Ever since the first trailer for the upcoming science-fiction movie "Arrival" came out back in August, we here at Language Log Plaza have been anxiously awaiting more glimpses of Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is called upon to communicate with aliens after they arrive on Earth. The final trailer of the film has been released, in advance of the theatrical release on Nov. 11. And while many people may marvel at the CGI rendering of the alien ships, I'd imagine that the first reaction of most linguists is, "Hey, check out her office! And what books are on those shelves?"
When the first trailer was released, Gretchen McCulloch let the word slip on her All Things Linguistic blog that some linguists at McGill University (near the film's shooting location in Montreal) were consulted, and that "the books in Adams's office were borrowed from the offices of a couple linguists at McGill." I followed up with the McGill faculty who served as consultants to learn more about how the filmmakers recreated the office of a linguist. It's fair to say that it's the most meticulous rendering of a linguist's scholarly abode since the phonetician Peter Ladefoged helped design the lab of Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady."
For the film, the linguistic consultants included Jessica Coon, Lisa deMena Travis, and Morgan Sonderegger, all from McGill. The set designers spent time with Travis and Coon in their offices and ended up borrowing many of their books, as well as reproducing other items from their offices, in order to create the office set.
Via e-mail, Coon writes:
The set crew came to my office first and took a lot of pictures (they liked my tea kettle and plants, and they wanted to know what kind of bag I carry). They needed to rent a certain number of feet of books, but I didn't have enough, so we went up to Lisa's office. I keep a fairly tidy office… they liked Lisa's much better.
In the latest trailer, we can see the office from two angles, when Forrest Whitaker's character, Colonel Weber, comes in to ask for help in deciphering the aliens' language.
It's hard to make out much detail in these shots from the trailer, but fortunately one of the film's publicity stills gives us a great view of the desk and nearby shelves. You can see the high-resolution image here (the file size is about 7.5 MB); here it is in lower resolution.
One item that immediately jumps out is the copy of Noam Chomsky's Aspects of the Theory of Syntax on Banks's desk.
And there's even a framed photo of Chomsky on the bookshelf.
Flanking the Chomsky photo are some syntax books, appropriately enough, from Andrew Carnie's Syntax on the left to David Adger's Core Syntax on the right. (As it happens, Adger went to an advance screening of Arrival — see his writeup, "How Alien Can Language Be?") On other shelves, you might be able to spot Roman Jakobson's On Language, Ken Hale: A Life in Language, Juan Uriagereka's Rhyme and Reason, and Jessica Coon's own Aspects of Split Ergativity.
But Travis told me that the set designers were less interested in titles than colors: they were particularly interested in borrowing blue and beige books. Fortunately, she had plenty of both. Many of the blue ones are in the Linguistik Aktuell series from John Benjamins (Travis serves on the advisory editorial board). And she had lots of beige-colored journals (e.g., Language, Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, Linguistic Inquiry, Oceanic Linguistics) and conference proceedings (e.g., NELS, short for the North East Linguistic Society).
But what about the rest of the office? Many items are directly based on what the set crew saw in the McGill offices. For instance, there's a ruler on the desk near the copy of Aspects, not necessarily a common accoutrement in a linguist's office these days. But Travis says they probably got the idea from a ruler on her desk, which she uses to tear paper. Even the pencil holder appears to be modeled on one that Travis has. (Travis also has a photo of Chomsky in her office, though not the one they used.)
Here's a desk shot from the trailer:
There's that ruler again. Also, sticking out from the folder is a printout with the JSTOR logo visible. Coon thinks that came from her office, as they borrowed some of her papers: "I recognize it because I colored in the logo at some point, doodling… I'm pretty sure it was Aissen 1992." Now her doodling will be seen by millions.
Then there's the computer, as seen in the publicity still:
What software is running on that Mac? Sonderegger says:
I wonder if this is custom fake software/screenshots they made. I remember them talking about this at the studio and perhaps showing me/us some examples.
The upper right-hand panel has a similar color scheme to Praat, but it doesn't look like an actual Praat screen. (I did a bunch of Praat demonstrating, so it'd make sense that they would use something about it.)
The other software that was used (at their request) was Baudline, but I can't tell if any of this looks like Baudline.
It's hard to say much definitively at this resolution.
One might nitpick about certain peculiarities — Travis says, "No one her age would have printed versions of so many things. No one would put a desk so close to the file cabinets (they can't be openable)." But for the most part the set designers did a remarkable job in their recreation. "The attention to detail is just striking (if you work in McGill Ling)," Sonderegger writes. "The filing cabinets, shelves, and even the trashcan are very similar to models in faculty offices."
Update: From the comments below… McGill Alumni Magazine has a nice piece about Jessica Coon's work on the film as a linguistic consultant. And Eric Heisserer, the screenwriter and co-producer of Arrival, chimes in to tell us that despite all the Chomskyana in Dr. Banks's office, Dan Everett is her favorite!