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Map showing the aboriginal boundaries of Delaware territories, with Munsee territory the lightly shaded northernmost area, and Unami to the south
Munsee (also known as Munsee Delaware, Delaware, Ontario Delaware) is an endangered language of the Eastern Algonquian subgroup of the Algonquian language family, itself a branch of the Algic language family. Munsee is one of the two Delaware languages and is very closely related to the extinct Unami language Delaware, but the two are sufficiently different that they are considered separate. Munsee was spoken aboriginally in the vicinity of the modern New York Citymarker area in the United Statesmarker, including western Long Islandmarker, Manhattan Islandmarker, Staten Islandmarker, as well as adjacent areas on the mainland: southeastern New York State, the northern third of New Jerseymarker, and northeastern Pennsylvaniamarker.

Munsee is now spoken only on the Moraviantownmarker Reserve in Ontariomarker, Canadamarker by no more than four or five elderly individuals.


Munsee is an Eastern Algonquian language, which is the sole recognized genetic subgroup descending from Proto-Algonquian, the common ancestor language of the Algonquian language family. Munsee is very closely related to Unami Delaware. Munsee and Unami constitute the Delaware languages, comprising a subgroup within Eastern Algonquian. Taken together with Mahican, the Delaware languages constitute Delawaran, also a subgroup within Eastern Algonquian.

The term Munsee arose as a name for the aggregated group formed along the upper Delaware River north of the Delaware Water Gapmarker when other Munsee dialect speakers joined the Minisink group; the earliest recorded mention of Munsee dates from 1725. Minisink is a Munsee term meaning 'at the island,' and to be transcribed mə̆nə́sənk. Orthographic is very likely the locative form of a now disused word /mənə́s/ 'island'; cognates in other Algonquian languages are e.g. Ojibwe minis 'island.' Orthograpic is clearly the modern Munsee locative suffix /-ənk/ (discussed below in the Grammar section). The term 'Munsee' is the English adaptation of a regularly formed word mə́n'si·w 'person from Minisink.' The term Munsee was over time extended to any speaker of the Munsee language. Attempts to derive Munsee from a word meaning 'stone' or 'mountain' as proposed by Daniel Brinton are incorrect. The claim made by Kraft that Munsee is not an indigenous term and results from a 'corruption' of Minisink is incorrect, given that the term follows a regular pattern of Munsee word formation.


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

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 to the east and refer to themselves in English as Delaware, and in Munsee as 'Delaware person, Indian'.

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

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

Geographic Distribution

Speakers of Munsee originally resided in the greater Manhattan area, and the drainage of the Lower Hudson River valley and the upper Delaware River. The arrival of European explorers, traders and settlers resulted in the progressive displacement of Munsee people over a period of several centuries. Munsee groups affected by this process ultimately moved away from their homeland to communities in both the United States and Canada. In the twentieth century there were surviving Munsee speakers at Six Nations, Ontario and Munceytownmarker, Ontario. The language is now extinct in both locations, and now survives only at Moraviantownmarker, Ontario.

Original location

The southern boundary of Munsee territory was the area north of the Delaware Water Gap, following the river system southeast along the Raritan River to the Atlantic Ocean. To the south of the Munsee were the Unami Delaware. To the north were the Mahican, and to the east were the Eastern Long Island Algonquian languages such as Unquachog, and southern New England languages such as Quiripi (Quiripi and Unquachog are likely members of a dialect continuum of a single language).

Aboriginally, and for a period subsequent to the arrival of Europeans, Munsee was spoken in a series of small and largely autonomous local bands, primarily located within the drainage of the Hudson and upper Delaware rivers, the major river systems of the area. The general pattern, found throughout the Eastern Algonquian area, was one in which indigenous groups resided along the drainages of major river systems, with divisions between upriver and downriver groupings. Named groups were found on the major tributaries, with larger sites on the main stream and smaller camps at the headwaters and on feeder streams. Estimates vary, but these local groups may have had a population of up to two hundred people each. These groups spoke localized varieties of the language now called Munsee, but there is little information on dialect variation within the Munsee-speaking area.

