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Curse of Babel

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"Apparently I've lost the falatus to speak properly!"
Colonel O'Neill, Stargate SG-1

Our heroes are faced with yet another impending disaster of the week but would probably be fairly easy to solve. The problem is that the key character for this task has lost his ability to communicate.

In Science Fiction, this is often a form of Phlebotinum Breakdown applied to the Translator Microbes.

It may result in a Monster Is a Mommy plot. Also, chicken legs are the truth of deciding diarhoe.

The name of this trope comes from a structure in the Bible that mankind built to reach the heavens and become gods themselves. The God didn't like that, so He made all of them speak different languages to create mass confusion and halt the construction.

Often the main reason for Poor Communication Kills. See also Tongue-Tied and Cannot Spit It Out. When the style of language is the barrier rather than the language itself, they're a Strange-Syntax Speaker.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Symphogear, The Custodians inflicted this on mankind over 5000 years ago, and caused humanity to lose its original language that they shared with each other and the Custodians. The goal of the first season's Big Bad, Fine, is to try and destroy the Curse, which she states is anchored on the moon, believing they did so to intentionally screw over humanity and believed one of them, Enki, her lover, did it specifically to abandon her. Turns out her attempts at doing so actually screwed over humanity by XV, the fifth and final season. The Curse of Babel is not a mystical curse, but actually a computer program from the supercomputer, Marduk, that was inflicted on mankind from the moon, like she said. However, there was a really good reason for this. This is because the Custodians had a traitor, Shem-ha the Great Surgeon, who attempted to turn humanity into monstrous slaves for herself to try and raise an army to destroy the others. After she failed, she converted herself into words and etched herself into humanity's DNA via the original language. To counter this, the Curse of Babel was created to suppress the original language so that she would never rise again. Unfortunately, due to Fine's attempt to blow up the moon, uncovering the Lunar Ruins of Marduk, and then in Season 2, when Maria sung Apple, a Piece of the original language to give humanity a chance to connect for a brief moment to save the world from the rampaging Nepilim, jumpstarted her resurrection into the mortal plain. Oopsy poopsy.

  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure features this plot once during part 5: Golden Wind. Narancia is briefly attacked by an enemy stand which rips off his tongue. After Giorno repairs it, Narancia finds himself unable to properly communicate urgent information about the enemy Stand. It turns out the attack was just a way for a second stand to attach itself to Narancia's tongue, forcing him to say the opposite of what he wanted, and even point in the wrong direction.

