languages. The Unami language is sometimes treated as Delaware or Delaware proper, reflecting the original application of the term Delaware to Unami speakers. Both Munsee and Unami speakers use Delaware as a self-designation in English.

The Unamis residing in Oklahoma are sometimes referred to as Oklahoma Delaware, while the Munsees in Ontario are sometimes referred to as Ontario Delaware or Canadian Delaware.

Munsee-speaking residents of Moraviantown use the English term Munsee to refer to residents of Munceytown, approximately 50 kilometres to the east and refer to themselves in English as Delaware, and in Munsee as /lənáːpe:w/ ‘Delaware person, Indian.’ Oklahoma Delawares refer to Ontario Delaware as /mwə́nsi/ or /mɔ́nsi/, a term that is also used for people of Munsee ancestry in their own communities.

Some Delawares at Moraviantown also use the term Christian Indian as a preferred self-designation in English. There is an equivalent Munsee term ké·ntə̆we·s ‘one who prays, Moravian convert.’

Munsee speakers refer to Oklahoma Delawares as Unami in English or /wə̆ná·mi·w/ in Munsee. The Oklahoma Delawares refer to themselves in English as Delaware and in Unami as /ləná·p·e/.

The name "Lenape" that is sometimes used in English for Delaware properly only refers to Unami. However, Kraft uses Lenape as a cover term to refer to all Delaware-speaking groups.

Munsee speakers refer to their languages as /hə̀lə̆ni·xsəwá·kan/, literally 'speaking the Delaware language.'

Derived Languages

Pidgin Delaware (also Delaware Jargon) was a pidgin language that developed between speakers of Unami and Dutch traders and settlers on the Delaware River in the 1620s. The fur trade was significant in providing a context for the development of Pidgin Delaware. Knowledge of Pidgin Delaware subsequently spread to speakers of Swedish, and later from Swedes to Englishman, and was used beyond the immediate area where the pidgin originated. Recordings of Pidgin Delaware suggest that Pidgin words originated from both Northern and Southern Unami.

The first recorded mention of Delaware Pidgin dates from 1628, while the final recorded mention is from 1785. Delaware Pidgin is attested in word lists, liturgical material, and later word lists taken from earlier sources.

Pidgin Delaware was used by both Munsee and Unami Delawares in interactions with speakers of Dutch, Swedish, and English. Some non-Delaware users of the pidgin likely were under the impression that they were speaking Delaware.

There is no evidence to support the hypothesis that Pidgin Delaware predated the arrival of Europeans.

Delaware Pidgin is characterized by its extreme simplification of the complex grammatical features of Delaware nouns and verbs. Delaware Pidgin features include: (a) elimination of the distinction between singular and plural forms normally marked on nouns with a plural suffix; (b) simplification of the complex system of person marking, with no indication of grammatical gender or plurality, and concomitant use of separate pronouns to indicate grammatical person; (c) elimination of reference to plural pronominal categories of person; (d) elimination of negative suffixes on verbs, with negation marked solely by independent particles.

Delaware Pidgin appears to show no grammatical influence at all from Dutch or other European languages, contrary to the general patterns occurring in pidgin languages, according to which a European contributing language will constitute a significant component of the pidgin. Comments by an early observer suggest that Delaware speakers deliberately simplified their language to facilitate communication with the small numbers of Dutch settlers and traders they encountered in the 1620s.

Delaware Pidgin also appears to be somewhat unusual among pidgin languages in that almost all its vocabulary appears to come from the language spoken by the Delaware users of the Pidgin, with virtually none coming from European users. The relatively few Pidgin Delaware words that are not from Unami likely were borrowings mediated through Unami or Munsee or other languages.

Pidgin Delaware is only one of a number of pidgin languages that arose on the Atlantic coast due to contact between speakers of Algonqiuan languages and Europeans. Although records are fragmentary, it is clear that many Indians used varieties of pidginized English, and there are also recorded fragments of a pidgin Massachusett, an Eastern Algonquian language spoken to the north of Delaware territory in what is now Boston and adjacent areas. It is likely that, as with Pidgin Delaware, Europeans who learned other local pidgins were under the impression that they were using the actual indigenous language.