The primary known named Munsee groups, from north to south, were the Esopus, west of the Hudson River in the Hudson River watershed (with subgroups the Waoranecks, Warranawankongs, and others); Minisink (above the Delaware Water Gap); south of the Hudson Highlands west of the Hudson River were the Haverstraw, Tappan, and Hackensack; the Raritans originally resided on the lower Raritan River, subsequently moving inland; the Wiechquaeskecks from east of the Hudson migrated to the lower Raritan after 1649, with the Navasink to the east along the north shore of New Jersey; east of the upper Hudson were the Wappinger; below them going north to south on the east bank of the Hudson were Kichtawanks; Sinsinks; Rechgawawanks; Nayack; Marechkawieck, with the Canarsee and Rockaway on western Long Island; the Massapequa and Matinecock on central Long Island may have been Munsee or perhaps were the predecessors of the Unquachog group identified in the eighteenth century.

The disruptions resulting from the impact of European settlers, fur traders, and explorers led to the displacement of these local groups accompanied by consolidation into larger groups that brought together speakers from the different groups within the Munsee-speaking area.


Munsee phonology is complex but regular in many regards. Metrical rules of syllable weight assignment play a key role in the assignment of word-level stress, and also determine the form of rules of vowel Syncope that produce complex but mostly regular alternations in the forms of words. Word-level stress is largely predictable, with exceptions occurring primarily in loan words, reduplicated forms, and in words where historical change has made historically transparent alternations more opaque.

Consonants and vowels

Munsee has the following inventory of consonants.

Munsee 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 w

Some loan words from English contain /f/ and /r/: fé·li·n 'there is a fair going on'; ntáyrəm 'my tire.'

Different analyses of the Munsee vowel system have been proposed. Goddard (1979) presents an analysis in which Munsee and Unami have the same vowel system, unchanged from the Proto-Eastern-Algonquian vowel system (discussed in the History section below). In this analysis, there are four long vowels /i·, o·, e·, a·/ and two short vowels /a, ə/. Vowel length is indicated with a raised dot (·). However, in modern Munsee there are several sources of new short /i, o, e/ that arise from such sources as reduplication, loan words, and other various phonological changes, and that cannot be derived from other underlying vowels. Hence an analysis in which there are four positions that have contrastive vowel length as well as /ə/, is appropriate.

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

Syllable Weight

Syllable weight plays a significant role in Munsee phonology, determining stress placement and the deletion of certain short vowels. All syllables containing long vowels are strong. Any short vowel in a closed syllable (i.e. (C)VC) is strong. Counting left to right, in a sequence of two or more open syllables containing short vowels the odd-numbered syllable is weak and the even-numbered syllable is strong. As well, certain syllables containing short vowels (frequently such syllables occur in reduplicated syllables and loan words) must exceptionally be marked as strong.

In words longer than two syllables, the final syllable is excluded from consideration of stress placement, i.e. is extrametrical, and the last strong syllable preceding the final syllable in the word receives the main stress.

(a) payaxkhı́·kan 'rifle' (strong penultimate, receives primary stress)

(b) né·wake 'if I see him' (weak penultimate, preceding syllable receives primary stress)

In disyllabic words a strong penultimate syllable receives primary stress.

(a) á·mwi·w 's/he gets up from lying down' (disyllabic Strong-Strong)

In a disyllable with a weak penultimate syllable, the final syllable is strong, and receives primary stress.

(a) ăsə́n 'stone' (disyllabic Weak-Strong)


The grammar of Munsee is characterized by complex inflectional and derivational morphology. Inflection in Munsee is realized through the use of prefixes and suffixes added to word stems to indicate grammatical information, including number (singular or plural), gender, person, possession, negation, obviation, and others.

Nouns use combinations of person prefixes and suffixes to indicate possession, and suffixes to indicate gender, number, diminutive, absentative, and obviation.

Verbs use a single set of person prefixes and a series of suffixes in position classes following the verb stem to indicate combinations of person, number, negation, obviation, and others.

Writing system

There is no standard writing system for Munsee. 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.

A practical orthography for Munsee has 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 related Unami language is written using a distinct practical orthography.

Writing system samples

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 occurs before 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 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


Munsee is an Eastern Algonquian language. The hypothetical common ancestor language from which the Eastern Algonquian languages descend is Proto-Eastern Algonquian (PEA). An intermediate group Delawaran that is a descendant of Proto-Eastern Algonquian consists of Mahican and Common Delaware, the latter being a further subgroup comprising Munsee Delaware and Unami Delaware. The justification for Delawaran as an intermediate subgroup rests upon the high degree of similarity between Mahican and the two Delaware languages, but relatively little detailed argumentation in support of Delaware has been adduced.

Munsee is demonstrably phonologically conservative, and is considered to have retained many of the phonological characteristics of PEA. In comparison, Unami has undergone extensive phonological innovation, coupled with morphological regularization.