    Comic Books 

  • The fate of the N.I.C.E. in That Hideous Strength is a Shout-Out to the Biblical Tower of Babel.
  • In Snow Crash, the Big Bad is attempting to spread an informational virus that causes infected people to revert to the "language of Babel", supposedly a primitive language wired into the human brainstem. He uses this language to essentially take control of their minds. The language is incomprehensible to anyone who is uninfected and hasn't studied it extensively.
  • Octavia Butler's short story "Speech Sounds" explores the aftermath of a pandemic plague that has left the vast majority of humans unable to speak, read, comprehend language, or some combination thereof.
  • In the MechWarrior: Dark Age novels, one mech jock suffers brain damage in battle, she is still largely able to communicate, but she switches out key words. Due to the severity of the situation, she is pressed into battle despite her injuries, and is killed in the next fight.
  • A Mage's Power: Zaticana, goddess of language, deliberately caused the original split in Tariatla's languages. She didn't do this as a punishment, but because she thought the results would be fun to watch.
  • In Babel-17, as Wong progresses in her study of the language called Babel-17, she starts to find herself occasionally getting stuck in that mode at unexpected times, unable to revert her thinking back to a language her crew might understand. Thinking in Babel-17 helps her think strategically, but the mode appears to be somewhat addictive. And being a strategic genius isn't much good if you can't communicate your strategies to the people who need to implement them.
  • In the final arc of Worm, Taylor loses her ability to comprehend language as the result of Panacea tampering with her brain.
  • In the Sector General story Star Surgeon, a missile takes out the Master Computer that handles the universal translators. Suddenly, a hospital on the front line of an interstellar war discovers that its human and alien doctors, nurses and patients can only understand what members of their own species are saying.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The second season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has Fitz, who's recently suffered from brain damage, develop aphasia. This leads to trouble when the agents need his help to stop the Monster of the Week, and all Fitz can say is "I didn't solve this today." They eventually figure out that Exact Words are in play, and "today" is the key word in the sentence: Fitz is trying to tell them that something he built previously can help them, but he can't accurately state "I solved this already."
  • The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Hush" takes this to the extreme when the entire town has their voices taken away by the Monsters of the Week.
  • In the Doctor Who story "The Leisure Hive", a Foamasi detective is presented as a villain until we find that he just lacks a speech synthesizer. The same thing happens in "The Creature from the Pit" (which also had the same scriptwriter).
  • House:
    • The pilot episode of the show centered on a schoolteacher who was suddenly stricken with Aphasia before losing consciousness. She did have the presence of mind to write a message on the chalkboard to the students to call the nurse.
    • The patient-of-the-week in one episode is dysphasic. So in a twist on the usual plot, the patient has a diagnosis-cracking secret, and really wants to reveal it, but he can't.
  • In a small arc in season 6, Sun-Hwa Kwon of Lost manages to lose her ability to speak English. Only she can still write in English, so there's no barrier to communication, and she's fine three episodes later. This is, unsurprisingly, generally considered one of the more pointless story arcs in the series' history.
  • In an episode of Monk, Adrian Monk develops aphasia as a result of the shock of seeing his formerly-immaculate apartment wrecked by an earthquake. It leads to a gag at the end wherein Monk delivers the episode's Necro Cam Summation in that same gibberish.
  • In the Power Rangers S.P.D. episode "Recognition", Sky switches bodies with an alien who is physically unable to speak English (and the alien deliberately breaks the translator for good measure).
  • This happens to the cast in the So Weird episode "Babble", due to their exposure to a stone from the tower.
  • In the Stargate SG-1 episode "The Fifth Race", Jack loses his ability to speak anything other than Ancient after having an ancient library dumped into his brain. Initially, he can still understand spoken English and write/type it, but eventually even that fails. The exact same thing happens again in "Lost City", but that time it's intentional.
  • In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Babel", the station's occupants are exposed to a bioweapon that disrupts their speech centers, causing the victims to develop aphasia.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Loud as a Whisper", the only diplomat who can broker a peace is rendered mute when his telepathic translators are killed. Turns out good in the long run when he decides to force the warring parties to spend weeks learning to communicate with him, and thus cool their tempers and learn to cooperate.
  • Star Trek: Voyager:
  • In the Star Trek: Discovery episode "An Obol for Charon", a strange planetoid-sized living sphere infects the Discovery with a computer virus that, among other things, messes with the universal translator. As a result, crewmembers have trouble understanding one another or the instruments since everything gets translated to a random human or alien language (e.g., Burnham starts speaking to Pike in Klingon, while he responds in French). In a nod to the Trope Namer, Pike eventually greets Saru entering the bridge by saying "Welcome to the Tower of Babel" in Hebrew ("Barokh' haba l'mig'dal babal"). Fortunately, Burnham knows that Saru has taught himself 94 languages early in his Starfleet career, which has no doubt come in handy.
    Saru: Am I the only one here who studied a foreign language?
  • In the Red Dwarf episode "Demons and Angels":
    Holly: Rude alert! Rude alert! An electrical fire has knocked out my voice recognition unicycle! Many Wurlitzers are missing from my database. Abandon shop! This is not a daffodil. Repeat, this is not a daffodil.
  • In Strange Days At Blake Holsey High, SIM cards with powerful encryption programming can be used in cell phones to render someone unintelligible or render speech between two people unintelligibly encrypted to anyone also not possessing a phone with one.
  • The Twilight Zone (1985): In "Wordplay", main character Bill Lowery gradually suffers this trope, although it's left ambiguous if he's developing aphasia or if language itself is transforming (the end of the episode shows that even books have been printed in the "new" English). The first indication of the change is his wife Kathy telling him about a doctor named Bumper. He comments on his unusual name but thinks nothing more about it. When his neighbor Mr. Miller refers to his dog as an encyclopedia, Bill thinks that it is a practical joke. However, he becomes agitated when the mailroom attendant Robbie asks his advice on where to take Barbie for "dinosaur." Bill assumes that it is some sort of New Wave slang until he goes home and Kathy uses the same word. By the time that he goes to work the next morning, he cannot understand anyone and he is equally incomprehensible to everyone else. This presents problems when his young son Donnie has to be rushed to the emergency room. After Donnie is successfully treated, Bill has to learn the new language. He picks up one of his son's ABC books and sees that the new word for dog is "Wednesday." Other new words include "mayonnaise" for "experience," "trumpets" for "tricks," "throwrug" for "anniversary," "stepdad" for "seatbelt" and "elephant" for "emergency." Bill's own name is Hinge Thunder.
  • In Warehouse 13, stones from the tower make anyone touching them unintelligible to anyone who is also not in contact with a stone, effectively encrypting speech.