Sounds / Phonology

Munsee and Unami have similar but not identical inventories of consonants and vowels, and have a significant number of phonological rules in common. For example, both languages share the same basic rules for assigning syllable weight and stress. However, Unami has innovated by regularizing the assignment of stress in some verb forms so that the penultimate syllable is stressed even when the stress assignment rule would predict stress on the antepenultimate syllable. As well, Unami has innovated relative to Munsee by adding phonological rules that significantly change the pronunciation of many Unami words relative to the corresponding Munsee words.

This section focuses upon presenting general information about Munsee and Unami sounds and phonology, with detailed discussion reserved for entries for each language.

Munsee and Unami have the same basic inventories of consonants, as in the following chart.

General Delaware Consonants
Bilabial Dental Postalveolar Velar Glottal
Stop p t č k
Fricative s š x h
Nasal m n
Lateral l
Glides w y

In addition, Unami is analysed as having contrastive long voiceless stops: p·, t·, č·, k·; and long voiceless fricatives: s·, š·, and x·. The raised dot /·/ is used to indicate length of a preceding consonant or vowel. A full analysis and description of the status of the long consonants is not available, and more than one analysis of Delaware consonants has been proposed. Some analyses only recognize long stops and fricatives as predictable, i.e. as arising by rule. The contrastive long consonants are described as having low functional yield, that is, they differentiate relatively few pairs of words, but nonetheless do occur in contrasting environments. Both languages have rules that lengthen consonants in certain environments in both Munsee and Unami.

Several additional consonants occur in Munsee loan words: /f/ in e.g. nə̀fó·ti ‘I vote’; /r/ in ntáyrəm.

A number of alternate analyses of Munsee and Unami vowels have been proposed. In one, the two languages are analysed as having the same basic vowel system, consisting of four long vowels /i· o· e· a·/, and two short vowels /ə a/. This vowel system is equivalent to the vowel system reconstructed for Proto-Eastern-Algonquian. Alternative analyses reflect several differences between the two languages. In this analysis Munsee is analysed as having contrasting length in all positions, with the exception of /ə/. In cells with two vowels, the first is long.

Munsee Vowels
Front Central Back
High i·, i o·, o
Mid e·, e ə
Low a·, a

Similarly, Unami vowels have also been analysed as organized into contrasting long-short pairs. One asymmetry is that high short /u/ is paired with long /o·/, and the pairing of long and short /ə/ is noteworthy. In cells with two vowels, the first is long.

Unami Vowels
Front Central Back
High i·, i o·, u
Mid e·, e ə·, ə ɔ·, ɔ
Low a·, a


Loan Words

Both Munsee and Unami have loan words from European languages, reflecting early patterns of contact between Delaware speakers and European traders and settlers. The first Europeans to have sustained contact with the Delaware were Dutch explorers and traders, and loan words from Dutch are particularly common. Dutch is the primary source of loan words in Munsee and Unami.

Because many of the early encounters between Delaware speakers and Dutch explorers and settlers occurred in Munsee territory, Dutch loanwords are particularly common in Munsee, although there are also a number in Unami as well.

Many Delaware borrowings from Dutch are nouns that name items of material culture that were presumably salient or novel for Delaware speakers, as is reflected in the following borrowed words.

Munsee and Unami Words From Dutch
Munsee Unami English Dutch
hé·mpət hémpəs shirt hemd ‘shirt, shift’
á·pə̆ləš á·p·ələš apple appel 'apple'
kə̆nó·p kənó·p button knop ‘button’
šə̆mə́t šəmit blacksmith smid ‘blacksmith’
pó·təl pó·t·əl butter boter ‘butter’
šó·kəl šó·k·əl sugar suiker ‘sugar'
mó·kəl mɔ́·k·əl (ironwood) maul (Munsee); maul, sledgehammer (Unami) moker ‘sledge, large hammer’

More recent borrowings tend be from English such as the following Munsee loan words: ahtamó·mpi·l ‘automobile’; kátəl ‘cutter’; nfó·təw ‘s/he votes.’