The PEA vowel system consisted of four long vowels *i·, *o·, *e·, *a·, and two short vowels *a and ə. The vowel history is as follows: *i· (from PEA merger of Proto-Algonquian (PA *i· and *i to PEA *i·), *o· (from PEA merger of PA *o· and *o ), *e· (from Proto-Algonquian *e·), and *a· (from Proto-Algonquian *a·; the short vowels are (from Proto-Algonquian *e), and *a (from Proto-Algonquian *a). This system was continued down to Common Delaware, but Munsee and Unami have innovated separately with respect to the vowel systems.

Contrastive vowel length for Munsee high vowels has been reintroduced, and also for the front mid vowels. For modern Munsee it is necessary to recognize long /i·, o·, e·, a·/ and short /i, o, e, a/. Innovating instances of short /i, o, and e/ arise from for example reduplicating syllables and loan words.

See also


  1. Goddard, Ives, 1996, p. 5
  2. Gordon, Raymond, 2005
  3. Adam McDowell. 2009. " More than words: Can Canada's dying languages be saved?" National Post. January 22, 2009. Retrieved May 29, 2009
  4. Goddard, Ives, 1979
  5. Goddard, Ives, 1996
  6. Goddard, Ives, 1978a, p. 213, 237
  7. Kraft, Herbert, 1986, p. xvii
  8. Nyholm, Earl, and John Nichols, 1995, p. 85
  9. Goddard, Ives, 1978a, p. 237
  10. Goddard, Ives, 1978a, p. 236
  11. Goddard, Ives, 1978, p. 73; Kraft, Herbert, 1986, p. xviii
  12. Goddard, Ives, 1974, p. 103
  13. See e.g. Goddard, Ives, 1971, p. 11, n. 1-2; Goddard, Ives, 1974, p. 103
  14. Goddard, Ives, 1971, p. 11, n. 1
  15. Goddard, Ives, 1974, p. 106
  16. Goddard, Ives, 1971, p. 11, n. 2
  17. Mithun, Marianne, 1999
  18. Kraft, Herbert, 1986, p. xviii; Kraft, Herbert, 1986a, p. 106
  19. O'Meara, John, 1996, p. 65
  20. Goddard, Ives, 1978a, p. 216
  21. Costa, David, 2007, p. 82
  22. Rudes, Blair, 1997
  23. Snow, Dean, 1978, p. 58
  24. Williams, Lorraine, 1995, p. 113
  25. Goddard, Ives, 1978a, p. 213
  26. Goddard, Ives, 1978, p. 72
  27. Goddard, Ives, 1978a, p. 213-216
  28. Goddard, Ives, 1979, Ch. 2
  29. Goddard, Ives, 1979, p. 11
  30. Goddard, Ives, 1982
  31. Goddard, Ives, 1979, p. 21
  32. See e.g. Goddard, Ives, 1979
  33. Brinton, Daniel, and Albert Anthony, 1888; Zeisberger, David, 1887
  34. O'Meara, John, 1996; see Goddard, Ives, 1979 for the underlying transcription system
  35. Delaware Nation Council, 1992, pp. 57-63
  36. Goddard, Ives, 1982; O'Meara, John, 1996
  37. See Goddard, Ives, 1982, p. 19 for further detail
  38. O'Meara, John, 1996
  39. Examples from O'Meara, John, 1996
  40. Goddard, Ives, 1978
  41. Pentland, David, 1982
  42. Goddard, Ives, 1982; Goddard, Ives, 1979, p. 11,


