“Arrival” arrives

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“Arrival” hits the theaters this weekend, and I’d heartily recommend it to all Language Log readers. The film, despite its science-fiction trappings, does a remarkably good job of depicting how a linguist goes about her work. I’ve posted about the movie a few times before even seeing it, based on the trailers:

Now, having seen “Arrival” (and having had the chance to interview Amy Adams, who portrays Dr. Louise Banks, as well as the screenwriter Eric Heisserer), I’ve devoted my latest Wall Street Journal column to it: “In ‘Arrival,’ a Linguist is a Movie Hero.” (If you hit the paywall, you can get to the column by Googling the headline or following a social media link.)

A sample:

Eric Heisserer, who adapted Mr. Chiang’s story [Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”] for the screen, told me that he was fascinated by the figure of the linguist as “a great peacemaker, and also a great puzzle solver.” He was inspired by his own father, a classics professor at the University of Oklahoma who was constantly learning new languages. Mr. Heisserer thought back to his father muttering in foreign tongues when the screenwriter read “Story of Your Life,” particularly its discussion of the contentious linguistic theory known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, after the scholars Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf.

In its strongest form, the hypothesis holds that our particular languages strictly dictate the way we perceive the world, while the weaker form suggests that our worldview is at least influenced by the language we use. As Louise starts to master the Heptapods’ language, she discovers the extent to which her own thinking (and even her dreaming) is under the aliens’ sway.

To prepare for the role, Ms. Adams said in an interview, she studied as much as she could about how linguists do fieldwork, including watching documentaries about preserving endangered languages. She was particularly intrigued by how linguists break down a sentence according to its syntax, adding, “Everything I learned just led me to the fact that there was more to learn.”

Meanwhile, for Science Magazine, Brice Russ has a piece on how linguists are reacting to the movie: “For linguists, the new sci-fi film Arrival can’t come soon enough.” The article includes commentary from David Adger, Jennifer Nycz, and Nicholas Subtirelu, all of whom attended advance screenings. Adger also blogged about the film here: “How alien can language be?” And see Laura Bailey’s post, “Linguistics of ‘Arrival’” (but beware of spoilers).

I’d also recommend an article that appeared in Inverse about how the alien “logograms” were created: “‘Arrival’ Invented a New and Insanely Complicated Alien Language.” And McGill University linguist Jessica Coon, who served as a consultant on the film, has been making the media rounds — you can read interviews with her in Metro News, Montreal Gazette, Wired UK, and McGill News.

Other scholars will surely be chiming in with their takes now that “Arrival” has officially arrived. I look forward to reading many thinkpieces to come, as well as seeing how the film may shape public perceptions of linguists.



20 Comments

  1. Felix said,

    November 11, 2016 @ 11:22 pm

    I have to admit to one annoyance even before I see it (which I will): that the aliens rely on humans to establish contact rather than do it themselves. (If this preconception is wrong, don’t tell me; let me realize what a fool I’ve been once I see it.)

    These aliens presumably have far better tech than humans, since they were the ones to come calling; surely their tech could crack human languages much faster, and would have already done it from all the radio and TV broadcasts of the last 100 years.

    And presumably visiting Earth is not their first circus, and they would have had some practice with other planets before Earth.

    I also understand it’s a movie, and there’s no fun watching a movie where humans stand around meekly while the aliens have already cracked the language barrier.

  2. Christopher Henrich said,

    November 12, 2016 @ 12:43 am

    @Felix: It may suit the intentions of the aliens better to have one of us learn their language then for them to learn ours. In a way, this is generous of them: we acquire, by our own efforts, some power to understand them, in a situation where the balance of power is very much in their favor.
    I have long been dissatisfied with the well-worn trope that the aliens can learn our languages by listening to our broadcasts. They can get the words, but they do not have the referents for them. Let us suppose that they can isolate “red,” “green,” etc. and figure out that these are (sometimes) adjectives. Let us even suppose that they can discern that these are color adjectives. How are they going to know which colors?

