First, I will assert that James Fenimore Cooper possessed a linguistic philosophy and that he embedded that philosophy in the novel. Second, I want to show that this philosophy is important to our assessment of his relationship to the ideology of savagism. While earlier interpretations of Cooper in relation to this same topic offer valuable insights, I will argue that they do not adequately describe The Last of the Mohicans because they place Cooper's thinking in antiquated time frames.
Although theories of language often do have phosphorescent life spans which extend them beyond their initial era of popularity, I will argue that Cooper's linguistic philosophy is best understood in comparison to that of his own contemporaries, particularly the German linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt. Rather than understanding Cooper's linguistic forays as derivative and out-dated, we must see them as current and in keeping with his own times. Both Steven Blakemore and Dennis Allen have written about Cooper's linguistic philosophies and both situate them in terms of relativity, hierarchy and superiority.
Blakemore fits language in The Last of the Mohicans into the model set by biblical narratives. He argues that Cooper uses two linguistic paradigms: Eden and Babel With respect to the first paradigm, Cooper is said to set Delaware up as the prelapsarian language of Eden: the "pure, unfallen language that would embody the new American reality" English and French act as Cooper's fallen languages 21, These ideas follow in the line of prior criticism of the novel, which had already adopted these same biblical motifs to explain its battles between good and evil, its metaphorics of Indian descent toward hell, and its Miltonic flavor.
However, while Cooper undoubtedly uses Paradise Lost as a model, we should remember that he would not necessarily have imitated Milton's linguistic paradigms. The divergence from Milton on this point would be due to the authors' respective linguistic universes -- Milton writing within a seventeenth century consciousness of language.
Concerns with fallen and unfallen tongues would place Cooper in the midst of a debate that raged in the medieval and early modern periods in Europe, not in the early nineteenth century United States. There is no substantial evidence in the text for a narrative of the Fall that is related to language. Although the Biblical theme structures the story otherwise, Cooper does not in fact hint that Delaware functions as an Edenic language. Cooper is also said by Blakemore to posit an original unity of Indian languages and a Babelian splintering of them because he depicts Indian words as fused with the places they name, and links Native American's loss of land to loss of language.
He therefore argues a triple fragmentation of people and language from land, of languages and their speakers from one another, and of the unity of the word and object word and world. This Babelian argument is somewhat more apt than the Edenic one, but most of the evidence for it lies in prefaces added after the first printing.go to link
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There is no solid evidence in the original text that Cooper does assume an original unity of language or that he depicts Indian words as closer to nature or fused with their object. In fact, he assumes that there are at least two "original" languages in America -- Iroquoian and Algonquin -- well in keeping with his era's alignment of race with nation, and both with language. By the time he wrote, in any case, any original language was thought to have conformed only to the subject's idea of the world, not to the world itself.
A second critic, Dennis Allen, has submitted that Cooper's linguistic consciousness is derived from eighteenth century linguistic theories of origin and development. Allen interprets Cooper's representation of Indian culture as valuing silence and the non-verbal sign highest while whites value precisely what Indians discourage: language.
He finds the diverse semiotic modes apparent in the text ranged into a hierarchy Since Indians in the novel communicate most often using the semiotics of the first developmental stage -- signs and gestures -- Cooper has made his Indian languages closer to nature and more pure than white language. However, in the process of narrowing in on language philosophies that were in heaviest circulation during the century before Cooper's career, Allen elides Huron, Delaware and Iroquois into a single "Indian culture" and speaks of all Indian languages in the novel in one breath; this homogenization defies Cooper's own distinctions of semiotic difference among Indians.
While Allen claims that silence is the highest semiotic value among Cooper's Indians, Cooper's narrator and characters never claim or even imply this, even though Indians are often silent or laconic in particular situations. On the contrary, the text on the whole marks Delaware appreciation for language. Allen's categories themselves do not hold up under close scrutiny, for he elides silence with the non-verbal sign and seems to cover with this latter term: gesture, footprint, broken limbs, beaver houses, tortoise tattoos, wound cleaning, flattened bullets and facial expressions.
He also places music second lowest in Cooper's Indian cultures: a problematic claim.
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In the marking of Delaware appreciation for language and in other ways, Cooper's theory of language actually coincides with early nineteenth century linguistic theories. In order to test Cooper's philosophy against the views I knew to be contemporary with it to discover whether they did indeed coincide, I decided to look at the intellectual and linguistic mobility of the various characters. Throughout this novel, encounters between characters are framed in terms of contests and displays of reason, in terms of intelligence, and in terms of local knowledge.
Alliance and enmity both are framed along these lines.
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Cooper narrates a story of contact between cultures where multiple cultures intersect. The factual multilinguality of the several representatives of culture who are meeting on a plain of settlement, displacement and war becomes a metaphorical representation of the mental powers of the peoples and cultures involved. What results is a narrative of intellectual superiority through linguistic excellence. The Last of the Mohicans is a war of words. There is a linguistic hierarchy in Cooper's book, as both Blakemore and Allen recognized, but it does not place Delaware or other Indian languages in the favored position.