  • Costa, David. J. 2007. "The dialectology of Southern New England Algonquian. H.C. Wolfart, ed. Papers of the 38th Algonquian Conference, pp. 81-127. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba.
  • Dahlstrom, Amy. 1995. "Motivation vs. Predictability in Algonquian gender.” H. C. Wolfart, ed., Papers of the Thirty-Third Algonquian Conference, 52-66. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba.
  • Goddard, Ives. 1978. "Eastern Algonquian Languages." Bruce Trigger, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15, Northeast, pp. 70-77. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-16-004575-4
  • Goddard, Ives. 1978a. "Delaware." Bruce Trigger, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15. Northeast, pp. 213-239. Washington: The Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-16-004575-4
  • Goddard, Ives. 1979. Delaware Verbal Morphology. New York: Garland. ISBN 978-0824096854
  • Goddard, Ives. 1982. "Munsee historical phonology." International Journal of American Linguistics 48: 16-48.
  • Goddard, Ives. 1990. "Aspects of the Topic Structure of Fox Narratives: Proximate Shifts and the Use of Overt and Inflectional NPs." International Journal of American Linguistics 56: 317-340
  • Goddard, Ives. 1996. "Introduction." Ives Goddard, ed., The Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 17. Languages, pp. 1-16. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-16-048774-9
  • Goddard, Ives. 2002. "Grammatical gender in Algonquian." H.C. Wolfart, ed., Papers of the Thirty-Third Algonquian Conference, pp. 195-231. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba.
  • Gordon Jr., Raymond G., ed., 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 15th edition. Ethnologue entry for Munsee Retrieved April 19, 2009. Dallas: SIL International. ISBN 978-1-55671-159-6
  • Kraft, Herbert. 1986. The Lenape: Archaeology, History, and Ethnography. Newark: New Jersey Historical Society. ISBN 978-0911020144
  • McDowell, Adam. 2009. " More than words: Can Canada's dying languages be saved?" National Post. January 22, 2009. Retrieved May 29, 2009
  • Nichols, John D. and Earl Nyholm. 1995. A concise dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-2427-5
  • O'Meara, John. 1992. "Intransitive Verbs with Secondary Objects in Munsee Delaware." W. Cowan, ed., Proceedings of the Twenty-Third Algonquian Conference, pp. 322-333. Ottawa: Carleton University.
  • O'Meara, John. 1996. Delaware/English - English/Delaware Dictionary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0802006707
  • Rudes, Blair. 1997. 1997. "Resurrecting Wampano (Quiripi) from the dead: Phonological preliminaries." Anthropological Linguistics 39: 1-59
  • Snow, Dean. 1978. "Late prehistory of the East coast." Bruce Trigger, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15. Northeast, pp. 58-. Washington: The Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-16-004575-4
  • Williams, Lorraine E. 1995. "Indians and Europeans in the Delaware River Valley, 1620-1655." Carol E. Hoffecker, Richard Waldron, Lorraine E. Williams, and Barbara E. Benson, eds., New Sweden in America, pp. 112-120. Newark: University of Delaware Press. ISBN 978-0874135206

Further reading

  • Blalock, Lucy, Bruce Pearson and James Rementer. 1994. The Delaware Language. Bartlesville, OK: Delaware Tribe of Indians.
  • Brinton, Daniel G., and Albert Seqaqkind Anthony. 1888. A Lenâpé-English dictionary. From an anonymous manuscript in the archives of the Moravian Church at Bethlehem Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
  • Delaware Nation Council. 1992. Lunaapeew Dictionary. Basic Words. Part One. Moraviantown: Delaware Nation Council.
  • Goddard, Ives. 1971. "The ethnohistorical implications of early Delaware linguistic materials." Man in the Northeast 1: 14-26.
  • Goddard, Ives. 1974. "The Delaware Language, Past and Present." Herbert C. Kraft, ed. A Delaware Indian Symposium, pp. 103-110. Anthropological Series No. 4. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
  • Goddard, Ives. 1974a. "Dutch Loanwords in Delaware." Herbert C. Kraft, ed. A Delaware Indian Symposium, pp. 153-160. Anthropological Series No. 4. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
  • Goddard, Ives. 1977. "Some early examples of American Indian Pidgin English from New England." International Journal of American Linguistics 43: 37-41.
  • Goddard, Ives. 1979a. "Comparative Algonquian." Lyle Campbell and Marianne Mithun, eds, The languages of Native America, pp. 70-132. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-74624-5
  • Goddard, Ives. 1994. "The West-to-East Cline in Algonquian Dialectology." William Cowan, ed., Papers of the 25th Algonquian Conference, pp. 187-211. Ottawa: Carleton University.
  • Kraft, Herbert. 1986a. "Settlement Patterns in the Upper Delaware Valley." Jay F. Custer, ed., Late Woodland Cultures of the Middle Atlantic Region, pp. 102-115. Newark: University of Delaware Press. ISBN 978-0874132854
  • Michelson, Truman. 1922. [Field notes collected at Moraviantown and Six Nations]. Ms. 1635. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Pearson, Bruce. 1988. A Grammar of Delaware: Semantics, Morpho-Syntax, Lexicon, Phonology. Dewey, OK: Touching Leaves Indian Crafts.
  • Zeisberger, David. 1887. Ebenezer N. Horsford, ed., Zeisberger's Indian Dictionary, English, German, Iroquois — the Onondaga, and Algonquin — the Delaware. Cambridge, MA: John Wilson.


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