  • Welcome to Night Vale: The Desert Bluffs exiles in the other world attempt to dig a bottomless pit to honor the Smiling God, only to become aphasic as the result of the evil spirits they accidentally unleash.

  • The original Tower Of Babel in The Bible.
    • The curse is reversed somewhat at Pentecost, where the Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak every language that existed in the known world. This was eventually considered a "sign gift" and became a matter of controversy that Paul dealt with in his epistles.

  • Played for laughs in Jasper in Deadland. One of the stages of "The Forgetting" is speaking Portuguese.
    Gretchen: The second stage, you begin to forget others: your friends, your parents. And the third stage, you start speaking in Portuguese.
    Jasper: Portuguese?
    Gretchen: No one knows why.

  • BIONICLE has the Mask of Incomprehension, which can be used to render an opponent unable to understand any language for a while. It can only affect one target at a time, though.

    Video Games 
  • Bug Fables: When Leif ends up in the presence of some artifact related to the Everlasting Sapling, or the Sapling itself, or the place that reminds him of his own past, he ends up involuntarily slipping into the Roach language. These reactions are induced by the Roach-altered cordyceps fungus residing in his body.
  • In Carmen Sandiego: Word Detective, the titular thief plans to steal the power of speech by invoking this trope on the whole world. Fittingly, the tower she uses as her headquarters is named the Tower of Babble.
  • One of the PvP-specific abilities of Warlocks in World of Warcraft is Curse of Tongues. This spell forces the target to speak in Demonic, slowing down their spellcasting as they struggle with the unfamiliar tongue. In a flavorful little bonus, if the target tries to /say or /yell anything while under the effect, their text will come out unintelligible (text in chat channels remain unaffected, though).
  • In Fortnite, the loop does this to people who enter it and also makes them forget who they are.

  • For a number of strips of The Order of the Stick, Haley Starshine could only speak in cryptograms that would change in every strip. Allowing readers who were clever/determined enough to figure out what she was saying.
  • One post-revival arc of Fans! had the villains remove all written language from history, resulting in worldwide illiteracy and an inability to communicate by writing.
  • xkcd: Subverted for laughs in a strip about the Tower of Babel. God was super impressed they made such a tall tower, and asked what they would like as a reward. Unfortunately, they brought a linguist with them, who wanted more languages to study.

    Western Animation 
  • In one episode of Batman Beyond, appropriately named "Babel", Shriek messes with soundwaves, preventing anyone in Gotham City from being able to communicate intelligibly.
  • In the Futurama episode "The Day the Earth Stood Stupid", Leela learns that some giant alien brains are rendering everyone on Earth into idiots... and then she falls under their power, too, and can barely talk well enough to explain the problem to the one person who can help.
    Leela: [with urgency] Brain! Brain make people dumb.
    Fry: [patiently] No, Leela, brain make people smart.
    Leela: Nooo!
  • Gadget Boy & Heather: The appropriately-titled episode "Power of Babble" saw Spydra develop a ray which caused people to start uttering nonsense.
  • In one episode of My Life as a Teenage Robot, Jenny saves Tokyo from some monsters and comes back home after. Problem is, she had switched language discs from English to Japanese and lost her English disc in Tokyo. She suffers the majority of the episode—and half a battle with the Japanese monsters—speaking Japanese, even though one assumes her mother could've just burned her a new English disc. Luckily, a kid she saved back in Japan shows up with a tour group to give the English disc to her.
  • In one episode of The Powerpuff Girls (1998), a pack of squirrels raise a ruckus after the Mayor builds a statue over the spot where they'd been burying their acorns. Bubbles, who can talk to animals, is unable to sort things out because she had been rendered mute after a bee she nearly swallowed stung her in the throat.
  • In the Green Lantern: The Animated Series episode "Babel", Hal, Kilowog, and Razer's rings run out of power so they can't translate each other's native tongues.

    Real Life 
  • A CBS news reporter suffered from this while on the air, leading to widespread speculation that she had suffered a stroke. It was later found to be caused by an unusual form of migraine headache.
  • Aphasia (especially Wernicke's aphasia) is the Real Life version of this. It can be caused by strokes, brain damage, migraine headaches, and so on.
    • Blogger and author M.Giant recounts his experience with temporary aphasia here.

Alternative Title(s): Curse Of Babble