This article on the linguistics in Arrival is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we ask an expert to tackle some aspect of fantasy writing (cultures, weapons, horses, etc.) or a scientific / technological concept pervasive in science fiction.
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About the Expert
Christina Dalcher, Ph.D. (@CVDalcher) is a theoretical linguist specializing in the phonetics and phonology of sound change. Her research covers the physical, cognitive, and social forces contributing to variation in Italian and British English, and she has held faculty positions in the US, UK, and UAE. Christina’s short fiction has been widely published; her novels (featuring a linguist, of course!) are represented by Laura Bradford.
Linguistics in Arrival
When I see the word ‘linguist’ in a book blurb or a movie synopsis, my ears start twitching like a bloodhound on the scent. Most of the time, disappointment lies at the end of the hunting trip: the linguist is a translator (The Interpreter, 2005); the main character is a hyper-polyglot (The Informationist, 2011 [novel]); the plot turns on the unintelligibility of languages (Enemy Mine, 1985; Windtalkers, 2002); the filmmakers employ a clever linguisticky gimmick, like putting all the dialogue in Latin, Hebrew, and reconstructed Aramaic with subtitles (The Passion of the Christ, 2004); the linguist could easily be replaced by an X-ist without altering the story’s substance (Still Alice, 2014). All fine films and books, but my inner linguist sulks after watching or reading them.
So, when Arrival, the 2016 blockbuster where “linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors” (IMDB) came out, my inner linguist and I poured a glass of wine and sat down, prepared to be amazed. Here’s what I came away with:
The short answer
Arrival gets some things right, gets some things wrong, could have done some things better, and isn’t about linguistics at all.
In fact, I didn’t find nearly as much language science in the flick as I expected.
What Arrival Gets Right
The Necessity of Interaction
Upon hearing the spoken Heptapod language for the first time, linguist Louise Banks immediately informs Col. Weber that translation based solely on the audio would be impossible—whereas she already knew the Farsi necessary to translate off-site two years ago, with this unknown language she needs to be there with the aliens, interacting with them, teaching them English. Sounds good to me.
Louise’s fieldwork method is entirely credible in a situation that requires a monolingual discovery procedure (where there is no shared language between fieldworker and subject). She begins by constructing a Swadesh list of common words and concepts—an excellent start to gathering data on the Heptapods’—or any unknown—language. I don’t recall Louise ever mentioning the term “Swadesh list” in the film, which is a shame, because the list of one hundred words, originally chosen for cultural-independence and maximal availability across languages, is a terrific tool. It deserved at least a nod in the screenplay, but I’ll give the writers credit for Louise’s example of a pulaski (a tool used by firefighters) when Col. Weber asks why she is building a vocabulary list of grade-school words instead of starting with more specific terms.
Focus on written communication
At first, I balked (as did my inner linguist) at the decision to communicate with the Heptapods via the written word. Going back over the script, however, I find this justifiable: Louise makes it clear there is no way she’ll be able to reproduce their sounds (or study their articulatory mechanisms), so she decides to try writing and visual communication. Points awarded for working with what she’s got.
Explaining the complexity of language
A perfect Ling 101 lesson occurs when Louise shows the difficulty of asking a question like “What is your purpose on Earth” before establishing the Heptapods’ comprehension of the question’s parts: the nature of interrogative structures, the collective “you” versus specific “you,” the lexical semantics of each word in a larger phrase, etc. Nice work here rebutting Weber’s insistence that the six-word question isn’t complicated. It is.
A neat twist on a linguistic theory (albeit, not a very popular one)
The plot (and the major twist) in Arrival hinges on the infamous Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: the strong version of this controversial (and widely disputed) theory of linguistic relativity poses that all (all!) thought and action is determined and constrained by the language an individual speaks. Certainly, we see this bearing out in Arrival, when Louise Banks’ acquisition of the Heptapod language endows her with the ability to “think” as the aliens do—seeing both past and future events simultaneously. While this is a gargantuan leap to take, even for those agreeing with Sapir and Whorf, I’m happy to give credit to Ted Chiang (author of “The Story of Our Life,” on which Arrival was based) for incorporating a linguistic theory—even a flawed one—in such an imaginative way.
And speaking of which, the clever use of the Sanskrit word for ‘war’ (gavisti) and its literal translation (‘desire for more cows’) sets up the language-culture interface quite nicely. (Although it would be even nicer if the screenwriters had let us all in on the relevance of Banks’ test, rather than using it as a cute device to get her the job.)
I also liked the fact that Louise came clean about the Aboriginal ‘kangaroo’ meaning ‘I don’t know’ being a myth. Thanks to the input of linguistic consultant Jessica Coon, we’ve got one fewer apocryphal language tidbits floating around.
What Arrival Gets Wrong
I’m referring to notes I took while viewing, plus the final shooting draft of the script, and I’ll be going into some detail, so hold tight.
Unsupported linguistic factoids:
What first turned me off (and made my inner linguist choke on her wine) was Louise’s classroom claim that Portuguese sounds different from other Romance languages because it was seen as an “expression of art.” Here’s the quote: “The way it was written and spoken was rooted in aesthetics.” First, I’ve never heard that before. Second, the idea that Portuguese’s nasal diphthongs, for instance, were somehow manufactured to sound artistic is preposterous. Third, written Portuguese doesn’t look much different than written Spanish or Italian or Romanian. I’m still trying to wrap my head around why the screenwriters—or anyone—would think the inclusion of this tidbit would do anything other than showing us how little homework they did.
Louise is introduced early on as a translator. I wish she hadn’t been, as this only perpetuates the misconception that linguists are polyglots whose focus is on learning languages, rather than studying their structure. In an interview with Dr. Jessica Coon, one of Arrival’s consulting linguists, she remarks that the filmmakers told her this: “theoretical linguists are really not Hollywood’s main audience concern.” Super.
