Monday, April 13, 2015

How could Chwewamink turn into Wyoming?

Q: I saw on your website that the name of Wyoming came from a Native American word Chwewamink. How is that even possible? Those two words don't look anything alike!

AHave you ever seen children play a game of "telephone," where each child in line whispers a sentence to the next and eventually a sentence that started out as "I like to eat bread" ends up as "My mice are all dead"? The same thing basically happened with a lot of Native American placenames (and people's proper names as well, to the frustration of many people trying to trace their genealogy only to find the same ancestor's name spelled 16 different ways.) As the names were passed from person to person, none of whom even spoke the original language, they became changed, corrupted, and ultimately barely even recognizable.

In this case, the Lenape word "chwewamink" is actually pronounced similar to chwayo-wa-mink. The ch sound in the beginning is similar to the raspy "ch" in German "ach"; most English speakers couldn't pronounce that at all, so undoubtedly that was quickly simplified to wayo-wa-mink. "K" and "g" are easily mistaken for each other; now you've got wayo-wa-ming. Somebody probably had an accent in which "way" sounded more like "why"; now you've got why-o-wa-ming. Then somebody else contracted it to why-o-ming and there you are.

So how do people know what the actual origins of these names really are if they become that corrupted from the original source? Historical texts, mostly. The people who lived there at the time recorded plenty of intermediate forms and alternate spellings of the names that make it easier to guess where they came from, and also wrote down the purported meanings, which makes it easier to find out what the original Native American name could have been.

Hope that's interesting to you, have a good day!

Further reading:
Wyoming Indian history
Lenape language
Native American names  

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