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Cooper sets up linguistic rules of engagement, so to speak, in order to express mental and political power. Every major character in the novel understands English. However, none of the non- native speakers of English Montcalm, Chingachgook, Uncas, Magua possess a native or near native fluency in it. Montcalm, for example, retains Heyward's translating services by apologizing: "There is a vast difference between understanding and speaking a foreign tongue; you will, therefore, please to assist me still.
Chingachgook, for instance, answers questions in English monosyllables Those characters who understand French are divided. Heyward, Cora, Magua, the Huron interpreter and the "twenty eager" Delaware The two who are native speakers of English also possess flawless, quasi-native ability in French. When they are nearly found out by the French sentinel in chapter fourteen, both Heyward and Cora respond in perfect French that Cooper produces in the original.
Despite his disclaimer to Montcalm that his interpretive skills have merely provided "so awkward a translation" If he fails to convince the second French patrol it is because he does not know "le mot de l'ordre" Yet Magua, the speaker of Huron, converses with Montcalm "imperfectly in the French language" Neither the Huron interpreter nor the Delaware who hear Magua's patois speech are themselves credited with perfect French skills; they instead listen and respond to the "corrupted" dialect or creole. The native English speakers have mastered "true" French, but the Indian speakers have not.
This diminishing progression continues with Delaware. There are even fewer major figures in the novel who understand this language. The non-natives who understand it are Heyward, Hawk-eye and Magua see Magua understands Delaware; yet he can barely pronounce Uncas's name It is unclear whether this greater difficulty serves as a sign of his deep-seated hatred of Uncas or whether it is a mark of a more general infacility with the language. Yet he chooses to speak to the Delaware in French patois and he is spoken to in Huron, indicating both that he is no master of Delaware and that the patois is a corrupted mixture of high and low, and therefore inferior to Delaware.
On the other hand, both Heyward and Hawk-eye "understand" Delaware, indicating once again the fluency and agility of the English "race" in learning other languages. Obviously, Heyward cannot speak Delaware, fluently or brokenly. I would argue, however, that his near immediate ability to decipher the language through signs and tones supersedes this circumstantial illiteracy.
The instances in which he does so are not just about the universality of certain gestures and emotions or the unity of body language and verbal language in Indian cultures. They indicate Heyward's potential, as marked out by Cooper, to master language, and this language, given more than a week in New York Colony.
Supporting evidence to this potential in Heyward and a remarkable example of Cooper's rule of linguistic mobility is given by the lower class Hawk-eye's native fluency in Delaware. When Hawk-eye first is introduced conversing with Chingachgook, no indication is given that he speaks in broken Delaware.
Throughout the book, he engages with the father and son with ease. Blakemore reads his famous oratorical scene as an indication of the ideal superiority of Delaware, saying that Hawk-eye persuades only "by speaking the language as it should be spoken," opening himself to its spirit and therefore opening the Mohicans up to "the truth [he] expresses" However, Cooper has elsewhere focused upon the command exercised by an eloquent speaker in Native American cultures and he seems to understand that certain Native Americans possess this mastery more than others, whether by native skill or cultivation Therefore, the fact that he presents the non-native speaker Hawk-eye as not only fluent but ultimately masterful in Delaware oratory suggests that it is Hawk-eye's superiority in the language that is being indicated, not superiority of the language itself.
The scene concludes as follows:. Hawk-eye "converts" the Mohicans to his way of thinking and he does so, moreover, by displaying a superiority in logical reasoning.
The Hurons' language is spoken fluently by a Delaware orator and again it is Heyward who understands it, through the gestures of oratory and the countenances of the audiences. Once again, Heyward's inability to speak it is indicated as a matter of circumstance, not of possibility. A word about Oneida, another Iroquoian language, is also fitting, for though Hawk-eye frequently confuses the Iroquois language with the Huron, neither Heyward nor the narrator seem to.
It is therefore important that no word of the "unintelligible" Oneida is ever "spoken" in the book.
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The two Oneida warriors die, and die into silence, before any utterance is possible. Hawk-eye also comments that "though the Delaware tongue is the same as a book to the Iroquois, the cunning varlets are quick enough at understanding the reason of a wolf's howl" 5. The comment indicates simultaneously the superiority of the Delaware and of literate languages, and the association of the Iroquois with animals.
The Iroquois are placed in the middle of this miniature hierarchy of tongues. Its figuring as a hierarchy preempts the faint suggestion that there may in fact be some reasoning in a wolf's howl. Finally there is the Narragansett language. This nation is represented in the book by the horses belonging to Cora and Alice. Like the Oneida, the Narragansett are associated with animals.