A Linguist’s View
Arrival is a movie about a linguist, Louise Banks, selected by the government to communicate with aliens that arrive in twelve huge vessels parked around the globe. It seems to have been written by someone who has dabbled in linguistics but has little idea of what linguists actually do.
An army officer arrives at Louise’s door with a recording of noises that are the aliens’ response to a certain question. He proposes that Louise analyze the language by means of such recordings. Louise tells him that analysis will require face-to-face interaction and can’t be done as he proposes. As he leaves to interview the alternate candidate (apparently Louise’s rival), she tells him to ask the alternate what the Sanskrit word for “war” is and what it means.
The colonel returns some time later and tells her the word and that the guy said it meant “struggle.” She says it actually means “desire for more cows.”
By the time this interaction takes place, the colonel has already selected her, so the point of the Sanskrit word discussion is unclear. In any case, in all languages, words have more than one meaning or use, so linguists discussing definitions must include context rather than simple definitive statements like these. This is in fact one of the main points of the plot, which hinges on the issue of multiple meanings, specifically the fact that “tool” and “weapon” could be alternate definitions of the same alien word.
Other misconceptions about linguists:
The movie indicates that Louise knows multiple languages; she has translated sensitive Farsi recordings for the government, she speaks fluent Chinese with the president of China, she announces in class that she is going to address the question of why Portuguese sounds like it does.
However… if the government needs Farsi recordings translated urgently, they are not going to entrust them to an American university professor, they’ll use an Iranian translator. Why? Because someone who has learned half a dozen languages as an adult is unlikely to know any of them at the depth and nuance necessary for such sensitive work, no matter how bright she is. Language learning requires vast amounts of time and context, and there is no indication that Louise has ever lived in Iran.
Nowhere is there any indication that Louise has ever done fieldwork in a previously unwritten language. Her first session with the aliens makes it clear that she has no experience in monolingual elicitation techniques. She doesn’t even have the standard 100-word list used by field linguists for basic phonological analysis. The military would have been far better off recruiting SIL missionary linguists whose training is geared precisely to learning and analyzing previously unwritten languages.
Louise’s scientist companion asks her about the idea that learning new languages rewires one’s brain. She tells him about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which suggests that one’s view of reality is filtered by language. This becomes the heart of the movie; as Louise delves into the alien’s written symbols, she experiences flashbacks of things that haven’t happened yet, and eventually we discover that the aliens’ language allows people to see the future.
However… this begins before there’s even any indication that they are delving into tenses (past, present, future), and it doesn’t seem to matter that she’s only learning the language’s written form. And it only happens to her, not to the team working with her and not to linguists at the other 11 sites who are also learning the language.
And as usual, time paradoxes are created and not resolved. Louise learns something in a forward flashback that allows her to solve a problem now… but knowing about it now means the conversation she sees in the future would not happen the same way.
Still, it was fun to see a linguist featured in a movie, even if it’s a caricatured view, and to have the chance to pick a story like this apart. I will definitely watch it again.