Science vs. Linguistics
The film seems bent on telling us that linguistics is not science, and Louise stands silent at every opportunity to counter this. In the helicopter, when she firsts meets Ian the physicist, he tells her “The cornerstone of civilization isn’t language. It’s science.” I won’t disagree that language and science are different creatures, but this would have been a perfect opportunity for our leading lady to mention that linguists are scientists. She doesn’t. Worse, Ian the Physicist (not Louise the Linguist) is the one who points out the structural ambiguity of the Heptapods’ “Offer weapon” transmission.
Ian says “you approach language like a mathematician;” Louise says she’ll take it as a compliment, rather than something more like “Yeah, buddy. That’s what we do in truth-conditional model-theoretical semantics.” And the scene that made my inner linguist fire spitballs at the television? You got it—that one where young Hannah asks Louise about a technical term (non-zero-sum game) and Louise responds with “You want science, call your father.” Whew. Major slam on the entire field of formal linguistics there. To make matters worse, Hannah wasn’t asking about science—she posed a vocabulary question.
Conclusions Drawn from Writing Systems
The Heptapods’ ‘nonlinear orthography’ is our first introduction to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and the widely disputed concept of linguistic determinism. Specifically, the Heptapods’ language, being written in logographs (as opposed to ordered sequences of sounds or words, as in English) causes Louise to wonder if the aliens might also think in a nonlinear way. Googling ‘nonlinear orthography’ returns top hits that reference Arrival, so it’s tempting to conclude this aspect of the Heptapod language is unearthly and illustrative of the alien’s ability to live in both past and future simultaneously. But there are problems.
First, the Korean Hangul writing system is nonlinear: letters are not written one after the other; they are grouped together into syllable blocks. Yet no one thinks Koreans have some unworldly ability to see future events. Also, the Heptapods’ way of conceiving time would be better illustrated with a demonstration of nonlinear syntactic processing. Consider this: suppose my language’s writing system involves my first writing all the verbs in a sentence, then the nouns, then prepositions, adjectives, adverbs, articles and so forth. That would be a nonlinear orthography, but it wouldn’t necessarily alter how I interpret the sentence “Jane took the stinky trash to the dump.” As much as this nonlinear device is necessary to the film’s plot twist, I wish it had more to do with language processing and less to do with logographic writing.
Much of Louise’s pedagogical method seems to revolve around vocabulary lessons. We see her with the whiteboard that says ‘human,’ then her own name, then Ian’s name. We watch both of our experts demonstrating ‘walk,’ ‘eat,’ and ‘tool.’ Unfortunately, none of these lessons can get the Heptapods farther along the path to interpreting the all-important question the army wants answered—the concept of an interrogative is never taught, nor is the collective/specific ‘your,’ nor is the notion of predication (‘Your purpose on Earth is _____). Sure, we’re watching a movie, but when that movie is about an expert linguist teaching aliens how to understand her, a line or two about how that requires more than teaching individual vocabulary words is warranted.
What Arrival Could Do Better
Kill the Trope
There’s no need to make Louise a polyglot (apparently she was fluent in seven languages by the time she was sixteen because her father was relocated every year to a new country). This is another of those Linguist-as-Translator tropes that undermines the real essence of the entire field of linguistics. Plus, one year seems a rather short period of time to acquire a language.
Show Your Work
I would like to see more detail showing exactly how Louise parses the Heptapod’s logograms. Not a lot of detail, but enough to make it look as if a real linguist was at work in these scenes. It’s called verisimilitude, and a sprinkling of it wouldn’t necessarily turn the flick into a dull linguistics seminar. (Interestingly, it wasn’t a linguist at all who worked behind the scenes in development of the code that analyzed Heptapod B—that job went to programmer Christopher Wolfram.)
Understand the Expert and Her Limitations
The idea that linguistics is a single field comes through strongly in the film. On the one hand, we see Louise lecturing on historical linguistics near the beginning of the story; later, she’s portrayed as translator, acquisition expert, and fieldwork specialist. In one scene, she’s studying spectrograms—visual representations of an acoustic signal showing frequency, amplitude, and time—tools that are highly specified to phoneticians and have little to do with Louise’s task, since she’s already decided to focus on communicating with the Heptapods via written symbols. Which brings to mind my next question:
Why didn’t the army have an entire team of linguists? I mean, come on, there are a ton of us out here, each with our own subspecialties: syntax, semantics, pragmatics, morphology, phonology, phonetics, acquisition, historical ling, comparative ling, computational ling, socio ling, and so on. I’ll bet that if twelve Heptapod-driving vehicles suddenly show up on Earth tomorrow morning, the people in charge will be looking for more than one linguist.
Spoiler In This Paragraph: But—that’s really the issue here. There’s no need for more than one linguist because Arrival (like Chiang’s short story) isn’t about linguistics. Nor is it about aliens. Or military tactics. Or the ability to see the future. It’s about, as we understand in the final few minutes of the film, one person, and what that person chooses to do when she knows what will eventually happen. The Heptapods’ gift, while loosely tied to Sapir and Whorf’s ideas of linguistic determinism (your language influences your behavior), could have been bestowed on a mathematician or a plumber, and the dramatic impact of exercising free will in the face of total knowledge would have hit me just as hard.
My only complaint is this: that impact, that story—and all of its subtle and timeless beauty—is wrapped up in a movie pretending to be about linguistics, sometimes getting it right, sometimes not.
Heisserer, E. Film Script. (2016, August 20). Arrival. Retrieved from http://la-screenwriter.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/arrival.pdf.
[Science vs. Cinema]. (2016, November 28). Science vs. Cinema: Arrival. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzEPU2PTjT4.
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