Deadwood and Deep v. Surface Structure…

I’ve been watching the first season of HBO’s Deadwood.  One of the bits of controversy that has surrounded this story of an old-west town is the use of profanity.  Deadwood is the story of the real historical town of Deadwood, an outlaw settlement in the Black Hills of Montana in 1876.  But here’s the thing, the characters in the TV show swear like sailors.  The language is so offensive that I won’t even give examples.  Of course these words that the writers use are not words that people really used in 1876.  But the profanity of 1876 would sound silly to people in our time and culture, and so the writers decided to import modern profanity as a creative anachronism.  On a visceral level at least, this works very well indeed.

This goes to the heart of an issue in linguistics that I’ve been thinking about lately.  Linguists talk about deep structure and surface structure.  Surface structure is the actual grammatical structure of a particular sentence or phrase or utterance as found in reality.  Deep structure is the so-called “kernel” sentence or essence that underlies the surface structure.  A passive sentence is the classic example.  According to this thinking sentences 1a and 1b have different surface structure but identical deep structure:

1a: Wild Bill Hickok was shot by Jack McCall.
1b: Jack McCall shot Wild Bill Hickok.

Linguists who believe in deep structure say that the semantic value (the meaning for lack of a better term) of these phrases is identical.  Linguists who don’t believe in deep structure might deny this.

In Deadwood the use of anachronistic language assumes that modern swearing has essentially the same deep structure as the swearing of 1876.  Therefore replacing one with the other is actually a faithful way of translating.  But I wonder, and here is where deep structure becomes a problem, if there isn’t something else going on apart from semantics and if that something else might not be the same from 1876 to 2009.  Like I said, I’m still thinking about it.


2 thoughts on “Deadwood and Deep v. Surface Structure…

  1. This is curious to me. Couldn't it be both? Your sentences a and b have identical deep structure meaning but not surface structure meaning? They mean the same thing, but the way we hear it may be drastically different, just because of word order?

    As for the show using new rather than old swearing, I guess if they want to transport us into that time yet convey the gritty language "easily" without much work on the viewers part then they made the right move. But couldn't they have accomplished it with good acting and writing? Use the old language but capture the original offensiveness and grittiness? I don't know. It would bother me watching it to have it so anachronistic. Deep structure meaning may be the same but on the surface it would still mean they didn't try hard enough.

    This reminds me of something I came across in sermon prep this week. When Jesus says "It would be better to have a large millstone hung round your neck" in Matthew 18 the literal translation is actually "have a millstone of a donkey". The idea is that there were hand-millstones and the big ones that donkey's carted around.

    Thing that got me thinking was, wow, it is way more effective, and even humorous, to keep the "donkey" language. But then again maybe they didn't laugh at donkeys then the way I do today. (But weren't donkeys funny from day 1. Or day 6 I guess?)

    So anyway, wouldn't it capture Jesus' deep meaning better if we kept the literal translation? Or maybe if we translated it with similar modern ridiculousness, like "It would be better to have a microwave bungeed around your neck"?

    Great post Colin. I've missed your blogging, making ties from everyday crap to stuff we read about in theory texts and what-not…

  2. It isn't just that the word order of 1a and 1b are different. One is an active verbal construction and the other is a passive verbal construction. So in the active phrase the subject (McCall) receives a slight emphasis, as does the action itself. In the passive phrase the object (Hickok) moves to the foreground slightly and the subject and verbal action retreat a little. Also, passive phrases are (generally) less common, which makes them stand out slightly. Linguists also have whole lists of things that active and passive voice do at the level of paragraph and above.

    Your example from Matt goes to the same point, and one that is often the subject of debate. Which translation is better, the one that more closely resembles the actual surface structure of the text (formal equivalence) or the one that more closely resembles the deep structure of the text (dynamic equivalence). Which is really a better translation, "donkey's millstone" or "big-ass microwave"?

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