"We should not have brought a linguist"

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Today's xkcd:

Mouseover title: "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."

Some relevant LLOG posts:

"Colorless green probability estimates", 10/4/2003
"Plausible angloid gibberish", 5/6/2004
"Linguists boycott Kansas intelligent design hearings", 5/5/2005
"Wrathful dispersion theory", 12/2/2005
"The science and theology of global language change", 12/30/2007
"The origin of speeches: Wrathful dispersion for real?", 12/31/2007
"Mailbag: The comparative theology of linguistic diversity", 12/31/2007
"Scientific Babelism", 4/1/2013
"Edenics", 11/1/2013
"More people have thought about this than I have", 8/6/2018


  1. unekdoud said,

    February 5, 2021 @ 9:42 pm

    Speech will become unintelligible earlier when it all turns to buffalos.

  2. Viseguy said,

    February 5, 2021 @ 11:47 pm


    Please do not buffalo us, or even Buffalo buffalo us.

  3. Doug Johnson said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 12:55 am

    I am a computer programmer, so the excited linguists in XKCD (and Language Log) always strike a chord with me. I think in both fields we tend to forget that errors are part of the natural flow of systems and that humans have developed many unconscious fault tolerant techniques for mitigating them in real time. So to my mind there are large classes of expressions that are clearly "wrong" but are perfectly acceptable in most contexts.

    I went back and read the "more people have been to Russia than I have" post, and I think that there is often a real-time component to sentence construction that we overlook in trying to parse meaning. For example, my theory of how that sentence came to be is that the speaker was trying to compare themselves to other people: "Other people have been to Russia more than I have!". However, the phrase "more than I have!" was the important point in their mind, and so they started with "More". Then their internal editor realized that if something didn't change fast they were going to end up with just "More than I have!" which would not make the desired comparison between the speaker and other people. However the "More" was already out there, so "people have been to Russia" got jammed in there quickly to supply a hint to the listener (a "you know what I mean" cue) and then the pre-loaded phrase "than I have" followed. The patched up sentence isn't great, but if there was enough context, the listener probably already knew the intent and wasn't confused at all.

    My theory is that we have a choice: either every conversation is language lawyered to the point of irritation, or we do on-the-fly error correcting and tolerate some resulting misunderstanding. I enjoy language lawyering myself, but only in small doses, and only with other enthusiasts!

  4. Carl said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 8:33 am

    The link for Wrathful Dispersion theory is wrong.

    [(myl) Thanks — fixed now.]

  5. David Morris said,

    February 6, 2021 @ 4:11 pm

    I would of written the punchline as 'We should not of brought a linguist'.

    One journal article on the reading list for one subject of my masters cited the Tower of Babel story apparently perfectly seriously.

  6. EmilyPigeon said,

    February 7, 2021 @ 11:05 am

    I think that linguist is Gretchen McCulloch again!

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