What’s in an Accent? Cooper’s “Vanishing Scotsmen” in the Leather-Stocking Tales

Signe O. Wegener (University of Georgia)

Presented at the Cooper Panel No. 2 (James Fenimore Cooper: Sources and Silences) at the 2010 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 27, pp. 16-19. Steven Harthorn and Shalicia Wilson, Editors.

Copyright © 2010, The James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Languages, dialects, and accents, are, as we all know, a short-cut to characterization — they may reveal not only a person’s geographical origins but, more importantly, his/her social position, education, and aspirations. Growing up in a family where people spoke different languages and dialects, and in a linguistically split city, I have always, almost by default, been interested in language as a geographical and social marker. Consequently, I could not avoid being charmed by Cooper’s use of language and dialect in the Leather-Stocking Tales: it was an issue with which I felt conversant. Add to this my love of Scottish eighteenth-and nineteenth-century ballads, and you may understand why Cooper’s use (or his reluctance to the use) of the Scots language in The Last of the Mohicans and The Pathfinder became irresistible. Little had I expected that Cooper’s texts would provide insight into the socio-economic dimension and marginalization of this language, with Cooper adroitly maneuvering define a person’s social rank and social inadequacy.

My exploration into Cooper’s use of the Scots language follows a different trajectory than those established by other writers focusing on Cooper’s use of language. Where Steven Blakemore and Dennis Allan have explored Cooper’s linguistic philosophies, positing them as either following the model of biblical narratives (Blakemore) or eighteenth-century linguistic theories of semiotics (Allen), I take as my starting point Susan Kalter’s 1999 ALA essay, “The Last of the Mohicans as Contemporary Theory: James Fenimore Cooper’s Philosophy of Language,” in particular her intention “to look at the intellectual and linguistic mobility of the various characters” (Kalter 2). But whereas Kalter focuses on the entire linguistic hierarchy in The Last of the Mohicans (English, French, Delaware, Huron, Oneida, and Narrangansett) to show how “Cooper sets up linguistic rules of engagement, so to speak, in order to express mental and political power” (Kalter 2), I am more interested in his use of accents to express intellectual and social adequacy/inadequacy in his characters. Cooper, always the novelist of manners, insists that the higher a person’s social rank, the more superior and less accented his or her use of the English language — and also their command of other languages. In his texts, language becomes an inescapable social marker.

Already in The Pioneers, Cooper shows his acute awareness of accents and their literary uses, setting in motion the process that will result in his use of Scots to denote not only nationality but social rank. This he uses to great effect. The reader quickly notices the use of language as a national marker: the narrator clearly enjoys reporting the speech of both Monsieur Le Quoi and Major Hartmann (French and German respectively). Major Hartmann speaks, “with a strong German accent,” pronouncing “w” as “v,” “b” as “p”: “Velcome, velcome, Thooge. ... Miss Petsy vilt owe me a kiss” (49). Monsieur Le Quoi, cries, “Ah! Mon cher monsieur Deeck! Mon Dieu! Que faites vous!” and so on (50, 52). In neither case, though, is the inability to speak flawless English seen as a lack of sophistication or social inadequacy, it merely denotes a speaker’s nationality. However, in the case of lower-class characters, the issue is one of class. Aggy speaks what appears to be a black dialect. Natty Bumppo speaks a rather uneducated English; the landlord and landlady at “The Bold Dragoon,” Captain Hollister and his wife, use an equally ungrammatical language and this marks them as in some way socially inadequate vis-à-vis the Temples, Major Hartmann, and Monsieur Le Quoi. The hero, young Edward Effingham, speaks flawless, educated English and is easily recognizable as socially superior in speech, behavior, and dress. Elizabeth Temple likewise expresses herself in flawless English. Her father, Marmaduke Temple, and his cousin Richard Jones, mix Quaker usage into their speech. Yet at no time does the text indicate that a socially inadequate language denotes moral shortcomings.

In The Last of the Mohicans, written when the Cooper family prepared themselves for their lengthy sojourn in Europe and had assiduously studied French, the author obviously relishes the use of perfect French (which he never translates), both in the case of Montcalm and in Duncan Heyward’s and Cora Munro’s ability to trick the French by speaking their language fluently. It is significant, though, as Kalter has shown, that none of the non-English speakers are fluent in the English language. Montcalm needs Heyward’s translating services, and Chingachgook and Uncas are even less skilled, using broken English. Two separate views of language emerge: for a non-English speaker’s fluency, the more sophisticated the culture, the better the English. Moreover, the native English-speaker also has a better command of other languages, unlike non-native speakers.

