Will “Arrival” bring linguistics into the popular consciousness? A guest post by Luke Lindemann

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The movie “Arrival” has been in theaters for three weeks now, and it has already grossed $100 million worldwide. That’s an impressive box-office draw, and it can’t all be due to linguists and their friends attending. Clearly this contemplative film, with a field linguist as the heroic protagonist, is resonating with audiences. But what does that mean for linguistics as a discipline and its perception by the public at large? Below is a guest post by Luke Lindemann, a PhD student in linguistics at Yale University who is working on the semantics of ergativity in Indo-Aryan. He is also a member of the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, and I had the pleasure of attending a press screening of “Arrival” with Luke and a few of his colleagues from the YGDP team. The film led to some intense discussions afterwards, as I’m sure it has for linguists everywhere. (In a separate post, I’ll round up reactions from linguists since my last “Arrival” post.)


What is the most powerful tool that humanity has in its arsenal? This is a question posed towards the beginning of “Arrival” in a conversation between Ian Donnelly, a physicist, and Louise Banks, a linguist, as they travel to a military installation to participate in humanity’s first contact with a mysterious newly-arrived alien species. Donnelly decides that science is the most powerful tool, while Banks, naturally, argues for language.

Language and science are front and center in this film. Banks works with the aliens to interpret their language and decipher their purpose amidst the worldwide turmoil caused by their arrival. Academic linguists like myself should be overjoyed for this confirmation of what I’ve long suspected: we are absolutely crucial to the survival of humanity.

I’m kidding (mostly). Linguistics is a discipline that is seldom represented in popular media, and this is the first science fiction film I have seen that puts a great effort into representing a detailed scientific approach to an alien encounter. With a few caveats, linguists and linguistics were portrayed in a very true to life manner.

The way that linguistic fieldwork is represented struck me as particularly faithful. Banks and Donnelly systematically elicit more and more complex grammatical structures by building up from simple concepts. They are forced to revise their elicitation techniques and technologies over time. They begin with elaborate pantomime and a dry erase chalkboard and ultimately interface with the aliens’ complex writing system through computer displays. Much of this is familiar to me from my own fieldwork in Nepal and India. Human languages can have surprising structures, and fieldwork requires both a systematic approach and a capacity to improvise. The short story upon which the film was based, Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life,” goes into greater detail with the process by which the alien language is systematically deciphered.

At one point Donnelly remarks to Banks that she approaches language like a mathematician. The statement will resonate positively for many linguists. Modern linguistics borrows heavily from developments in mathematics and computer science, throughout but particularly in the branches of syntax and semantics. On the other hand, there is a line in the film that will make your average linguist cringe: Banks’ daughter asks her about the name of a particular scientific term, to which Banks replies “If you want science, call your father.” Most linguists would unequivocally describe themselves as scientists.

I argued with my linguist friends about the decision for the scientists to ignore the aliens’ spoken language and focus entirely on the alien writing system. Linguists draw a sharp division between spoken and signed languages on the one hand, and writing on the other hand. Spoken language is primary, and written language is at best an imperfect representation of spoken language. For any human language, the decision to focus on writing to the exclusion of a spoken language makes no sense (in Chiang’s story the scientists learn both). But I would defend the decision by the filmmakers to focus on the alien script. It is established in both the film and the short story that the alien writing is much more elementary to their psychology than our writing is to ours. Besides, film is a visual medium, and the visual impact of the language is central to the conceit of the film. Like many of the visuals in this movie, the alien writing is starkly inhuman but hauntingly beautiful, a creation of the artist Martine Bertrand.

Banks delves more and more into the alien language, and develops the ability to think in the unique way that the aliens do. As mentioned in the film itself, the linguistic theory that language influences thought is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This trope is common in works of dystopian science fiction like George Orwell’s 1984 and Ayn Rand’s Anthem, in which a powerful authority employs language as a tool of coercion. By restricting the words available in a language, the government is able to constrain thought itself. “Arrival” turns this conceit on its head by questioning whether language can be used not as a tool to restrict thought, but to enhance it. Linguists today are divided on whether they accept the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and even those that do accept a vastly more modest form than that which was presented in Denis Villeneuve’s film. But the possibility of subtle connections between language and thought is an ongoing research question in the field of linguistics. I hope that this film will help to bring some of this fascinating research into the popular consciousness.

Overall I am extremely pleased with the portrayal of linguistics in “Arrival.” It is gratifying to see my chosen field front in center in such a beautiful, sad, and thought-provoking meditation on humanity’s greatest tools: language and science.



