A linguist saves the world: Arrival

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Arrival is the latest film by Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. The film is about 12 alien ships simultaneously touching down across our planet. The main character, Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist recruited by the US government to lead a group of experts attempting to determine the intentions of these outer space visitors. Her job is to “crack the code” of the alien language in order to communicate with the aliens and asses their real intentions before it is too late for mankind. The film has already premiered in the US, Canada, Mexico and on December 7th, it will be released in France under the name Premier Contact.



WILS is not going to do a traditional review of the movie since there are other blogs and websites specialized in that. What catches our attention is the fact that the whole plot is based on deciphering an unknown language, and that a linguist is the hero of the movie. Having said that, let’s get started.

Whenever we see a movie containing scientific or historical facts, we usually ask ourselves how accurately those facts were portrayed on the screen. We need to remember that Arrival is a sci-fi movie so we are not necessarily expecting it to be 100% fact-based. However, for the making of Arrival the film producers consulted three real linguists from McGill University in Canada. Professors Lisa Travis, Jessica Coon and Morgan Sonderegger were the chosen ones to assist in providing linguistic accuracy for the movie script.

I know this movie is science fiction, but let’s try for a minute to pretend it is real and see what conclusions we can draw from it.

Let’s start with what a language from another planet would be like. Well, that’s a very complicated question because all of our language knowledge is based on human languages. Yes, that’s right, as linguists we have been able to establish some differences and similarities among the world’s languages. For instance, it is widely accepted (while still being debated) that all human languages share some common features or characteristics that linguists call “language universals.” Some of those characteristics are: semanticity, arbitrariness, discreteness, displacement, productivity, cultural transmission, duality of patterning, embedding and recursivity. These last two characteristic haven been recently put into question by Pirahã, a language spoken in the Amazon.

A language from another planet would challenge all of these characteristics and we would have to start all over from zero. Let’s take a simple example: the sounds of the language. Sounds are produced by our larynx, lips, tongue, teeth, lungs, etc. These same organs shape the way in which we produce linguistics sounds. For instance, what we perceive as a /b/ in English is produced by our upper and lower lips releasing some airflow from our mouth. This is what we call place and manner of “articulation”

This would be the first problem we would face with a non human language and probably the most difficult to overcome in order to make sense of it. The sounds produced by non humans could be of a completely different nature than what we have heard so far. This is because the physical characteristics of the aliens might not be human-like. For instance, they could have two tongues or none, two mouths or none, and so on. This will make it almost impossible to identify the phonemes (a sound that distinguishes one word from another in a particular language) of a non human language. The aliens are called Heptapods in the movie, and even if you are not a linguist, you can probably figure out why.

In the movie, Louise Banks faces this very same problem when she tries to group and discriminate the sounds produced by the aliens. The sounds of the Heptapodish (what I will call the language of the Heptapods here) are similar to whales sounds combined with other weird non human sounds. So, it was impossible for the linguist to analyze isolated phonemes.

This brings us to our next question: how would a linguist approach a completely unknown language from outer space? Those of us working with undescribed languages have some experience with this issue. A common approach is what we call linguistic elicitation. This is basically asking the speakers, “how do you say xx in your language?” By doing that, you figure out the basic sound patterns and vocabulary. Of course, this is only possible if the linguist and the speaker have a language in common. In the movie this was not possible because Louise Banks didn’t speak Heptapodish nor the Heptapods speak English! Another possibility is to immerse ourselves in the language and use gestures and other non linguistic means to learn the language.

This second possibility was the one that Louise Banks used. When she realized that there was no way she could understand (or produce herself) the sounds of the alien language, she tried with writing and gestures! She elicited (spoiler alert!) some basic vocabulary using a blackboard. The aliens would then “write” (or something similar) the equivalent in their language in a sort of Heptapod ideogram system that looks like coffee stains (a whole idea or concept is equal to a symbol).


Contact © 2016 Paramount Pictures via IMDb

Contact © 2016 Paramount Pictures via IMDb


I know, I know, this doesn’t sound very factual for all of us doing fieldwork with understudied languages, but it was the only possible solution that made sense for the benefit of the movie plot. I think here we have an interesting and thought-provoking question. If we said that a non human language would challenge all we know about languages so far (sounds, word order, etc.), can we even expect that non human groups (or societies) could have a writing system?

I think that in this specific point the movie lacks some deeper reflexion about communication in general. Writing could be only a particularity of us humans, and not something universal (or intergalactic!). In other words, a writing system is useful for us humans (even though not all societies need or use one) but that doesn’t guarantee it would make sense for Heptapods! Therefore, I think the solution used to “crack” the Heptapod code was a little bit too ethnocentrist. This idea follows the cliché that most advanced societies are those with a writing system, and this is extremely debated by scientists.

Another critique could be the central role of the Sapir-Whorf (or linguistic relativity) hypothesis in the film. This hypothesis establishes that the structure of a language affects the cognition and the worldview of its speakers. We know that there is no consensus among researchers regarding the validity of this theory. However, since it is an alien language, why not?! Heptapodish could even modify the way the speakers conceive time and space (wink, wink).

I know, you kind reader might be asking, but what does all of this have to do with endangered languages? In reality, nothing. But if we continue to play the “let’s pretend” game we could make some speculations. We can see how, for a linguist, it would be a priority to try to document and describe Heptapodish before it’s too late. If you saw the movie (spoiler alert!) you know these aliens risked being destroyed by humans (or was it the opposite?). In any case, without knowing how many speakers of Heptapodish were out there in space, we could only conclude that it was an endangered language. Just consider 7.5 billion of hostile humans against only 12 alien ships. That’s what I call a minority group facing imminent eradication! I don’t even want to think about what the revitalization of Heptapodish would look like.

As I said, this is a sci-fi movie and none of what we have discussed so far makes any sense outside of the context of this movie, but it is always fun and a good intellectual exercise to try to imagine “what would it be like if…?” I don’t want to be a spoiler, but at the end of the movie, the aliens leave a very efficient weapon/gift/tool to humans. Want to know what it is? Well, you’ll have to watch the movie!

Overall, this is an interesting and thought-provoking movie based on some scientific evidence, and the best part of all is that the hero is a linguist! No, not a politician, not a police man, not Superman, but a badass linguist (who happens to be played by Amy Adams– not bad!) who cracks the alien code and saves the world. So if you happen to know a linguist, I hope he/she gained some more respect from you after seeing this movie. You never know; aliens can come one day and he/she might be the only person to save humanity from an invasion. #LinguisticsSavesTheWorld

Cite this article as: Jhonnatan Rangel, "A linguist saves the world: Arrival," in Where's the last speaker? (ISSN 2494-2073),25/11/2016, http://wils.hypotheses.org/458.



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Jhonnatan Rangel

I am a PhD candidate at the INALCO-SeDyl (CNRS) in Paris. My research focuses on language variation in Ayapaneco, a critically endangered language in the south of Mexico. Doctorant à l’Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO) et sous la tutelle du laboratoire Structure et Dynamiques des langues (SeDyl) du CNRS. Mon projet de recherche porte sur la variation linguistique dans le zoque ayapaneco, une langue en danger au Mexique.

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