Arrival – Linguists save the earth

Language is a problem for sci-fi. In any story involving contact with alien peoples or human civilisations from the distant future, there has to be a mechanism for understanding what everyone else is talking about, or most plots will never get off the ground. In Star Trek, you have the linguist Uhura, who has already presumably put in the hours learning most of the alien languages that have already been discovered [edited to add: and she has access to a Universal Translator, as has just been pointed out to me on Facebook]. In Doctor Who, of course, the TARDIS translates for its occupants automatically – though in the Christmas Invasion the TARDIS translator breaks and someone from Number 10 still seems to have a translation device up and running in about an hour, which is accurate enough for him to be sure he understands every single pronoun. (No, I haven’t been carrying around that complaint for a long time…) Star Wars never deals with this problem at all, with characters seeming to enjoy at least passive knowledge of various different languages around the galaxy. In the original story of The Time Machine the language-learning process just takes quite a while – but the uncivilised Eloi have such a simple conception of the world that it is quicker for the Time Traveller to learn their language than it might otherwise have been.

Arrival takes a different approach and is, as far as I know, the first film that really addresses the linguistic fieldwork of first contact. Amy Adams plays Dr Louise Banks, who is called in to try to communicate with one of twelve alien ships that have just landed on earth. Around the globe, different teams take different approaches – when she quickly reaches a dead-end with speech, Louise decides to try writing. This turns out to be an inspired move, and Louise more or less single-handedly stops World War III with her language decipherment abilities. (Apparently this makes linguists “almost cool” – thanks for that, Washington Post.)

The whole film is based around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states (in its strongest form) that the language you speak determines your view of the world. We can argue about how true or testable this is if you are always speaking to humans – but what if the language you are learning doesn’t just come from a culture with a slightly different border between “blue” and “green”, but belongs to an alien species which experiences time and space in a completely non-linear way? I’ll stop there to avoid spoilers, except to say that the thought experiment plays out in a very original way in Arrival.


As far as I know, the details of the fieldwork techniques are fairly accurate. In real-world terms, they progress incredibly quickly, but a month or two of vocabulary building feels like a long time in sci-fi-plot-land. All linguists will also enjoy how Louise plays on common language myths to get her point across to a resistant military commander, and then happily reveals that she only used those stories to get her own way.

I particularly enjoyed the approach to alien writing – the language is non-linear, and so the written language is composed by combining multiple elements into circular characters. Each set of splodges on the ring of the circle is logographic or ideographic, so that the combination forms either, depending on your point of view, a sentence of multiple words or (and I think this is implied by the description in the film) one highly complex ideogram which can only be read as a single idea made up of all its component ideas. Nicely alien, and yet crackable if you have the technology of the US military behind you.


There will, I’m sure, be many many posts by linguists on this film, but here’s a few places where you can read more:

The obligatory Language Log post, with a round-up of blog posts and some initial thoughts – as always with Language Log, the comment threads are brilliant.

How alien can language be? (David Adger on the syntax in the Heptapod language)

Linguistics of Arrival (Linguist Laura – spoilers!)

A piece on the written language by Jordan Zakarin over on Inverse.

And an interview with Arrival‘s linguistics consultant Jessica Coon, an Associate Professor at McGill who specialises in First Nations and Mayan language fieldwork.

Edited to add: My friends and colleagues are now weighing in with many other examples of the linguistics of alien encounters, but I particularly enjoyed this one from Thor (2011), sent to me by Antonia Ruppel:




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