2421: Tower of Babel
|Tower of Babel|
Title text: Soon, linguists will be wandering around everywhere, saying things like "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" and "more people have been to Russia than I have," and speech will become unintelligible.
The story of the Tower of Babel is the Biblical explanation for the existence of different languages in the world. In the story, humans endeavor to build a tower reaching heaven. Their arrogance angers God and prompts him to sabotage the project. He does this by "confounding their speech" (commonly interpreted as giving everyone their own language), inhibiting their ability to work together.
In this retelling, however, the events are the same, but the motives changed. God is pleased with the tower, and promises to create a diversity of languages, not as a punishment, but as a reward for the member of the party who finds words interesting. Megan seems to recognize the potential issues this would cause, but the word-loving woman is enthusiastic. This plays on Randall's various geeky interests, recognizing that complexities of the world, which frustrate many people, are a source of great joy and interest to others. A world with only one language would make travel and global communication much easier, but for those with an interest in linguistics, it would be deeply limiting, as there would be only one language to study.
Phonology is the study of the sounds used in a language or dialect, or of the systems that languages use to organize sounds. For example, English has the words "light" and "right", indicating a distinction between /l/ and /r/, but other languages, such as Japanese, do not, resulting in the (in)famous stereotype. On the other hand, English does not make a distinction between /u/ and /y/, while French does, having words such as "le but" (the goal) and "le bout" (the tip).
Word order is the study of order of the parts of a language, e.g. the subject, object, verb, and other modifiers. English uses the subject–verb–object order ("She loves him"), but other languages use subject-object-verb ("She him loves") and other permutations of these orders.
Morphosyntactic alignment is the relationship between the "roles" in a sentence, and how they relate to transitivity. The vast majority of world languages, including English, use nominative-accusative alignment. In nominative-accusative languages, the subjects of transitive verbs (verbs with objects) and the subjects of intransitive verbs (verbs without objects) are treated the same, and differently from the objects of transitive verbs. For example, "She sees him" and "She runs" use the same word "she". However, other forms exist like ergative-absolutive alignment, where the subject of an intransitive verb matches the object of a transitive verb ("She sees him" and "Her runs"), transitive alignment, where the subject and object of a transitive verb are the same and different from the subject of an intransitive verb ("Her sees him" and "She runs"), or split-S and split ergativity, where it follows nominative-accusative or ergative-absolutive based on context. For example, if it depends on animacy, you could have "She (the person) runs", but "Them (the trees) fall".
The title text expands the joke by suggesting that the miscommunication caused by the Tower of Babel is not due to language barriers, but instead because linguists have created intentionally meaningless sentences to illustrate points about grammar, and identifies two famous examples of such. "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously", coined by linguist Noam Chomsky in 1957, is an example of a sentence that is structurally correct but contains paradoxes and meaningless comparisons: Something cannot be both colorless AND green (see Invisible Pink Unicorn), ideas do not sleep, and sleeping generally is not done furiously. That said, the sentence "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is so well known in linguistics that a competition to make the sentence meaningful was held in 1985 and attracted a number of entrants.
"More people have been to Russia than I have" is an example of comparative illusion. The idea conveyed by the sentence may seem to be clear at first, but upon deeper analysis has no well-formed meaning and is open to interpretation. Many people interpret its meaning as "I do not own/have in my household as many people as those who have been to Russia."
- [The Tower of Babel is shown. It has a broad two sectioned base and above that extends straight up out of the top of the frame, with 10 identical segments. This is seen from afar, so the three people standing at the base of the tower is very small. But Cueball and Megan can be easily identified. They are standing on either side of a woman with big curly hair (which is first clear in the next panel). The text spoken is written over the tower in white sections that hides the tower. But the tower can be seen above, between and below these two text segments:]
- Cueball: The Tower of Babel is complete!
- Megan: Let's go meet God!
- [Cueball, the curly haired woman and Megan are now standing at the top of the Tower of Babel. The top is made of bricks, but the part of the last segment before the top looks like those shown in the first panel. God is represented by an off-panel voice coming from a star burst at the top of the panel. The three people look up in that direction.]
- Cueball: Hi God!
- God (off-panel): Wow, nice tower!
- God (off-panel): You did a great job! I'm so proud!
- Megan: Thanks!
- [Same settings but Megan has turned towards the curly haired woman holding an arm out towards her. The woman has taken one hand to her chin.]
- God (off-panel): I'm going to give you a reward.
- God (off-panel): What do you like about the world?
- Curly haired woman: Hmm. Words are really cool.
- Megan: No, wait-
- [Same settings, in a broader panel. The curly haired woman lifts her hands up curled into fists. Her yell comes from a starburst over her head, to indicate the difference to normal speech. Megan has taken her arm down.]
- God (off-panel): Great! I'm going to give you lots of languages to study, each with its own phonology, word ordering, morphosyntactic alignment...
- Curly haired woman: YESSSSSS!
- Megan: We should not have brought a linguist.
In 2381: The True Name of the Bear, sentences spoken by the curly haired-woman, the suspected Gretchen McCulloch do not have periods at their ends, a fact which she mentioned on Twitter. However, in this comic, she uses periods, so her previous periodlessness might be a coincidence and not a trait of her character on xkcd.
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