Tor.com content by

CD Covington

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.

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Good Fiction, Questionable Science: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Hello, and welcome to my new monthly(ish) column about language and linguistics in science fiction and fantasy! My name is Conni (CD) Covington, and I have MAs in both German and linguistics. I wrote my linguistics thesis on the effect of usage frequency on verbal morphology in a subset of German strong verbs (class VII), and my analysis suggests that there is a threshold frequency below which strong (“irregular”) verbs are most likely to become weak (“regular”). Catch me at a con, and I will happily talk your ear off about this! Broadly, I’m interested in how people use language: why a particular group of people uses a particular set of words and what it means to do so; whether it’s snuck or sneaked; what effects the massive increase in global communication allowed by social media is having on languages.

On the SFF end of things, I am a graduate of Viable Paradise 17 (2013), and I’ve had a few short stories published in anthologies. I tend to read or watch space opera-type stuff, like Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, CJ Cherryh’s Alliance-Union and Foreigner series, Yoon-Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, Babylon 5, and The Expanse. I enjoy mecha anime, mainly Gundam and Macross. I haven’t read a lot of fantasy recently, but Lord of the Rings was very formative when I read it the first time, aged 10. That sparked my interest in languages, like it did for a not-insignificant portion of my fellow linguists.

What is this column going to be about? I’ll be taking a look at the ways various authors use language in their works, and, in some cases, how linguists and linguistics are portrayed in fiction and media. I have a running list of works I want to talk about in a notebook—and I’ll take suggestions! Some of these topics will be positive, some will be neutral, and some things just make me want to hit my head against a wall.

[First order of business: Sapir-Whorf and SFF]

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