2421: Tower of Babel

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Tower of Babel
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.
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.

The party that ascends to the top of the tower consists of Cueball, Megan and a curly-haired woman, who may be the linguist Gretchen McCulloch as she was depicted in 2381: The True Name of the Bear.

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).

Morphosyntactic alignment is the study of the relationship between the subject and object, as well as how languages indicate which is which. For example, in the sentence "the dog chased the cat", it's indicated that the dog is the one doing the chasing because it comes before the verb "chased". Other languages might switch it around: "the dog the cat chased", or use affixes to mark which is which: "the doga chased the cato" / "the cato chased the doga". (Note that all four sentences mean the same thing.)

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.[citation needed] 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. This sentence seems to make sense at first, but upon deeper analysis does not. Many people misinterpret 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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So is Gretchen McCulloch xkcd's resident linguist now? Is there going to be character page for her like Cory Doctorow? 23:00, 5 February 2021 (UTC)

I'm hoping so! We could call it "Gretchen McComics." 23:24, 5 February 2021 (UTC)
That's probably not in compliance with whatever stylebook we have here but I love it. Captain Video (talk) 04:24, 6 February 2021 (UTC)
Could it really be the same Gretchen? The time periods of the two comics are thousands of years apart. And the title text of "True Name of the Bear" says she was devoured. Barmar (talk) 06:31, 7 February 2021 (UTC)
Maybe it is meant to remind us of her from the other comic, but given the settings and no mention of her name, it cannot be determined that it is her. Great to include mention of the other comic in the explanation, but not in the transcript. Also it cannot be said that there is a real person in this comic (unless of course you think of God as a real person? But even if you consider him a person, then people may debate you on how real he is ;-) Have updated the transcript and categories. And no we should not make a category on her based on two comics, especially not when it is not clear it is her in this one. --Kynde (talk) 09:10, 8 February 2021 (UTC)
If there's a third comic with a linguist drawn like that, I'd suggest calling the character "Gretchen" as a convenient handle regardless of whether it is or isn't Gretchen McCulloch. --Pi one (talk) 02:32, 9 February 2021 (UTC)

Wait, how could a linguist exist before there were languages to study and compare? Is this the omphalos hypothesis popping up again? GreatWyrmGold (talk) 02:36, 6 February 2021 (UTC)

They have one language. Presumably, she attempts to thoroughly study that one. This would technically make her a grammarian, but since they don't have contact with any other language, this proto-language wouldn't need make any distinction between grammarians and linguists, so "linguist" would be an appropriate translation. -- 05:55, 6 February 2021 (UTC)
I think it is worth mentioning the paradox in the explanation. --Kynde (talk) 09:10, 8 February 2021 (UTC)
There's also the possibility that the word "linguist" didn't exist before that moment. "What the hell's a linguist?" "Who is hells?"
Very astute observation - I take it you are a cunning linguist? 20:51, 8 February 2021 (UTC)

Defining "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" {

   "colorless green ideas" existing is 0 .
   List of all existing "colorless green ideas"  that don't "dream furiously" contains 0 elements.

} 06:24, 6 February 2021 (UTC)

Defining "more people have been to Russia than I have" {

   if(Have "I" ever been to Russia?){
       "More than 1 people have been to Russia.".
   } else {
       "More than 0 people have been to Russia.".

}, so something like {

   "At least 1 person that is not me has been to Russia.".

}. 06:24, 6 February 2021 (UTC)

"I possess a number of people as chattel", i.e. servants and/or slaves. (That number could be zero?) "The number of people who have gone to Russia exceeds this value." 10:29, 6 February 2021 (UTC)

What colour is invisible ink? -- 10:24, 9 February 2021 (UTC)

Any colour you wish, so long as its alpha is zero! Davidhbrown (talk)