Cooper may maneuver with ease in French; however, he lacks the same confidence in Scots and, to a reader familiar with the history of the Scots language, he virtually erases any characteristic linguistic markers. To give an example: When Cora and Alice finally arrive at Fort William Henry after their perilous journey through the wilderness, the reader learns that their father, Colonel Munro, “exclaimed, in the peculiar accent of Scotland — ‘For this I thank thee, Lord! Let danger come as it will, thy servant is now prepared!’” (145). Strangely, there is no hint of the “peculiar accent of Scotland” in the text itself; the use of “thee” and “thy” hardly qualifies. In fact, in all his interactions with his daughters, Major Duncan, and others, there are few traces of any Scottish accent or Scottish usage in the Colonel’s words, perhaps with the exception of the word “parretch” (porridge) (151), “Sit ye down” (158), and “for ye’re all that Duncan” (160), and this despite the fact that the Colonel himself and his children are Scots, and his second-in-command, Major Duncan Heyward, is a half-Scot. The narrator insists Scots is spoken, but declines to show it, thus denying his readers an important insight into the Colonel’s character.

Yet despite his unwillingness to use Scots, Cooper clearly expects his readers to know what the “peculiar accent of Scotland” sounds (or at least looks) like on paper ... and literature had, for instance in the popular works of Sir Walter Scott, provided readers with an abundance of examples, thus the insistence that Munro actually speaks Scots, a language which, after 1603 and the transfer of the Scottish court to London, had consistently been devalued by educated society. However, at the actual time of writing, Modern Scots had, in part through the works of both Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, reached large numbers of readers, and its spelling had to a certain extent been standardized after the guidelines presented by Standard English. Sir Walter’s language was, and is, not always easy to understand, though, which may account for Cooper’s initial unwillingness and/or inability to give Scots its due. Professor David Hewitt, editor-in-chief of the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels, remarks that Sir Walter Scott “makes really big linguistic demands. All that Scots language is magnificent, but it is very hard to read. Intellectually it is demanding too — you have to pay attention” (The Times, Dec. 9, 2009). But Sir Walter contributes to the creation of a stereotype — cleverly exploiting the convention that the Scottish language somehow marked its speakers as socially inadequate. He also cunningly exploits its otherness — and the hero of Waverley, the young Edward Waverley himself, approaches the language much as the average non-Scottish-speaking reader would do. Arriving at the Perthshire estate of his uncle’s friend, the Baron Sir Cosmo Comyne Bradwardine, Scots is the language of servants, and Edward’s initial reaction to the exposure to the language is that “in Scotland, a single house was called a town, and a natural fool an innocent” (85). The young man frantically latches on to familiar English words only to find that north of Hadrian’s Wall they convey a different meaning. Thus, most of the butler’s Scots words appear to go above his head, for instance “ben” for “in” and “flemit” for “scared off,” and “orra-time” for “other time” (85). Edward’s host and his daughter Rose, as well as their social equals, speak English, and the Baron peppers his speech liberally with Latin and French phrases. Only when emotional, or drunk, or both, will phrases in Scots appear, for instance when the baron’s estate is restored to him at the end of the novel, and a young man is referred to as a “daft callant” (485).

Throughout The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper adheres to Sir Walter’s model: the more sophisticated the Scot, the more English his language. The model highlights the actual situation: from the time of the union of 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England, Scottish as a national language had been in decline. This decline intensified after the two countries united formally in 1707, and Standard English increasingly became the official language of politics, education, religion, and prestige. Prominent and educated Scots went to great lengths to erase their Scottish linguistic roots. Especially the eighteenth century saw, as Janet Sorenson reminds us, “a vigorous effort to eliminate any hint of Scots language in English” (39). This is the case with Colonel Munro, and his military rank alone indicates social prominence — it cost money to buy commissions. Thus Cooper deftly draws into question the colonel’s claim that poverty was the reason Alice Graham’s father denies him his daughter’s hand in marriage. In fact, the colonel’s language emphasizes that he belongs to a social set that would use the Scottish vernacular language sparingly, if at all. The clan was also staunchly monarchist with a long history of military service and loyalty to the Crown. Being stationed outside Scotland also helped this process — people generally adapt to the linguistic environment they enter. Long absence from one’s native shores also diffuses an accent. The reader knows the officer served overseas, as when Munro explains to Heyward: he has seen “many regions” and “shed much blood in different lands,” even before being posted “to the islands of the West Indies” (159). Throughout The Last of the Mohicans, Munro’s facility with standard English shows in his interactions with others, even the half-Scots Duncan Heyward. Still, national linguistic markers can be hard to erase, therefore the insistence that the Colonel actually speaks Scottish. Munro has anglicized his language but kept his national accent.