  3. Felix said,

    November 12, 2016 @ 12:50 am

    @Christopher: I learned a fair amount of Japanese by watching Japanese TV when homeported in Japan. Not enough to be fluent or even carry on a half-assed conversation, but it was a great help with pronunciation, expression, word boundaries, and yes, more words than I would have expected. A TV show or movie seems like an excellent teaching aid to me, especially if there are subtitles. There’s repetition, a plot to hold everything together, people discussing objects in the same frame. Then there are commercials, which are very distinctive and very focused. Someone who can’t learn from commercials probably can’t build interstellar spaceships either.

  4. bfwebster said,

    November 12, 2016 @ 2:38 am

    I did see the film this afternoon; it is excellent; and there is a method in the aliens’ approach to humans. Further deponent saith not.

  5. Adam Roberts said,

    November 12, 2016 @ 4:48 am

    “The film, despite its science-fiction trappings, does a remarkably good job …”

    Not to carp, but why ‘despite’? I might have thought ‘because of’ more apropos.

  6. Ed M said,

    November 12, 2016 @ 5:41 am

    It’s been said before, but worth repeating that Ted Chiang’s original story is worth reading before or after viewing “Arrival”. In my opinion, the story provides a broader context for understanding Louise, her backstory, and her interaction with the visitors.

  7. GH said,

    November 12, 2016 @ 6:04 am

    @Felix:

    I think the fact that you could even recognize what you saw on TV as programs, movies and commercials demonstrates the extent to which this kind of learning is bootstrapped by shared reference.

    In the short story, the language of the aliens is described as sounding like “a wet dog shaking the water out of its fur,” and it’s initially an open question whether our auditory system is physically capable of perceiving their phoneme distinctions at all. They would presumably face similar difficulties listening to human speech. Then there’s the fact that they would be getting transmissions in hundreds of different languages, and with no familiarity or sensory organs specifically attuned to it, it might take a long time before they would even realize, much less distinguish them.

    And finally, it turns out that the aliens are very alien indeed, both physically and in their thinking, so once they get across the hurdle of parsing sounds into morphological units, trying to understand what we might talk about and how we construct meaning would be a big challenge.

    Learning just by listening, across such a chasm of difference and starting from almost complete ignorance, would be entirely different from helping you pick up better Japanese starting from some basic knowledge, with the support of subtitles and tacit cultural understanding (e.g. “this is a pitch for some product, and that must be the product name”, or “so that’s her husband, and she must be telling him about the accident that just happened”).

    In the short story, Amy Adams’ character argues that in such a situation, “the only way to learn an unknown language is to interact with a native speaker, and by that I mean asking questions, holding a conversation, that sort of thing. Without that, it’s simply not possible.” So as for whether the aliens could have learned human language from our broadcasts: “I doubt it. They’d need instructional material specifically designed to teach human languages to nonhumans. Either that, or interaction with a human. If they had either of those, they could learn a lot from TV, but otherwise, they wouldn’t have a starting point.”

  8. Ben Zimmer said,

    November 12, 2016 @ 11:51 am

    @Adam Roberts: Re the “science-fiction trappings”… My point was just that this is hardly intended to be some realistic documentary-style work. A movie about alien contact is not the first place you’d expect a sensitive portrayal of a linguist’s methods.

    @Ed M: I waited until afterwards to read the story, and I’m glad I did, since it kept me spoiler-free for the movie’s big twist. (No spoilers here, please.)

  9. Charles Antaki said,

    November 12, 2016 @ 12:05 pm

    It must have been hard for the film-makers to stick to the linguistic rules, given that the plot needs to move along; and at a couple of points they rely on us forgetting that meaning represented by gesture ought to be as tough to establish as it is by speech and symbol. (A James Bond scene is pushed nearly to absurdity by a “behind-you!” moment). The film-makers are banking on the audience taking it for granted that something like pointing will work in inter-species communication, and they might be right.