There is one known Swedish loan word in Unami: típa·s ‘chicken,’ from Swedish tippa, a call to chickens.

Writing Systems

There is no standard writing system for either Munsee or Unami. Linguists have tended to use common phonetic transcription symbols of the type found in the International Phonetic Alphabet or similar Americanist symbols in order to represent sounds that are not consistently represented in conventional standard writing systems.

Europeans writing down Delaware words and sentences have tended to use adaptations of European alphabets and associated conventions. The quality of such renditions have varied widely, as Europeans attempted to record sounds and sound combinations they were not familiar with.

Practical orthographies for both Munsee and Unami have been created in the context of various language preservation and documentation projects. A recent bilingual dictionary of Munsee uses a practical orthography derived from a linguistic transcription system for Munsee. The same system is also used in a recent word book produced locally at Moraviantown.

The online Unami Lenape Talking Dictionary uses a practical system distinct from that for Munsee. However, other practically oriented Unami materials use a writing system with conventional phonetic symbols.

Writing System Samples

The table below presents a sample of Unami words, written first in a linguistically-oriented transcription, followed by the same words written in a practical system, taken from the Lenape Talking Dictionary The linguistic system uses the acute accent to indicate predictable stress and a raised dot (·) to indicate vowel and consonant length. The practical system interprets the contrast between long and corresponding short vowels as one of quality, using acute and grave accents to indicate vowel quality. Stress, which as noted is predictable, and consonant length are not indicated in the practical system.

Comparison of linguistic and practical orthographies for Unami
Linguistic Practical English Linguistic Practical English Linguistic Practical English Linguistic Practical English
kwə́t·i kwëti one kwə́t·a·š kwëtash six wčé·t wchèt sinew, muscle tə́me tëme coyote, wolf
ní·š·a nìshi two ɔ́·k òk and ní·š·a·š nishash seven tá·x·an taxàn piece of firewood
naxá naxa three xá·š xash eiɡht xkó·k xkuk snake ahsə́n ahsën stone
né·wa newa four pé·škunk pèshkunk nine skɔ́ntay skòntay door hiló·səs hilusës old man
palé·naxk palènàxk five télən tèlën ten kší·k·an kshikàn knife lə́nu lënu man

The table below presents a sample of Munsee words, written first in a linguistically-oriented transcription, followed by the same words written in a practical system. The linguistic system uses a raised dot (·) to indicate vowel length. Although stress is mostly predictable, the linguistic system uses the acute accent to indicate predictable main stress. As well, predictable voiceless or murmured /ă/ is indicated with the breve accent (̆). Similarly, the breve accent is used to indicate an ultra-short // that typically a single voiced consonant followed by a vowel. The practical system indicates vowel length by doubling the vowel letter, and maintains the linɡuistic system’s practices for marking stress and voiceless / ultra-short vowels. The practical system uses orthographic for the phonetic symbol /š/, and /ch/ for the phonetic symbol /č/.

Comparison of linguistic and practical orthographies for Munsee
Linguistic Practical English Linguistic Practical English Linguistic Practical English Linguistic Practical English
ampi·lamé·kwa·n ambiilaméekwaan needle nkwə́ta·š ngwútaash six wčéht wchéht sinew, muscle ăpánšəy ăpánzhuy log, timber
nə̆wánsi·n nŭwánsiin I forgot it xwánsal xwánzal his older brother ní·ša·š níishaash seven ntəší·nsi ndushíinzi I am named so and so
máske·kw máskeekw swamp, pond xá·š xáash eight ăpwá·n ăpwáan bread óhpwe·w óhpweew he smokes
wə́sksəw wúsksuw he is young ătíhte·w ătíhteew it is ripe kíhkay kíhkay chief máxkw máxkw bear
kwi·škwtó·nhe·w kwiishkwtóonheew he whispers áhpăpo·n áhpăpoon chair xwáškwšəš xwáshkwshush muskrat pé·nkwan péenɡwan it is dry



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