Language is messy, part 2: Arabic script in "Arrival"

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A few days ago I posted the trailer for the forthcoming science-fiction movie "Arrival," based on Ted Chiang's linguistically rich tale of alien contact, "Story of Your Life." While most commenters have wondered how well Chiang's xenolinguistics will translate to the big screen, a couple of eagle-eyed observers noted something worrying in the trailer: incredibly sloppy use of Arabic script.

(screenshot via @Trifolivm on Twitter)

As LL commenter "flow" writes:

At 1:26 we see what's supposed to be a news flash from an 'Arabic' language? / script? news station (judging from the typography of the gas station in the background, one could guess this is set in Pakistan, so the below would presumably be an Arabic loanword in Urdu).

The letters in the lower right corner read, wait for it,

ة ل ج ا ع   ر ا ب خ أ ;

these are **unconnected letters** that are **to be read from left to right**. OMG.

According to my dictionary, that could be read as [ʔixba:r ʕa:dʒil(a?)] and understood as 'news flash'.

If they even got the Arabic so WRONC, how much can we trust their Alienese?

That looks to be an accurate assessment. In regular right-to-left connected Arabic script, it should read:

أخبار عاجلة
akhbār ʿājila 'breaking news, news flash'

(That ة character is a dead giveaway — the tāʼ marbūṭah, which marks feminine gender, can only occur at the end of a word.)

Similarly, the text in the top left says:

ر ش ا ب م ل ا   ث ب ل ا

But it should be:

البث المباشر
al-bath al-mubāshar 'live broadcast'

Commenter Rodger C. writes:

I see that treatment of Arabic all over the Net, especially on FB memes. I assume it comes from inputting Arabic into a program that's only set up to handle Western languages. It does seem remarkably stupid that no one caught it in a high-budget context like this.

The stupidity is compounded by the fact that this is supposed to be a linguistically sensitive production, given the source material. And if the moviemakers manage to bollix the Arabic so badly, it doesn't bode well for the language of the alien "heptapods" that Chiang invented for the story.

Update: The Arabic script reversal (which can occur when R-to-L connected characters are copy-and-pasted) sometimes afflicts those who should know better. A reader sends in the logo that was used by the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Study of Language (CASL) for a 2004 conference, where the Arabic word for "language" لغة (luḡa) comes out as ة غ ل .

Also, for the 2012 Summer Olympics, a fancy shopping center in London put up banners reading "Welcome to London" in reversed Arabic.

And finally, via Kotaku, here's some backwards Arabic from the video game "Call of Duty" (commenter bulbul complained about this in 2011).

That's وحدانية (waḥdāniyya 'unity, oneness') rendered as ة ي ن ا د ح و .
[Update, 10/21/16: The errant Arabic script was corrected, as can be seen in the final movie trailer posted here.]


  1. benedict said,

    August 19, 2016 @ 5:08 pm

    .rorre nommoc yrev a

  2. Owen said,

    August 19, 2016 @ 6:53 pm

    I saw a book on some linguistic subject in the new publications section at my public library, and thinking it might be interesting, picked it up and flipped through a bit. Pretty early in the book, I saw this very error of reversed disconnected Arabic script and put it back on the shelf. Don't recall the title.

    Also had a coworker who had a friend's name tatooed on her arm in reversed disconnected Arabic script. She told me she was planning on having it removed.

  3. Colin said,

    August 19, 2016 @ 7:50 pm

    And this, on the left arm of former Liverpool centre back Martin Skrtel, is previous commenter Owen's post made flesh:

  4. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 20, 2016 @ 6:50 am

    There's a whole collection of unconnected L-to-R Arabic tattoos here.

  5. Jason said,

    August 20, 2016 @ 7:18 am

    To add insult to injury, they had a poster of one of the alien ships over a Chinese city. One one side of the water is Hong Kong, on the other… Shanghai!

    I think we're looking at a Hollywood clusterfuck of what might've been a pretty good idea…

  6. CuConnacht said,

    August 20, 2016 @ 9:07 am

    Around Baltimore's Inner Harbor, there is something called the Heritage Trail, with markers reading "Heritage Trail" or (near) equivalent set into the pavement, alternately in English and in some other language.

    The Arabic markers are like this, disconnected letters reading left to right.

    [(bgz) Here's an image.]

  7. Ethan said,

    August 20, 2016 @ 10:56 am

    I imagine most everyone in Hollywood, and graphic designers generally, use a Mac. The Mac version of Microsoft Word does this to Arabic. As a Mac user, I had to download a different word processor to handle Arabic, or I can use Google Documents.

  8. Fred said,

    August 20, 2016 @ 8:44 pm

    And … if the scene is meant to show Pakistan … then there is no sense in having Arabic words at all … Pakistanis speak Urdu or Punjabi or Pashto or Sindhi or Baluchi or Kashmiri …. no one speaks Arabic. No one would even understand anyone speaking Arabic in Pakistan. Arabic is a Semitic Language while all the people of Pakistan speak languages that are Indo-European. Again … how ignorant!

  9. flow said,

    August 21, 2016 @ 9:01 am

    @Fred—not quite, I think. I tried to formulate my post cautiously b/c of the uncertainty of location and language.

    So far no one has supported that the scene in question is indeed meant to be set in Pakistan. And if it turns out to be, it could still be 1) a news flash of an Arabic TV station showing what's going on over there in Pakistan (plausible), or 2) a new flash of a Pakistani TV station either broadcasting in Arabic (if there is such a TV station), or broadcasting in, say, Urdu, using Arabic script and incidentally using Arabic loanwords in this particular moment (not sure whether that is plausible; not even sure what calligraphic style would be used to write Urdu on TV).

  10. Alexander said,

    August 21, 2016 @ 11:42 am

    To be fair, as an Arabist whose primary teaching load is introductory language classes, there are times when files don't transfer well between computers – so a file that renders correctly and happily on one gets totally garbled upon receipt on another (I'm looking at you, Office products on Apple computers, but it's happened elsewhere in my experience). It possible that several of the examples above (especially CASL since they work on Arabic stuff, and work closely with the Arabic program) were fine at several points in the pipeline, but the quality control on the final version never happened.

    Of course, one cannot have enough quality control when getting a tattoo in a language you do not speak. Come on people!

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