"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:
- "'Language is messy,' says our new linguistic hero" (8/16/16)
- "Language is messy, part 2: Arabic script in 'Arrival'" (8/19/16)
- "The making of a cinematic linguist's office" (10/21/16)
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.)
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.