21 Comments

  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 2, 2016 @ 6:29 pm

    Let’s not forget Samuel R. Delaney’s award-winning novel Babel-17 as a prominent entry in the canon of Whorfian SF.

  2. David N. Evans said,

    December 2, 2016 @ 6:40 pm

    The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is mentioned in “Arrival,” but to what extent is it really presented in the film? Louise isn’t the only linguist studying Heptapod, but she is (presumably, anyway) the only one with the visions, which only begin after she has taken off her head gear and put her hand on the glass.

    Louise is the first one to take off her head gear, the only one to put her hands on the glass, the only one to draw directly on the barrier, and, lastly, the only one to interact with the aliens without the barrier, in a one-on-one conversation during which she breathes in their own atmosphere.

    I submit that the film presents the internal experiences and visions experienced by the character of Louise as the result, not of her studying the aliens’ language, but of her ever-increasing psychic intimacy with the aliens. Her changes in consciousness are presented as directly imparted to her.

    One of the heptapods asserts, “Language opens time.” The same heptapod also says that they will need humanity’s help in 3000 years. That’s why they’ve come to give the gift of their language to humanity. The natural inference to draw is that they’re allowing 3000 years for the change in consciousness to take place.

  3. Stephan Hurtubise said,

    December 2, 2016 @ 6:58 pm

    They can’t have entirely ignored their spoken language, though. During the middle-of-the-movie montage, Ian states that there’s no correlation between their spoken and written systems; it seems to me that the only way to be sure of this is to have made some progress in understanding their speech, no?

  4. Yuval said,

    December 2, 2016 @ 11:01 pm

    “a dry-erase chalkboard”?

  5. Joyce Melton said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 1:22 am

    I was somewhat disappointed in the film because the maguffin on which the story turns is not science but mysticism with a wrapper that says SCIENCE! in big bold letters. It lies.

  6. Graeme said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 3:22 am

    Brave Abbott. Knew death process coming. In heptapod-forsaken Montana.

    Bad Louise and Ian. Met in Montana. Then named spawn ‘Hannah’. And pretended it was for palindrome. Daughter perished of embarrassment.

  7. Graeme said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 3:34 am

    Less jocularly. ‘Time’ was the key word or concept mutually intelligible to Louise n the Heptapods. Besides being, philosophically and scientifically the slipperiest of concepts, the Hepts had transcended its deepest implications for us (time’s arrow, the paradoxes of knowing the future).

    Did they recall their former struggles with the concept thus enabling them to empathetically lead Louise to the post-gift idea of ‘time’? If not then the movie suggests that even the most complex and contradictory of concepts can be communicated across languages independent of some worldview limitation of one’s own language.

  8. Jeroen Mostert said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 7:20 am

    The sci-fi in the movie was dodgy and as far as alien visitation stories go it didn’t exactly break new ground, but as a layperson, I definitely enjoyed the linguistics. It’s better viewed as a movie about linguistics that uses sci-fi as a vehicle than the other way around. Even then, you have to swallow the conceit of being able to essentially gain superpowers by learning a particular language. That theme is more appropriate to magic in fantasy, and works quite well there.

  9. Robert Coren said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 10:45 am

    Donnelly decides that science is the most powerful tool, while Banks, naturally, argues for language.

    Would “science” as we understand it be possible without language?

    (I haven’t seen the movie [yet], so I had to skim most of the comments.)

  10. Jeroen Mostert said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 12:17 pm

    @Robert: well, that does depend on what you mean by “as we understand it”. All you need for science in its most basic form is a curious mind and a way to record the results of your experiments — which doesn’t require language, just a way to tally. Where it falls apart is that science would quickly plateau without a way to record and exchange complicated theories, rather than just outcomes. Even if I could communicate my experiences to future generations by meticulous demonstration, that’s never going to get us (say) a law of universal gravitation. You can easily argue that without language there can be no effective science.

  11. Irina Presnyakova said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 4:05 pm

    The decision to leave the spoken language and focus on the written one seems more reasonable later, when they understand that time is quite different for the aliens. As far as I understand, the alien writing represents this no-beginning-no-end idea, but the spoken language may also have that quality: the utterance is not developing it time, but all parts of it are pronounced simultaneously, creating the sound impossible for the human ear to decode, a 4D sound, if you will.

  12. Terry Hunt said,

    December 4, 2016 @ 3:15 am

    Compromises are usually necessary to convert and render any story into the medium of a cinema film that will be commercially successful, so I’m glad that they were comparatively unobtrusive in this one.

