"Language is messy," says our new linguistic hero

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In the new trailer for the science-fiction movie "Arrival," Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, some sort of mastermind in xenolinguistics. "You're at the top of everyone's list when it comes to translations," says Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker), before whisking her off to meet the newly arrived aliens she's tasked with interpreting. She seems to get on with them just fine, while acknowledging that "language is messy."

The film (which comes to theaters Nov. 11, 2016), is adapted from Ted Chiang's 1998 short story, "Story of Your Life." (Language Log readers may remember Chiang from his New Yorker piece on "uninventing" Chinese characters, discussed here, here, and here.) Chiang's story grapples thoughtfully with the idea of language contact — for a review, see the dearly departed linguablog Tenser, Said the Tensor, and Mark Liberman's followup here.

We'll have to wait and see how well Chiang's work translates — the trailer looks promising, if a bit hammy. Regardless of the verisimilitude, it's nice to have a new linguistic hero on the silver screen. (Now, Mel Gibson starring as Oxford English Dictionary editor James Murray? That's another matter entirely.)


  1. Mara K said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 1:42 pm

    I love the story this is based on, and am suspicious of this attempt to convert it to a long-form narrative…but I've always wanted to see what the heptapods' writing system looks like.

    Also somebody is bound to ask a linguist "you keep saying writing and language are different, but what about the aliens in this?" Is there a better answer than "writing and language are different for humans, but they can be the same for these aliens"?

  2. David L said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 2:45 pm

    If linguists can bring about peace between humans and aliens, shouldn't they also be able to bring about peace on earth before the aliens arrive?

    C'mon, guys, get with it!

  3. Rubrick said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 5:15 pm

    Looks cool, but we all know how this will really go down. Aliens will try to find the key to understanding our language, and some fool will give them a copy of The Elements of Style. At that point, war is inevitable. (Geoff Pullum will be played by Sir Ian McKellen.)

  4. Boudica said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 8:31 pm

    @Rubrick As long as it's not To Serve Man.

  5. Jenny Chu said,

    August 17, 2016 @ 12:12 am

    A few years ago I did a study on the portrayal of business communicators in popular film and fiction. One finding was that in science fiction (as opposed to mainstream fiction) business communicators tend to be more accurately, if not always sympathetically, portrayed. In other words, they are shown doing their job in communications instead of just having a job in communications.

    Has anyone done a similar study on the portrayal of linguists in popular film and fiction – and is the portrayal of linguists in science fiction any better than that in mainstream fiction?

  6. Jason said,

    August 17, 2016 @ 12:35 am

    I didn't really buy "Story of your Life" — the plumber's friend shaped aliens of "Slaughterhouse 5" seemed more convincing, and the allegedly radical and profound difference in alien time perception manifested in the nature of "Heptapod B" is well beyond Chiang's capacity to evoke and ends up being an example of SF's usual quack linguistics — the use of Korzybski's General Semantics in "They'd rather be right" springs to mind. Or some of Delaney's more roccoco fantasies in Babel 17.

    Trailers lie, but this one looks like Paramount executives took one look at the story, and (probably sensibly, given the audience of a typical Paramount movie) stripped it of all the intellectual content and any resemblance to the original narrative whatsoever — or anti-narrative, whatever Chiang was going for. Lots of cliches and silly dialogue in the trailer. It might have some b-movie appeal, though.

    But if there's a ten minute explication in the middle of the film about how the alien's language is analogous to the principle of least time in quantum optics, I'll retract that.

  7. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 17, 2016 @ 9:21 am

    @Jenny Chu: I don't know of any study like that, but I'm not sure there have been enough linguists depicted in film to draw many conclusions. Back in 2005, Michael Barrie listed some in his compilation of "linguistically significant films" for Linguist List. Since then, there have been a handful of other linguists in films, such as Julianne Moore as Dr. Alice Howland in Still Alice (as I mentioned in my Slate piece on Mel Gibson as James Murray in The Professor and the Madman).

    Sci-fi precursors to Amy Adams as Dr. Banks would include James Spader as Egyptologist Daniel Jackson in Stargate and Jodie Foster as SETI scientist Dr. Ellie Arroway in Contact. (And I guess Lt. Uhura and C3PO?)

