Linguistics in Arrival: Heptapods, Whiteboards, and Nonlinear Time

Arrival is a 2016 movie based on Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life.” Dr. Louise Banks is a linguistics professor, and she is contacted by the army to help translate an alien language when twelve spaceships mysteriously appear above various places on Earth. Interspersed throughout the film are snippets of her life with her daughter.

Linguists around the internet were very excited when this movie came out—finally, a movie about us that gets things (mostly) right! The internet’s favorite linguist, Gretchen McCulloch, collected links to a variety of articles here and did an episode of her podcast, Lingthusiasm, about the movie (transcript here). When Neil deGrasse Tyson made a disparaging remark to the effect that they should have chosen a cryptographer and astrobiologist, rather than a linguist, to talk to the aliens, Language Log posted an open letter from linguists explaining why he’s wrong.

A lot of things in the movie rang very true to me. One common misperception of linguists is that we know a lot of languages. That’s not (necessarily) true! Linguistics is about how language works, so some people may know a whole lot about one particular language and that’s it. Others may know how to read a dozen (or more) dead or reconstructed languages, like my friends who are studying Proto-Indo-European, who’ve learned Sanskrit, Greek, Hittite, Latin, classical Armenian, and that sort of thing. I know a lot about one language (German) and some about English (by default, and also because English is the most widely studied language), and I can read five dead languages to varying degrees (Gothic, Old Norse, Old English, Old Saxon, and Middle High German—and this is because of my interest in German.) I can speak very small amounts of Russian and Japanese. I’m one of the “gotta learn ‘em all”-type of linguist. I have some colleagues who have difficulty learning other languages, so they focus on English.

In Arrival, when Colonel Weber drops by Banks’ office to get her to translate the alien language, he plays a recording for her and asks her what it means: “Did you hear any words? Any phrases?” She replies that it’s impossible to translate it from an audio file. Weber is confused because she translated Farsi from recordings before, so why can’t she just translate this? Her answer is that she already knows Farsi, and she doesn’t know the alien language. This seems like a completely obvious answer, but the popular perception that linguists “just know” a lot of languages is at work here. This was a very true part of the movie for those who study linguistics; Banks is frustrated with Weber’s misconception of how her job works, and I can sympathize.

When she finally makes it out to the alien landing site, she gets a chance to do field work. I haven’t personally done extensive field work, but I’ve learned the principles in class (and field work for sociolinguistics is slightly different than field work for documenting a language), and this also rings very true. After a session or two without any progress (because the heptapods’ language is kind of like whale sounds and humans can’t make it out), Banks sees a whiteboard in the prep area—and she grabs it. She uses it to write “human” because maybe the aliens have a writing system and they can understand each other that way. And the heptapods respond with a logogram. This is a great breakthrough, and they soon get more vocabulary in this way. A team of analysts gets to work on decoding it (using geometry, as best I can tell) and making a translation interface. This part is perhaps dubious, but it’s science fiction, and there’s alien language involved, so it’s not a big deal. It doesn’t break my suspension of disbelief, because writing systems aren’t my area of expertise but also because it’s realistic enough.

After a few sessions, Weber tells Banks to move on to the real questions, asking why they’re still on “grade-school words” like “eat” or “walk.” Banks explains to him why you have to start from the basics and work your way up to questions like “What is your purpose on Earth?” You need to know what the pronouns mean, whether the aliens understand the concept of questions and exchanging information, and a lot of other things before you can create higher-level sentences. (This is something that’s vital in CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series—which I’ll return to in a future column.) Weber is grudgingly satisfied and tells her to continue with her work. This scene also rang extremely true to me. I had a conversation about Arrival with a colleague at a conference after we both mentioned liking SF, and he specifically mentioned this scene as being a fist-pumping “hell yes!” moment, because it was so real and relatable.

A linguist’s job is to think about language and how it works. Linguists enjoy that and often have conversations about which dialect features they personally have, or sometimes they develop entire research articles around something they overheard on the bus. This is what we do. Not everyone thinks about how language works or is even interested in the subject. So it’s not surprising that Weber is frustrated because he doesn’t think there’s any progress happening, when Dr. Banks knows she’s made considerable progress.

So far, so verisimilar! In my first column, I wrote about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This is the entire basis for the story that drives Arrival. As Louise Banks begins understanding the heptapods’ language, she becomes unmoored in time. She sees the future and present at the same time (and introduces time travel paradoxes, but that’s a job for someone else to unravel), because the heptapods’ written language is circular and every sentence is conceived of all at once, thus facilitating the ability to perceive time in a non-linear manner. This is nonsense, of course. Learning a language where native speakers conceive of the entire sentence in one thought doesn’t mean that you will rewire your brain to see time all at once.

However, it didn’t break my suspension of disbelief (even though I repeatedly got annoyed at it, from a linguistic standpoint). Chiang’s writing, and the screen adaptation of his novella, was internally consistent, and within the realm of the story, it remained plausible. After all, it’s fiction—and dang good fiction, at that.

CD Covington has masters degrees in German and Linguistics, likes science fiction and roller derby, and misses having a cat. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise 17 and has published short stories in anthologies, most recently the story “Debridement” in Survivor, edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj and J.J. Pionke.

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