Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Last surviving cast member of Bonanza dies."

One of the cool things about human languages is their infinite creative capacity. Every native speaker of any human language has the ability to create (and "emit") completely "new utterances" - meaningful strings of words that have never previously been spoken, but that are nevertheless immediately understandable by others.

Just the other day I saw posted to an internet discussion group the sentence "I am a Kemetic from New Jersey." (For those not up on their Paganese, a "Kemetic" is a person who follows the ancient polytheistic religious traditions of Kemet, the ancient name for what modern English speakers refer to as "Egypt".) When I read those words I had no difficulty in understanding them, but I also immediately thought that this was very likely to be a "new utterance", a string of words that had never been uttered in English before.

And then just this morning as I was glancing through the Huffington Post I saw the headline "Last surviving cast member of Bonanza dies." I'm pretty sure that is a "new utterance", too! Another likely candidate is the headline of a small item in todays India Express online edition: "Why this Republic needs more time zones." By their very nature, headlines probably have a higher than average probability of being completely new utterances.

Not to make light of the death of Pernell Roberts, who gained fame playing Adam Cartwright. It turns out Roberts was a pretty damned interesting guy. He liked to brag that "I distinguished myself by flunking out of college three times," after which he worked at such professions as tombstone maker and railroad riveter, before finally settling down and becoming a successful actor.

Many lesser actors would have been perfectly happy to have a central role in a hugely successful TV series like Bonanza. But Pernell Roberts thought his character, and the show in general, was poorly conceived and the writing especially left much to be desired. He finally left Bonanza at the height of the show's popularity and took a series a smaller roles until finally landing the lead in Trapper John, MD (a full 14 years after leaving Bonanza).

The ability of human languages to create ever new "utterances" was one of the key ingredients in Noam Chomsky's withering critique of B.F. Skinner and Behaviorism back in the late 50's and early 60's.

1 comment:

Thutm0sys said...

Hey, Apuleius! Glad to see I've made it onto the beginning of a blog post, seeing as I'm the aforementioned Garden State Kemetic. :D