Noah's Arch?

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Today's Non Sequitur:

Alas for the (otherwise clever) joke, this is not a very likely confusion for speakers of American English. We can estimate exactly how (un-) likely it is, other things equal, from this confusion matrix given in Anne Cutler et al., "Patterns of English phoneme confusions by native and non-native listeners", Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 116(6), 2004:

Even at 0 dB SNR, final American-English /tʃ/ was heard as /k/ only 0.4% of the time by native speakers.

(Dutch listeners in this experiment apparently never made that particular error at all, because the relevant cell of the ir confusion matrix — look at the paper to find it — is blank.)

Of course, the original message would presumably have been in proto-Afroasiatic, or Sumerian, or something, where by the laws of chance, the two words were probably not even as close as ark and arch are.


  1. bulbul said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

    the original message would presumably have been in proto-Afroasiatic, or Sumerian
    What a silly idea! Everyone knows God speaks French and in French, it's arche for both ark and arch. Mystery solved.

  2. bulbul said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    I notice that in Cutler et al's matrix, they investigated words ending in -VC. Are there any studies for words with final consonant clusters, possibly even differentiating between rhotic and non-rhotic pronounciation of -VrC?

  3. Jonathan Lundell said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    We have the likes of "archangel" and "archi-" to help the confusion along, though.

    And God speaketh 16C English. My Bible tells me so.

  4. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

    Surely while 'ark' is indeed 'arche' in French, 'arch' is 'arc'. (These Frenchmen, constantly getting things the wrong way round….)

  5. Lane said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    Actually everyone knows that Gods speaks Spanish: God told Noah to build an arch (arco), but Noah heard "arca", and made his Ark (arca). God was like "no, arco, as in arco iris", and sent the rainbow to help with a little rebus action. The Hebrews still didn't get it, and built an "arca" again (la Arca de la Alianza, the Ark of the Covenant), at which point God got fed up and just bedevilled them with everything else they went on to go through in the Old Testament.

    Too much?

  6. Mark P said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    There is the potential confusion between arc and ark, but the work on god's drafting table clearly shows "the arch." I wonder if god uses CAD now.

  7. Peter Harvey said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    In Paris I found that it's l'Arc de Triomphe but l'Arche de La Défense. Can anyone explain why?

  8. Sili said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

    Unless it was a Sunday – The angels speak Funish on Sundays because it please the Lord so.

    And wasn't Noah pre-Babel? I though the tongues didn't get confused until after that towering disaster.

  9. Dierk said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    No speakers of Aramean around – apart from almighty, all-knowing, all-present ones?

  10. Kylopod said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

    In the Torah, the "ark" is called the teiva (תֵּבָה). It is, by the way, an entirely different word from the other Biblical Ark (of the Covenant), which is called the aron (אֲרוֹן).

    But Noah's Ark jokes always assume that if English was good enough for Noah, it's good enough for us. The Far Side had one in which all the animal couples of each species are waiting outside the ark, and Noah says, let's do this in alphabetical order, and the zebras think, "Damn."

  11. Boris said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

    What I'd like to know is how the same otherwise obscure (in English) word came to mean both the Ark of the Covenant and Noah's Ark when the original Hebrew uses words that are so different. This is also the case in Russian (with a word not linguistically related to "Ark" no less, but having roughly the same original meaning, a container that stores things). Presumably this was an adaptation (or translation) of the original Latin word, but why was it the same word in Latin, and why was it kept as the same word in translation? Furthermore, why has the word never been used more widely (outside sailor slang, etc) when modern Hebrew still has the words' quite literal meanings and their extensions?

  12. Boris said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    @Kylopod, didn't see your post. Could have shortened mine.

  13. John said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 3:49 pm

    Very apropos today: iPod/iPad?

  14. Dan said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

    You all must be new here. Since Noah was pre-Babel, he must have spoken the same language as Adam and Eve, and everyone knows that they spoke Flemish.

  15. mollymooly said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

    The LXX translation of ark was "kibotos" for both, which caused pre-Vulgate Christians to interpret Noah's kibotos as a small box rather than a big boat. Jerome deliberately used different words for the two arks.

  16. bulbul said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 4:28 pm

    Andrew (not the same one),

    there is indeed l'Arc de Triomphe, but there is also l'Arche de la Défense (aka La Grande Arche). I admit the difference, if any, eludes me.