  8. Lance said,

    August 17, 2016 @ 11:07 am

    Ben: if you're mentioning Uhura, don't forget that Enterprise had Hoshi Sato, who was a trained exo-linguist. In the third episode, when she discovers that the aliens they're investigating had a "bimodal grammar", I gave up all hope. (My physicist friends just mocked me for being new to the "pained by the Star Trek science" game.)

    As for me, I'm much more with Mara than with Jason: I thought "Story of Your Life" was one of the most moving things I've ever read, and had no problem whatsoever believing in Chiang's aliens or their language. And also with Mara on her skepticism that it can reasonably be adapted; the trailer looked like an alien invasion movie to me, and not a quiet, speculative story about the nature of parenting.

  9. Natalie Solent said,

    August 17, 2016 @ 12:42 pm

    Goodreads has a list of science fiction using languages or linguistics as a plot device here.

  10. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 17, 2016 @ 5:55 pm

    The Goodreads list doesn't seem to have Spider and Jeanne Robinson's "Stardance."
    As I recall, there is communication outside dance, but the dance is the communicative art form that is a key turning point in the plot.

    While it would be nice to assume that aliens will have languages that fit our concept of "language," I often wonder if that will actually be the case.

  11. Jenny Chu said,

    August 17, 2016 @ 8:43 pm

    @Ben Zimmer and @Jason, thank you very much!

    Also, Jason – is General Semantics is the name of a character? I hope so.

  12. PaulB said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 12:38 am

    I've read both the original short story and a draft of the screenplay (which may not be exactly the same as the actual movie, but it will probably be pretty close) and I have strong opinions on both.

    The main narrative thread of the short story revolves around Louise Banks' marvelous, utterly compelling and (imo) convincing journey of understanding and discovery into the heart of Heptapod B. Unfortunately, this kind of internal, introspective story isn't considered strong enough to prop up a big scifi blockbuster, so in the screenplay, the linguistics have been cut to the bone in favor of all the external business with the military and aliens and rioters and SFX and whatnot. So yes: the very thing that made the short story so special has largely been expunged from the movie adaptation. Meanwhile, an inane save-the-world subplot has been tacked on, and a pat ending has been provided.

    To be fair, I pretty much understand and appreciate the reasons for all of these changes, but unfortunately the result is still a horrible travesty. So thanks for nothing, Hollywood.

  13. flow said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 11:06 am

    Is it just me who finds it a bit—jarring?—that the authors of the movie were unable to provide borderline-correct Arabic? At 1:26 https://youtu.be/tFMo3UJ4B4g?t=86 we see what's supposed to be a news flash from an 'Arabic' language? / script? news station (judging from the typography of the gas station in the background, one could guess this is set in Pakistan, so the below would presumably be an Arabic loanword in Urdu).

    The letters in the lower right corner read, wait for it,
    ة ل ج ا ع   ر ا ب خ أ ; these are **unconnected letters** that are **to be read from left to right**. OMG.

    According to my dictionary, that could be read as [ʔixba:r ʕa:dʒil(a?)] and understood as 'news flash'.

    If they even got the Arabic so WRONC, how much can we trust their Alienese?

  14. Rodger C said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 2:19 pm

    @flow: I see that treatment of Arabic all over the Net, especially on FB memes. I assume it comes from inputting Arabic into a program that's only set up to handle Western languages. It does seem remarkably stupid that no one caught it in a high-budget context like this.

  15. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 19, 2016 @ 3:45 pm

    Thanks to @flow for flagging the terrible use of Arabic script. Here's a screenshot captured by @Trifolivm on Twitter.

    Looks like the top left text is supposed to say البث المباشر al-bath al-mubâshar 'live broadcast'.

    Language is messy indeed.

    [Update: See my follow-up post.]

  16. Jonathon Owen said,

    August 19, 2016 @ 4:04 pm

    Looks cool, but we all know how this will really go down. Aliens will try to find the key to understanding our language, and some fool will give them a copy of The Elements of Style. At that point, war is inevitable. (Geoff Pullum will be played by Sir Ian McKellen.)

    Shut up and take my money.

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