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.