    The first linguistic quibble that I as a non-linguist had was Louise’s decision to initiate communication in spoken and written English, whose erratic homophonies, spelling vagaries and lack of consistent sound-letter correspondences are well known. I would have thought that something like Italian or Welsh would have been a better bet. Would real linguists concur?

    Of course, English was bound to be used, because the film was primarily intended for an Anglophone audience, and using another language would have been too cumbersome in the context of a 2-hour movie.

    Incidentally, per David N. Evans and others, we have little-to-no idea what was done by the members of the other 11 contact teams around the globe, and the interrupted message from a Russian researcher suggests that they, or at least he, were a little ahead of Louise and Co. at that point.

  13. R. Fenwick said,

    December 4, 2016 @ 10:37 am

    @Gregory Kusnick:

    Let’s not forget Samuel R. Delaney’s award-winning novel Babel-17 as a prominent entry in the canon of Whorfian SF.

    Also Jack Vance’s slightly earlier The Languages of Pao, which wasn’t quite as well-received but treats similar Sapir-Whorfian ground and is pretty famous among fans of linguistic sci-fi.

  14. Rebecca said,

    December 4, 2016 @ 6:23 pm

    I’ve not seen the movie yet, but I’m struck by David Evan’s comment above that the aliens are teaching their language because they’ll need our help in 3000 years. Does the film address what sort of cultural connection will exist that will make language transfer today still useful in 3000 years?

  15. JPL said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 3:40 am

    Terry Hunt @4Dec2016, 3:15 am:

    I took my kid to see the film (I loved the film) and as soon as the linguist stood before the aliens with a board with the English word ‘human’ on it, I said to him, “That’s not a good way to start”. The point is to learn the aliens’ language, not to teach them English. You need to have a social give and take to establish their way of giving assent and rejection, and in addition to figuring out the internal structure of the linguistic act, there is the problem of reference. I was sorry that the film cut off just as Dr. Banks was about to begin the process. (We meet her later in the middle of the analytic process.) In learning their language you don’t make use of translation (i.e., in the interactions with them). Eventually, you’re going to communicate with them in their language, as they were doing in the film.

    The film does raise a lot of questions about the nature of human language (or language as a cosmic phenomenon), and I would hope that we can have further discussions of the film here.

  16. David Morris said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 6:02 am

    Two of the locations were Greenland and Sierra Leone. I can’t imagine that they had too many linguists on hand.

  17. Brett said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    @R. Fenwick: I also think it’s a bit odd that discussions of linguistic science fiction rarely mention The Languages of Pao. I imagine that the ultimate reason is that it’s not an especially great book, certainly not among Vance’s best work. Vance liked to write about weird human (or alien) cultures. Sometimes he tried to justify why they were so weird, sometimes not. And sometimes, the justifications really worked (as in the Planet of Adventure novels); but other times, like in The Languages of Pao, they didn’t really make for a great story.

  18. JPL said,

    December 8, 2016 @ 2:16 am

    David Morris @5Dec16, 6:02 am:

    Actually, Sierra Leone has linguists, and linguists who know field methods.

    The Sierra Leone site in the movie is Kenema, a town I know well, a nice little town. I was hoping for some real views, but I didn’t see any. I was wondering where such a huge craft would put down in Kenema, which sits at the base of the Kamboi Hills. Probably in somebody’s rice farm.

  19. Eva Mali said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 12:30 am

    I’ve not seen the film yet, but rather I’m struck by David Evan’s remark over that the outsiders are showing their dialect since they’ll require our assistance. Does the film address what kind of social association will exist that will make dialect exchange today still helpful.

  20. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 1:43 pm

    Rebecca/Eva: On one level, the aliens don’t need motives; with their holistic, Tralfamadorian view of time, they do what they do “because the moment is structured that way” (in Vonnegut’s phrase).

    From a linear, human perspective (and without giving too much away), it’s not about whether we’ll need to be able to understand their language 3000 years from now. It’s about whether understanding their language now helps ensure that human civilization still exists 3000 years from now.

  21. JPL said,

    December 9, 2016 @ 6:31 pm

    The business about the understanding of “time” in the film doesn’t work out. The move from the fact that the Heptapod language has solved the problem of Chomskyan syntax (or morpho-syntactic means of expression) to the idea that this somehow enables a view of reality sub specie aeternitatis is fallacious. Does somebody want to show how this is supposed to work? The more basic structure of reality is its dependency structure, and while this can be described to some extent without the idea of time, it does have an order and a directionality. (On the other hand, the way the film narrative plays with the epistemological dependencies is interesting.)

    BTW, the film makes me want to go back and look at Leibniz’s theory of monads.

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