I also wonder if Cooper, when he wrote The Last of the Mohicans, might have felt he lacked the appropriate grammatical skills to give Scots its due, or that too much use of this language would make the text too alien and less comprehensible for the average American or English reader. Fifteen years later, for whatever reason, he uses Scots more extensively, deliberately, and confidently. Yet Sir Walter Scott’s model persists: in The Pathfinder, both the commander, Major Duncan of Lundie, and the quartermaster and Mabel’s would-be-suitor David Muir, are Scots; however, only the latter, of lower military and social rank, speaks, or so the narrator claims, “in a strong Scotch accent” (153). Some “Scotticisms” prevail even in Major Duncan’s speech, though: Mabel is “a little lassie,” for instance (147). Cooper’s familiarity with the conventions of Scottish is clear: even when the major drops “into the pronunciation and dialect of his youth,” the narrator explains he does so “as is much the practice with educated Scotchmen, as they warm with a subject that comes near the heart” — yet the direct speech used remains English — until it becomes emotional. For instance, Major Duncan becomes somewhat maudlin contemplating his own unmarried state, despite his position as a “laird’s son” (154) when Muir has been married three or four times-depending on who’s counting.

The Duncan-Muir interchange showcases Cooper’s greater familiarity with Scottish, especially in the use of the language as social signifier. Muir, protesting Lundie’s assertion that he is “without fortune, name, birth, or merit-I mean particular merit,” then immediately lapses into the vernacular, proving his social inadequacy vis-á-vis his superior. The upper-class Lundie, on the other hand, resorts only to Scots when he becomes emotional:

“’Na, na; dinna say that, Lundie-the Muirs are of gude bluid.’”

To which Lundie retorts, now also in the vernacular:

“Well, then, without aught but bluid ye’ve wived four times” — “I tall ye but thrice, Lundie. Ye’ll weaken auld friendship if ye call it four.” “Put it at ye’r own number, Davy, and it’s far more than ye’r share. Our lives have been very different on the score of matrimony, at least; you must allow that, my old friend.” “And which do you think has been the gainer, major, speaking as frankly the’gither as we did when lads?” (154)

Albeit both speakers clearly use Scots, it is obvious that Muir uses the dialect more often than his commander: “na” for “no,” “dinna” for “don’t,” “auld” for “old,” “tall” for “tell,” “the’gither” for “together” (154). Both use “bluid” for “blood,” though, and Lundie uses “wived” for “married”; however, Cooper’s attitude is clear: the higher the social rank, the more English the language, in particular when addressing non-Scots. Interestingly, Cooper avoids using one of the most easily recognizable features of Scottish, the strong “r” sound (“verra” and “Edinburra,” for example), although it would have been the easiest way of presenting a speaker as a Scot. The language used is also, within the confines of Scots, close to standard English and easy to understand — no obscure words appear.

Cooper, like Scott, uses Scots as social marker: the stronger the use of the vernacular, the less socially adequate the speaker. People brought up with Scots-speaking tenants, or lower-class friends (the case with Major Duncan and Quartermaster Muir) did their utmost to avoid being seen as lower-class when conversing with their counterparts from south of the border. This was a well-known practice. Elocution lessons were in great demand among the aristocracy, and this group was the first to employ Standard English in both speech and writing. They sought eagerly to eradicate Scotticisms (Scottish words and grammatical features) and some of them, one of them David Hume, published their own lists of such grammatical faux pas (Sorensen 39). If a socially prominent person stoops to using Scottish words and phrases, he or she does so deliberately and by choice. Excessive use, so to speak, is permitted only amongst friends and in convivial society. Scott uses the vernacular to great (and often) humorous effect, as does Cooper in the Duncan/Muir dialogue above. The mixture of what appears to be standard English and the selective use of Scots phrases gives the text a touch of “Scottishness” — without actually rendering it incomprehensible to the reader. Robert Burns does the same, even mixing Scottish and English within the lines of the same poem. In the well-known “Tam o’ Shanter,” we find the following section: “But pleasures are like poppies spread: / You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed ... / And sic’ a night he taks the road in / As ne’er poor sinner was abroad in” (59-60, 71-72). However, even as this literary use of Scottish depended largely on colloquial language, and some remnants of sixteenth century court usage remained, the spelling was increasingly conforming to that of standard English, with apostrophes denoting apparently missing letters (“ca’” for “call,” for instance, “awa’” for “away,” and “ava’” for “at all”). Yet “without” (outside) the confines of literature, where the intelligentsia saw it as a national language, its use was frowned upon and limited to the lower classes. Cooper’s usage of Scots, while seemingly removing the Scottish language from his texts, conforms to the usage found in the works of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and others: the sophisticated/prominent/educated person could under certain circumstances allow himself/herself a measure of Scottishness without reducing his/her social standing. However, he was more apt to use Scottish when speaking to someone from this own country.

