I am no expert on the Lenape language. In fact, like most people, I am clueless. Recently someone asked me if I knew the meaning of a Lenape creek name, Octoraro. This is the answer I sent him:

I don’t have a good answer for you. The meanings are lost in the mists of time, partly because the English who wrote down the names as they heard them were not good at catching the sounds of Lenape as spoken. So the creek names do not really correspond to the original Lenape names. Example: “Lockatong” was written as “Laogaland” and other variations long before it became “Lockatong.” Anyone who claims that an old Lenape name means something in particular is just taking someone else’s word for it, as was commonly done in the 19th century. The meanings that people give for these names usually came from people who would ask Lenape speakers who had moved to Oklahoma, so they were generations removed from the original speakers. What this boils down to is that I would not give any credence to anyone’s claim for a meaning of a creek’s name. The word they translate is probably not the original word, and later definitions are doubtful because the Lenape language probably evolved just as English has.

I would love to hear from anyone who has a different opinion about this. People may point to Lenape dictionaries that were compiled in the 18th century, but I doubt that a truly reliable one exists for all the Lenape of New Jersey and Pennsylvania in colonial times, because there were many different Lenape dialects.

There is a description of the Lenape language by Gabriel Thomas in his “Account of Pennsylvania and West New Jersey” written in 1698:

Their Language is Lofty and Elegant but not Copious; One Word serveth in the stead of Three, imperfect and ungrammatical, which defects are supply’d by the Understanding of the Hearers. Sweet, of Nobel Sound and Accent. Take here a Specimen.

Hodi hita nee huska a peechi, nee, machi
Pensilvania huska dogwachi, keshow a peechi
Nowa, huska hayly, Chentana koon peo.

Thus in English: Farewell Friend, I will very quickly to to Pensilvania [sic], very cold Moon will come presently, And very great hard frosts will come quickly.

Thomas probably didn’t realize that what he was hearing was a sort of pidgin Lenape, the sort of language one would use for someone who could not understand the sounds and subtleties of the real thing. By the way, Thomas was paraphrasing William Penn’s much earlier description, in Penn’s Letter to the Society of Traders.

Thomas also wrote down an imagined dialogue between a Lenape and a European that tells as much about life in the late 17th century as it does about the language as Thomas heard it. To the European’s question, “What do you have in your house?”, the Lenape answers “I have very fat venison, and good strong skins, and good fat turkeys.” To the Lenape’s question of what the European has in his house, the answer is “I have very good powder, and very good shot, with red and blue matchcoats.” The Europeans wanted food, and the Lenape need ammunition to hunt for that food, as well as manufactured cloth to replace the skins they were selling to the Europeans.

You can find that dialogue reprinted in An Ancient New Jersey Indian Jargon by J. Dyneley Prince (Merchantville, NJ, 1997). Prince described the trading jargon used by the Lenape living around the lower Delaware valley, just as Thomas did. The book has a useful reading list for those interested in the subject. Since my interest is more with the Lenape who lived north of the Falls at Trenton, I cannot assume that the jargon used in south Jersey would be the same for them. It seems that no one took the trouble to write down how they talked.

The Lenape haunt us, for we still use a facsimile of their names for the creeks and mountains we live with, the true meaning of which we will never really know.