A good friend of mine commented that he liked how linguistics was depicted in the recent sci-fi movie Arrival, so I did feel duty bound to view the movie. The good news is that yes, the mechanics of linguistics is portrayed fairly well. Still I was a tad disappointed that some clichés, particularly the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, is still being depicted as the most important thing about linguistics. To have the author Ted Chiang and screenwriters focus on this to me means he has missed one of the most important lessons of theoretical linguistics.
Spoiler Alerts – I will minimize this, but if you want to be completely surprised, watch the movie first. The first spoiler is – Amy Adams plays a linguist Louise who is asked to decipher an alien language when some mysterious objects park themselves in different parts of the world, including of course rural Montana.
Before I point out the clichés, I will point out the positives. Namely
- Linguist Louise (Amy Adams) is hired based on her “translation” expertise including some recent Farsi speaking terrorists (Farsi is from Iran). BUT she points out that translating a language she already knows how to speak is different from translating a completely unknown language. Therefore she will more data than a 30-sec audio clip. Duh.
Note: The fact that she has to explain shows how little common sense some people have about how language works.
- When the military wonders why Louise is starting with basic vocabulary, she does a good job explaining how she needs to know basic grammar to to frame the question “What is your purpose?” To ask this question, we will need to understand how to build a sentence, make sure we pronouns correctly and more importantly, understand what they have to tell us.
Note: This part show how linguists focus on “grammatical crap” that make other people’s eyes glaze over. But that’s because you can’t become fluent until this knowledge is automated. However you have to learn about how a grammar works to communicate effectively in a new language. Fortunately, most linguists begin life as grammar geeks, so we actually find this very interesting.
- Louise’s fieldwork followed by intense scrutiny of the language samples is pretty realistic. If you know nothing about the target language, it will take much time to decipher everything, even if the other party is fairly cooperative.
- The investigation team includes a physicist who comments “You approach this very mathematically.” Yes…linguistics is actually a science. We just use different math notation than calculus.
Clichés and Questions
It wouldn’t be Hollywood without a few of these.
- As usual the movie assumes a linguist can speak any weird combination of languages – in this case Farsi, Sanskrit (these two can go together) and Chinese. That’s sort of like assuming a random linguist can speak Polish and Swahili. It can happen, but since those two languages are fairly distant geographically, culturally and linguistically…it would be fairly unusual.
Note: In addition to general geographic literacy, some linguistic/cultural literacy would be a good idea.
- In the beginning of the movie, Louise is prepared to lecture about the history of Portuguese to a large lecture hall. But which class is this? I would only expect this in the history of Romance languages…and that class rarely fills a lecture hall.
Note: But bonus points for connecting the origins of Portuguese to the kingdom of Galicia.
- Louise also comments that the proto-Portuguese speakers valued their poetry and literary culture…But EVERY culture I have encountered has valued the poetry of their language. Even when a language isn’t written or isn’t used for education, native speakers understand their language’s unique charm – just ask any hip-hop or country song artist.
Note: There is a paradox that many linguistics consider all languages “equal” but also each language “special”. Still it never hurts to play a little indigenous music lyrics in class.
Major Spoiler Alerts Here
And then…Sapir-Whorf Hits Us
I was disappointed that a key plot point revolved the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which maintains that language strongly influences thought. Specifically when Louise learns the alien language at a “deep level”, their different tense system causes Louise to gain the ability to see into the future. Um no.
For the record, I don’t dispute that the aliens can perceive time differently than humans. After all, they are aliens. But I don’t think learning a new language has ever affected a human that deeply. Being exposed to a new culture can be definitely life changing, and the CONCEPTS behind a foreign language’s words can be different. But grammar doesn’t have the impact people think it has.
Consider the example from my experience – I have been exposed to Spanish, a language that classifies nouns and verbs as “masculine” or “feminine”. I understand how the system works and can properly implement it (mostly), but I have never transferred the concept to English. For instance, I can’t necessarily tell you if a fan is masculine or feminine. I’m not sure a Spanish speaker could either except by knowing what the final vowel of the word is.
And in fact the original story’s author Ted Chiang uses English tenses creatively to distinguish when Louise is having a memory from the future. In other words, if people could see into the future, the language’s tense system could make the adjustment. FWIW – Since Louise was exposed to the alien’s foggy atmosphere at one point, I will assume that’s how she got her new time sense.
There are some subtle influences of language – such as an enhanced ability to distinguish red from orange if your language has those two color terms. On the other hand, other forms of training can override this default. A trained artist can distinguish lots of colors, including ones that may not have common words in a language.
Major Major Linguistic Spoiler
By focusing on Sapir-Whorf, the movie misses an interesting question about the alien language. Initially the scientists focus on the sounds the aliens make, but Louise wonders if we could communicate better by writing. It turns out that the aliens, which are vaguely squid like, can generate black ink circular signs from their tentacles. These signs float in their native white fog until they are dissolved.
For humans, language is normally spoken with writing learned later. Language can be combined with different gestural motions, which enhance the communication, but aren’t always consistent.
For the aliens, I think it’s the reverse. The signs are the primary linguistic form with audio cues enhancing communication, but not necessarily consistently. Unlike humans, the aliens don’t necessarily need tools to “write” just as humans normally don’t need tools to speak in person. With a foggy atmosphere, I could see that hovering black circles could be more a robust signal than audio alone, so that could be the main language signal.
Eventually, the scientists create an app to replicate the circles (yeah), but I would be curious to see if the circles contain words, phrases or sentences. And you don’t need time travel to understand the shape of the circle – it could definitely be a byproduct of how each tentacle ends with multiple mini tentacles in a circular formation. Circles would definitely be easier to make than a line with that anatomy. The aliens can also create sequences of circles which shows that there is in fact a linearity in their longer utterances.
This is where the good stuff lies….