Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival makes being a linguist look pretty cool—its hero Louise (Amy Adams) gets up close and personal with extraterrestrials and manages to save the entire world with her translation skills (and lives in a chic, glass-walled modernist palace all by herself). But how realistic were her methods? We talked to Betty Birner, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Northern Illinois University, to find out what she thinks of the movie’s use of language, its linguist heroine, and how we might someday learn to communicate with aliens in real life.
What was it like to watch Arrival as an actual linguist?
I loved the movie. It was a ton of fun to see a movie that’s basically all about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. On the other hand, they took the hypothesis way beyond anything that is plausible.
In the movie they kind of gloss over the hypothesis, explaining it as the idea that the language you speak can affect the way you think. Is that accurate?
There are two ways of thinking about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and scholars have argued over which of these two Sapir and/or Whorf actually intended. The weaker version is linguistic relativity, which is the notion that there’s a correlation between language and worldview. “Different language communities experience reality differently.”
The stronger view is called linguistic determinism, and that’s the view that language actually determines the way you see reality, the way you perceive it. That’s a much stronger claim. At one point in the movie, the character Ian [Jeremy Renner] says, “The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says that if you immerse yourself in another language, you can rewire your brain.” And that made me laugh out loud, because Whorf never said anything about rewiring your brain. But since this wasn’t the linguist speaking, it’s fine that another character is misunderstanding the Sapir-Whorf.
But the movie accepts that as true! By learning the aliens’ language, Louise completely alters her brain.
Oh yeah, the movie is clearly on board with linguistic determinism, which is funny because most linguists these days would not accept that.
So in real life, learning another language can’t suddenly alter how you perceive time?
No linguist would ever buy into the notion that the minute you understand something about this second language, get sort of a lightbulb going off, and you say, “Oh my gosh, I completely see how the speakers of Swahili view plant life now.” It’s just silly and its false. It makes for a rollicking good story, but I would never want somebody to come away from a movie like this with the notion that that’s actually a power that language can bestow.
Is there anything to the idea at all?
There have been studies about speakers of languages that have classifier markers—suffixes, for example, that go on to every noun to indicate what class they’re in. Some languages mark round things differently than they mark long things, soft things differently than rigid things. If you ask speakers of such a language to sort a big heap of stuff into piles, they will tend to sort them based on what classifier they take.
Whorf argued that because the Hopi [the Native American group he was studying] have verbs for certain concepts that English speakers use nouns for, such as, thunder, lightning, storm, noise, that the speakers view those things as events in a way that we don’t. We view lightning, thunder, and storms as things. He argued that we objectify time, that because we talk about hours and minutes and days as things that you can count or save or spend.
It was funny in this movie to see this notion of the cyclicity of time. That’s really central in Whorf’s writings, that English speakers have a linear view of time, and it’s made up in individually packaged objects, days, hours, and minutes that march along from past to future, while the Hopi have a more cyclical notion that days aren’t separate things but that “day” is something that comes and goes.
So tomorrow isn’t another day. Tomorrow is day returning. You see that concept coming from Whorf into this movie was actually kind of fun. I thought, well they got that right! They took it in a really weird direction, but …
Someone did their homework.
Let’s talk a little about the aliens’ language—actually, I should say alien languages, plural, because the aliens have a spoken language and a written language, called Heptapod A and Heptapod B. In the movie, the experts pretty much dismiss Heptapod A on the grounds that it doesn’t match what’s being said in Heptapod B. Are you familiar with any human languages where there’s no relationship between what’s spoken and what’s written?
Well, I wouldn’t say they’re totally unrelated. What I gathered is that the written form is not encoding the sounds of the spoken form, right? And certain dialects of Chinese are like that. They have these characters and the characters stand for a word or a concept, but a Chinese character isn’t made up of individual symbols that stand for individuals sounds in the way that English does. In English, the word dog has a D and that corresponds to the sound duh. In Chinese, it’s not quite that way. Now I gather there is a phonetic aspect to Chinese, but largely Chinese uses logograms, where the symbol stands for the word. It doesn’t stand for a sound.
You don’t really pronounce the logogram.
Right, it’s not phonetic in the way that English is phonetic. So I took the alien language to be that kind of writing system. I still took the visual system to be encoding the same concepts of the oral system so that the aliens would have for any given concept a written version and a spoken version. Logographic systems on Earth are essentially similar. The Japanese have three different writing systems. One of them, Kanji, is shared with Chinese. The spoken languages are very different. The Japanese speaker and the Chinese speaker can’t talk to each other, but they share a writing system because the writing system doesn’t actually match phonetically onto the sounds of the language.
When you think about it, it’s not that weird because we do the same thing with numerals, right? I pronounce the number 7 very differently than a French speaker—I don’t even know the word for seven in French—but if I write it down, they understand the concept.
What do you think of the way the alien logograms were designed? I know word-order variation is one of your areas of research. But because the logograms are circular, they don’t have any particular word order—it’s just a jumble.