  10. TonyK said,

    November 12, 2016 @ 2:15 pm

    @Felix: In the film (but not in the book, if I remember correctly), there is an explicit reason why the humans have to learn the aliens’ language and not vice versa.

  11. David Marjanović said,

    November 12, 2016 @ 6:50 pm

    I also understand it’s a movie, and there’s no fun watching a movie where humans stand around meekly while the aliens have already cracked the language barrier.

    Well, that’s how first contact seems to work in Star Trek…

    The film-makers are banking on the audience taking it for granted that something like pointing will work in inter-species communication, and they might be right.

    Reportedly, pointing isn’t even a human universal, and if you point at something, some people will tell you their word for “finger”.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 12, 2016 @ 9:21 pm

    Christopher Henrich: I have long been dissatisfied with the well-worn trope that the aliens can learn our languages by listening to our broadcasts. They can get the words, but they do not have the referents for them. Let us suppose that they can isolate “red,” “green,” etc. and figure out that these are (sometimes) adjectives. Let us even suppose that they can discern that these are color adjectives. How are they going to know which colors?

    If you assume they’re intelligent enough to figure out our TV broadcasts, they know we have three primary colors, but they don’t know what they are.

    Then if they can see the Earth, they know our visible range must be roughly what gets through the atmosphere, and they know our vegetation is green. Also, they know the light that gets through the atmosphere past the edges of the Earth is reddish-orangish (long wavelengths), so they know that when the sun is low in the sky, we see those colors in the sky, and when it’s high in the clear sky, we see blue (short wavelengths) in the sky, consistently with physics. They can also see our images of the planets in our solar system and compare with what they see of the planets. So they could get some ideas.

    There are still plenty of obstacles, such as the possibility that their color vision, if any, is very different from ours. A lot of SF doesn’t worry about such things.

    If they can’t see Earth and they’re picking up broadcasts that are many years out of date, their problem would be much harder. Maybe they could recognize stars in an astronomy program (having figured out where the stars are in the sky from our point of view), or maybe some science show would include atomic spectra, and they could do “Omnilingual“. (Somebody had to mention it.)

  13. Charles Antaki said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 4:56 am

    Just on the pointing issue – I thought I’d linked to a 2013 paper in Animal Cognition by Scheider et al., from the Tomasello group, on dogs’ understanding of human pointing (not bad, apparently) but it must have got lost in the ether. Here’s the link.

  14. Guy said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 1:39 pm

    On pointing, I haven’t seen the movie yet, but in the story the protagonist notes that it’s a stroke of luck that the aliens understand pointing correctly.

  15. phspaelti said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 7:20 pm

    Just saw the trailer on the web, and I am already completely annoyed by the fact that the linguist is peddling the well known and completely false anecdote that “Kangaroo” comes from an Aborigine phrase meaning “I don’t understand”.

  16. JPNR said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 10:20 pm

    to phspaelti:

    in the full movie, the linguist immediately follows with “the story is false”

    it’s a joke

  17. phspaelti said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 12:34 am

    to JPNR: Thanks for the clarification. Glad to hear that.

  18. John Swindle said,

    November 15, 2016 @ 2:10 am

    At some point (midway? earlier?) General Shang appears briefly and silently blustering on a TV screen. Did anyone happen to notice what language he was speaking? I couldn’t tell by watching it once at the movie theater.

  19. Patrick Ijima-Washburn said,

    November 16, 2016 @ 8:34 pm

    “despite its science-fiction trappings”
    Science fiction is one of the few genres of fiction that makes concerted efforts in analyzing linguistics and language learning.
    Check out this entry in the SF Encyclopedia about Linguistics.
    It lists many works (some more successful than others) that touch on or deeply explore language questions:
    http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/linguistics

  20. Chas Belov said,

    November 25, 2016 @ 5:01 am

    Ben, thank you for the rec. I just saw it and was entranced.

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