Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson,
As fellow scientists, we linguists appreciate the work you do as a spokesperson for science. However, your recent tweet about the film Arrival perpetuates a common misunderstanding about what linguistics is and what linguists do:
In the @ArrivalMovie I'd chose a Cryptographer & Astrobiologist to talk to the aliens, not a Linguist & Theoretical Physicist
Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson), 1:40 PM – 26 Feb 2017
Though the term linguist is often used by the public to refer generally to anyone whose occupation is related to language (especially translators and interpreters), the type depicted in Arrival is a special kind of linguist who engages in the scientific study of human language: its structures, its uses, its underlying similarities, and its surprising diversity. A cryptographer simply cannot replicate the specialized training that a linguist like Louise Banks has, which takes years to learn and decades to master.
Most importantly, a cryptanalyst would likely be much less suited to the task of communicating with aliens than a linguist would (a cryptographer even less so, since they work on encryption, not decryption). Cryptanalysis relies on decrypting coded messages from a known language. If the source language and the encryption method are both unknown, ordinary cryptanalytic methods will fail. This is why the Native American code talkers of the 20th century were so invaluable to the US in both world wars: their languages were not understood by enemy cryptanalysts, so their encrypted versions could not be cracked, unlike with well-known languages like English.
A linguist's interactive methodology is more likely to result in successful communication with aliens. Whereas cryptanalysts generally work with a static corpus of encrypted messages and cannot obtain new ones of a particular type on demand, linguists are trained in a variety of techniques to elicit targeted utterances from speakers, as broadly demonstrated by the elicitation sessions in Arrival. These elicitation sessions are designed to bring to light subtle information about the atomic units of a language, how they are combined into longer units, what those units mean, and how they are used. These methods are used for analyzing the structure of well-known languages as well as for documenting and analyzing endangered languages that the linguist may not speak with any fluency and may be typologically quite different from widely spoken languages of the world.
Perhaps instead of true cryptanalysis, you were thinking more along the lines of machine translation, with the idea that languages can be treated as codes of each other or of some universal interlingua. This idea was popular among 17th-century philosophers and has been explored by computational linguists since the mid-20th century, but with limited success, because human languages simply are not structured as codes of one another. They can differ not only in how they express information (sometimes by word order, sometimes by extra words or pieces of words), but also in what information they express (such as grammatical gender, levels of politeness, and verb tense), and these differences are often difficult to adequately translate from one language to another. Any methodology relying on the assumption that all languages are merely variant realizations of the same underlying concepts is doomed to fail. An alien language, with its associated alien thoughts and alien culture, would be even less amenable to such methods.
Linguists have specialized fieldwork techniques and an understanding of what kinds of information a language is likely to express and how that information may be realized, which are necessary tools for understanding any new language, human or alien. Linguists are thus exactly the kind of researchers you would want on hand in an alien encounter.
We thank you for your time and attention, and we hope that your commitment to educating the public about the sciences will include and celebrate the important contributions of linguistics.
Postdoctoral Researcher, New York University Abu Dhabi
Visiting Assistant Professor, Haverford College
Assistant Professor, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Research Associate, University of Manitoba
The above is a guest post submitted by Nathan Sanders and colleagues.