  17. Sylvain said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

    @Andrew (not the same one):

    I wouldn't bet on "arc" being the most natural one. Actually, checking the etymology of "arc de triomphe", I found:

    1170 « arc de triomphe » (Rois, ms. des Cordel. fo 19 Ro, col. 1 ds La Curne) : Oid la nuvele que li Reis… ont fait voldre une arche que fust signe e demustrance de sa victorie et de sa glorie

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

    Bulbul is contradicting the thesis of Andreas Kempe that, in Edenic times, YHWH spoke Swedish, Adam spoke Danish, and the Serpent spoke French.

  19. Brian Johnson said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 9:36 pm

    How likely is it for American English speakers to mistake Anne Cutler for Ann Coulter? Apparently, 8.3%!

  20. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 3:41 am

    I'm not familiar with all the details of the story; is it anywhere stated that Noah didn't receive his instructions from God in (mispronounceable, misinterpretable) writing?

  21. Carl said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 5:29 am

    On the intertubes, one sees kids getting confused about story arches and arcs and arks with some frequency.

  22. Laurent C said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 10:06 am

    To this Frenchman, arche is certainly more natural than arc in an architectural context.

    Also when I was younger I was quite surprised at the Ark in _Raiders of the Lost Ark_ not being shaped like an arch.

  23. marie-lucie said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

    I agree with Laurent C that arche is the more natural (meaning commonly used) word in architecture. Except for Arc de Triomphe (most likely a literal translation from Latin), such constructions, free-standing or as part of another construction (in a bridge or a doorway, for instance) are called arche, the word arc referring to the bow shape rather than the construction itself.

    The word arche in the architectural sense is a derivative or reformation from Latin arcus 'bow', but arche 'ark' is from the unrelated Latin word arca meaning a box or other container for hiding or securing things.

  24. marie-lucie said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

    in Edenic times, YHWH spoke Swedish, Adam spoke Danish, and the Serpent spoke French.

    What did Eve speak? and how did they all understand each other? (but I forget that languages were not "confused" yet – perhaps everyone spoke their own language and all understood each other, unlike after Babel).

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 10:14 pm

    marie-lucie, I regret that I have not myself read Kempe's masterwork Die Sprachen des Paradises (first published 1688; I'm not sure if it was ever translated into English) and am relying on summaries in various secondary sources. There is apparently not complete scholarly consensus as to whether Kempe was engaged in intentional parody of the my-language-was-the-Ursprache genre exemplified by the Flemish claim referenced above or simply pursuing the genre so energetically as to fall into inadvertent self-parody. Failure to specify what language Eve spoke has apparently been previously raised as an objection to Kempe. It should perhaps be noted that in the 3d chapter of Genesis Eve engages in dialogue with both the serpent and (after she and Adam get busted) the LORD God, but never (on-stage) with her husband.

    [(myl) The hypothesis that Flemish (or more properly, Brabantic) was the original language of Eden (and that Eden itself was situated in Brabant, near Antwerp) is originally due to Goropius Becanus, in whose honor we established the prestigious Goropius Becanus Prize, awarded intermittently to people or organizations who have made outstanding contributions to linguistic misinformation.]

  26. Adouma said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 5:26 am

    Did He send an archangel to inform Noah of the ark? Did Noah realise that, on the bright side, at least he'd never have to see his arch-enemy again?

  27. Ken Brown said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

    J.W. Brewer said: "in the 3d chapter of Genesis Eve engages in dialogue with both the serpent and (after she and Adam get busted) the LORD God, but never (on-stage) with her husband."

    Presumably, just like so many 21st century couples, she was at church while he went down the pub.

  28. Dmajor said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

    uh… but WHY did The Lord want Noah to build an arch in the first place? Was he supposed to found the first St. Louis? The first MacDonalds? I suppose it's only luck that Noah didn't construct and train the first illicit drugs interdiction officer.

  29. kip said,

    February 1, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    I know I'm late to the party on this post… But the comic does make sense if you actually pronounce "arch" as "ark". Maybe it's just me, but that's how I pronounce it (most of the time, I think).

    Maybe I just don't make a distinction in my mind between "arch" and "arc". Both mean basically the same thing (a curved shape). It's not like I have any French influence there–I speak only English and a few tiny bits of Spanish.

  30. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

    This is extremely late, but wanted to record I'd just come across an instance of the Goropius Becanus phenomenon but sort of in reverse: namely, an alleged teaching of the Georgian Orthodox Church that Georgian will be the language in which the Last Judgment will be carried out. The Omegasprache rather than Alphasprache, you might say. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the anecdote (the books I have that give English translations for the hymnody of Lazarus Saturday sometimes note material differences between the Greek and Slavonic textual traditions, but anything unique to the Georgian version would I believe be outside their ken), but details may be found here:

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