In today’s Scots, we see a similar situation: a choice Scots phrase in an otherwise “English” conversation may give its speaker a certain sense of artistry and uniqueness. As Keith Aitken observes in his essay “The Scots Tongue” in the Spring 2008 issue of Scottish Life, the richness of Scots has left it “a living language in the 21ˢᵗ century in a way that no amount of curatorial subsidy can do for Gaelic.” It has also, to some extent, transformed the Scots’ impression of the language and its use in “polite society,” a situation unimagined “a generation ago,” when, Scots, precisely as it had been in Burns,’ Scott’s, and Cooper’s time, “was the language of social inadequacy. Parents dubbed it “common” and looked to teachers to scour it forcibly from their children’s mouths.” Aitken continues, “I can clearly remember unwittingly letting slip a word from the street Scots of my infancy in the school classroom and being ferociously rebuked with the cry: “Speak English, boy!” Today’s children, by contrast, are proactively taught poetry and prose in both arcane and modern Scots.” However, Aitken also admits that the language is still not wholly free of the class distinctions that are so deeply embedded in the mindset of the Britons.” If a person uses the vernacular consistently, “then every likelihood is that you are face-to-face with a member of the (urban) proletariat who will speak a coherent if impenetrable tongue that befuddles the Anglophone ear.” And, he adds, that when a “middle-class user of Scots words does so, or likes to think he does so, in order to impart a specific refinement of meaning that English cannot provide. ... he will instinctively believe that the labourer speaks Scots because he is too ignorant to master elegant English” (65). Romance literature and film, often follow the lead of Scott (and Cooper): a kind of “generic Scots” has emerged,; however, the usage of Scots as a socio-economic marker has disappeared.

Cooper does not erase his Scots and their native tongue from his texts, he merely treats the people and their language the way his Scottish contemporaries did — a little bit of Scots goes a long way. For, as the novelist of manners knew: an educated person knows to use Scots sparingly, in emotional circumstances, and for specific effects. Any other use, such as full immersion in the vernacular, leaves his character(s) open to censure and limits his/her prospects. Cooper’s “silencing” of his Scots mimics the literary and social use of Scottish language during the eighteenth century. And Cooper, at least in this context, ended up as “America’s Scott.”

Works Cited

  • Aitken, Keith. “The Scots Tongue.” Scottish Life. Spring 2008. 65-77.
  • Allen, Dennis W. “By All the Truth of Signs: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.” Studies in American Fiction 9.2 (1981)159-79.
  • Blakemore, Steven. “Strange Tongues: Coopers Fiction of Language in The Last of the Mohicans.” Early American Literature 19.1 (1984) 21-41.
  • Burns, Robert. “Tam O’Shanter.” www.robertburns.org.uk/Assets/Poems_Songs/tamoshanter.htm
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. Ed. James A. Sappenfield. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1983.
  • ------. The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea. Ed. Richard Dilworth Rust. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1981.
  • ------. The Pioneers, or The Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale. Eds. Lance Schachterle and Kenneth M. Andersen, Jr. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1980.
  • Kalter, Susan. ” The Last of the Mohicans as Contemporary Theory: James Fenimore Cooper’s Philosophy of Language.” ALA 1999. Kalter
  • Kelly, William P. “History, Language, and the Leatherstocking Tales.” 2ⁿᵈ Cooper Seminar, Oneonta, 1979. Kelly.
  • Scott, Sir Walter. Waverley. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.
  • Sorensen, Janet. “’Something Glee’d’”: The Uses of Langue in Scott’s Waverley Novels.” In Gottlieb, Evan, and Duncan, Ian, eds. Approaches to Teaching Scott’s Waverley Novels. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2009.

Digital Sources

http://www.absp.org.uk/words/scots.htm [Link no longer extant. – Ed.]

http://www.scots-online.org/grammar/whits.htm [Link no longer extant. – Ed.]