I actually loved the logograms, because I am one of the many people who can get cranky about sci-fi in general, because the aliens are always so closely based on human beings and alien languages are just another variation on human languages. They don’t look anything like Kanji or any other written language that I know of. So to see something that was really, really different but plausible as a communicative system was terrific.
It was a nice touch that the circularity of the image mapped onto the cyclicity of their worldview. The past, the future, it’s all just one big cycle that they can see from outside. It would sort of make sense that there’s no need for word order, that there should be this holistic aspect to a sentence in such a world where there’s really no linearity to time. I thought [the filmmakers] put some real thought into making it be not just be a clone of a human language, even though, yeah, you had to give up the word-order issue which is my whole research area. Oh well.
What do you think of how Louise went about translating the logograms?
I would have preferred if they spent a little more time on the early aspects of her working on the language. Once she had these splotches, they jumped pretty quickly from “OK, that’s how they communicate a concept” to “I’ve now got a mini-dictionary of a bunch of concepts,” right? They show you some cryptic images of her making measurements of different chunks of the splotches. But they don’t really show the process of how she got from there to understand what chunks mean what.
So as a linguist, you would have really liked to see the translation process in detail.
Right. In a way, she proceeded the way a linguist would proceed in doing field research. Get very basic concepts, get the person to understand that we want to get individual words. You’ll usually start with things like body parts—okay, point to your arm, what’s their word for arm—and you build up from there. And she did that.
Louise is a professor of linguistics, like yourself. What did you think of how she was portrayed?
I read that [the filmmakers] went to offices of linguists and took photos and notes because they wanted to recreate what a real linguist’s office would look like. It was a very believable linguist’s office. But I’ll tell you one thing that made me laugh in the movie: that incredibly gorgeous house she has. All I could think was, I don’t know any linguist that makes a high enough salary to be able to afford a place like that.
Other governments around the world are also trying to translate the aliens’ language. One thing that really stood out to me is that they say the Chinese government is learning to communicate with the aliens by playing Mahjong. Is that even possible?
It doesn’t sound to me like anything a trained linguist would do. But it does again sit with the movie’s interest in a Whorfian perspective, because Whorf is all about How does a language categorize things? Now, I don’t know how to play Mahjong, but my understanding based on the movie is that it’s a matter of different tiles being in different categories. So if that’s true, then it fits the Whorfian perspective they’re taking, in that, the Chinese approach is to say, How do they categorize aspects of reality? Here’s one way that we categorize it.
And then of course, another major issue that Louise brings up, is that there’s a winner and a loser in Mahjong, which could be dangerous when teaching a language to a potentially threatening species.
Right. So that again is taking a sort of Whorfian view that if you’re dealing with a language that categorizes the world in terms of winners and losers, this was going to superimpose a competitive view of reality on you. That is way more deterministic than I would go, but it makes for a good movie and good linguistic discussion.
Let’s say, just hypothetically, that aliens were to land on Earth right now and that the U.S. government wanted you to go in there and communicate with them. How would you start?
After I get over my abject terror?
After you get over your abject terror.
Okay, the first thing that I would need to do would be to determine for sure what modality they’re using for communication: Is this primarily oral, is it primarily via sound, visual, what have you? Beyond that, I would do kind of what [Louise] did, which is establish the very basic vocabulary: This is what I’m called, what are you called? I would identify the parts of the body, try to establish if they have one unit per object, one unit per sentence, whether it’s sound or image, depending on the modality they’re using.
Even in a spoken language, there are languages in which you can encode what for me would be an entire sentence can be one word. “He likes them” can be one word in Swahili, but it’s three words for me. So I need to find out: What are their units and how large a chunk of meaning does each unit convey? And then get those basic words or units. I would try to get the basic correspondences of meanings to units, and then see if there’s an ordering difference—in English, “Kim loves Sally” is quite different from “Sally loves Kim.” So I’d have to see whether ordering makes a difference.
And then I would simply build up, and that’s the part that they sort of skipped in the movie, that slow buildup from I’m called a human to quite abstract words like weapon. That is a very abstract concept, and one wonders how they established that that is the meaning.
It turns out that the word the humans translate as “weapon” could also mean “tool” or “gift.” What did you think about the fact that the aliens came to Earth purely to give us their language?
As a linguist, I loved that the movie revolved around their giving up this gift, even though it’s only a gift on the quite silly deterministic reading where the minute you have their language, you have the ability to see the future. That just made me laugh. But it’s the logical extreme of a Whorfian worldview, right? Like, oh my goodness, by understanding their language, you suddenly have nonlinear time and can therefore see the future. But I loved that it all hinged on them giving this gift of language and hence this gift of an improved worldview.
Do you think a movie like Arrival will push people to become interested in linguistics?
I actually do, and that is a great thing. It’s funny that very early on, Ian says, “You approach language like a mathematician.” I get that from my students in the department of English a lot, because they’re people who are used to looking at themes in great literature, and then they come to linguistics and it feels very much like math to them. Because it is a science. So to see a character, a linguist, portrayed as doing something that is really fun and very much like puzzle-solving, I think that’s a plus. We need more linguists as electronic communication becomes more and more important.
Not to mention in case of alien invasion.
You know, maybe someday.