Watching “Arrival” Through a Linguistics Lens

Being both a linguist and a little bit of a cinema aficionado, I could not have missed “Arrival”, a sci-fi movie about the unnerving appearance of half-egg-shaped alien spaceships in twelve different locations on Earth (on a curious note: two of them in Russia). One of these locations is in the state of Montana, which is where the movie plot takes place. This is not a “War of the Worlds”-type of invasion: the aliens do not seem to pose any immediate threat. They just open the door into their “shell” every 18 hours, inviting humans to communicate. The question is, though, how do you communicate with two calamari-like creatures lurking behind a glass wall, not understanding a word of English, and producing only the sounds whales would be proud of?

This is where a background in applied linguistics comes in handy. Dr. Louise Banks (portrayed by Amy Adams who actually does look like she could be an academic) is recruited to do the job. Her task is made more difficult by the fact that she not only has to learn the hectapod language, but also to persuade members of the FBI and the military, who are in charge of the operation, that deciphering a new language is certainly not a task that can be accomplished overnight – especially when everything you were able to get out of each session is a circular symbol which may be a word, a phrase, a sentence, or who knows what else. Louise teaches a simple lesson to her boss and the spectators by analyzing an apparently simple question: “What is your purpose on Earth?”. She explains what needs to be done before asking that question to the aliens: first of all, it is important to make sure they know the difference between a statement and a question; second, they need to understand the concept of intent (purpose); third, they have to be able to distinguish between the “singular you” (implying only the interlocutor) and “plural you” (meaning the group the interlocutor is a part of). And that’s just for starters, for at some point in the movie, we will also have to deal with the fact that languages are messy and polysemy exists: one word (or symbol) may mean, depending on the context, a tool or a weapon, and one can only imagine how important that difference is when even a shade of a threat may be enough for a war to break out.

Later on, we also learn that writing systems may be not only alphabet-based (i.e., reflecting the pronunciation of words), but also ideographic (encoding only the meaning, not the pronunciation). The screenwriters did not make a parallel between the alien language and the actually existing meaning-encoding writing systems (such as Chinese or Egyptian), perhaps because those systems are not purely ideographic, as the characters, while not reflecting pronunciation, represent words or morphemes, not just ideas or chunks of meaning. However, Louise does know Mandarin which may have helped her on her way to learning the alien language, and I suspect it is not coincidental that it will be the cooperation with the Chinese colleagues that will become crucial for the whole mission of learning the purpose of the aliens’ arrival to succeed.

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Screenshot credit: https://www.inverse.com/article/23159-arrival-invented-new-complicated-alien-language

Many sci-fi books and movies are based on real-world scientific theories of different standing and quality, one of the most famous examples being “Jurassic Park” whose plot is deeply rooted in complex systems theory. Linguistic theories, on the other hand, rarely get that kind of attention and, frankly speaking, rarely even become known outside of the dark corners of university libraries and the murky halls of another conference venue. The Sapir-Whorf linguistic relativity hypothesis is an exception, and it is surprising that its sci-fi potential has not been given due credit before Ted Chiang wrote a short story which was adapted into the screenplay of “Arrival” (though it seems that it took Hollywood about twenty years to spot the potential of the story). Of course, real-life linguists know that the idea that the language we speak shapes the way we think first appeared in the mind of Wilhelm von Humboldt way earlier than Benjamin Whorf was even born, that Edward Sapir was not Whorf’s collaborator, and it was, in fact, Sapir’s student who came up with the term “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”. All of this can be googled fairly easily, the gist being that this theory is no longer considered a valid hypothesis. But does it matter that much for a sci-fi movie with a gripping story and an incredibly beautiful (literally, visually beautiful) fictional language? Honestly, I don’t think it does, especially if the moral of this story, if there is one, is that proper communication is key to understanding others, and open-mindedness and willingness to take risks are key to successful communication.

There is only one tiny detail that keeps bothering me though. Yes, Louise Banks is a female protagonist all feminists around the world have been waiting for: smart and persistent, but not to an unrealistic level, beautiful, but not supermodel-beautiful, attracted to a male colleague who is also attracted to her, but not bothering to dive into romance before the job is done and the mission accomplished. However, there is an area with regard to which she can only be described as Mary Sue: she seems to know (at least speak and understand) an incredible number of dead and modern foreign languages, including the notoriously “hard” ones, such as Chinese and Arabic, all of them to the level at which she is able to interpret right off a badly recorded audio stream. Which is a skill just as plausible as shooting Macedonian style and hitting the bull’s eye of both targets.

and her professional self