Language, Movie review, My life

Grumpy movie review: Arrival

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.


22 thoughts on “Grumpy movie review: Arrival

  1. Hope you realize how gratifying it is to get your ‘take’ on this fluffy-thang.
    (I’m still in ‘woe is me’ mode from nonsense ‘Morse Code’ in movies. At least Disney tried: ‘Hi Walt’, the dots and dashes sent accurately say.)
    So there’s a shortage of ‘WWRLT?’ considerations? (What Would Real Linguists Think?) Add, what would real Amish think?, in the case of watching flicks about ‘my people’.
    I will witness that I’m a ‘Sapir-Whorf ‘ poster-child here in Israel, having done an almost 100% transition between English and Hebrew. One dumb word for snow, but, more to the point, ‘caring’ is no longer an active verb, it’s something that happens to the speaker. if he can’t prevent it, ha.
    Thanks again for the grumpy review. I’ll find the budget some time to view it, and have more to say.

    • My dad and my ex-in-laws were born into German-speaking households (my dad’s folks were immigrants who met in the US, the exes grew up Ohio Amish). In both cases, they switched to English as soon as they could, about when they started school. I’ve always been curious what happens to the brain when someone changes primary language so completely like that. They all retained the ability to speak German, but they thought in English except when speaking German.

      Sometimes the switch happens abruptly. In 1983 Dad and I went to Europe. We hoped to visit a family in Switzerland that had adopted three sisters from my parents’ orphanage. When I had met them in late 1980 they were ages 11, 9, and 6. They came from very poor circumstances; once my folks took them for an outing downtown, where they promptly disappeared. My folks hunted for them, and eventually the girls turned up, each giving my folks a handful of change. So obviously they had been used to begging and thought that was what my folks had them along for! Anyway, summer 1983 they had been living with an adopted family in Switzerland for a year or two. We weren’t able to visit them, but when Dad reached them by phone, he tried to talk with them, and the only Spanish they remembered was “Papa Paul”, which is what they had called him in the orphanage. In that short time, even the oldest had completely transitioned to French.

      • I can only add that transitioning from ‘Dutch’ to English for me was mainly ‘learning how to say anything positive about a guy’. (Some languages are 99% derogatory?)
        A ‘hole’ Yiddish now re-fills nicely.
        But French? Nah. Once in Quebec I tried to get a local to help me make a coin-op soda machine work correctly. He just had to say ‘You sorta talk French, but fail to realize: French isn’t a language… it’s a ‘way you hold your mouth!’

  2. Fascinating. I’ve encountered the notion before that language precedes or enables thought, in my case via Wittgenstein. It’s an exciting extrapolation of that idea in this plot, that previously un-thought thoughts could be unleashed by exposure to alien words. I’ll see if I can track down this movie.

    • I’m somewhat skeptical of Sapir-Whorf, but it is fun to think about; for instance, in Spanish if something disappears, one says, “Se perdió,” “It lost itself”. In English, adults say, “I lost it.” (Kids will often say “It got lost,” which is essentially the same as the Spanish.) Some argue that this reflects Latin fatalism vs. the north European internal locus of control, which is also reflected in the bars on windows and chaperon traditions of southern Europe vs. the northern European expectation that people will do the right thing on their own. But I’d need to see a pattern across the language before I’d be willing to say that Spanish programs its speakers to be fatalistic and not take responsibility.

      • John says:

        A nice thing in Spanish, you can’t drop something: ‘se me cayó’ ‘it fell from me.’ [Notice that IT did it.]

  3. Your variety of linguistics is one that’s always amazed me. Most ivory-tower scientific linguistics (of whichever variety) at least has a ton of preexisting data to build on, meaning they work with languages that have what you might call an extensive philological tradition. I can’t even imagine how you’d even start to analyze a language that’s never been attested in any documentary form.

    “A linguist is a person who knows many languages.” 😀 The classic misconception discussed at the beginning of Linguistics 101 everywhere! I guess it’s not surprising to find stuff like that in a movie, if disheartening. I hear Prometheus at least used Schleicher’s fable in depicting the working-out of an alien language.

    Hey, at least linguists get some respect in the way they’re portrayed on screen. Mathematicians and computer scientists probably have it the worst (and physicists, à la “The Big Bang Theory.”) One of my former supervisors, a prominent computer scientist, said that library science owes computer science a debt for raising its public image—it used to be that in the movies, when they wanted to show a nebbish with no social graces, it was always a librarian, and now it’s a computer wizard.

    • The actual work field linguists do is fascinating and would make for great movies if writers knew about it. I’m still waiting for the linguistic version of Raiders of the Lost Ark so I can discover what exciting uniform Hollywood will assign linguists, the way the felt hat became the emblem of archaeologists (although caps and canvas desert hats are what I see in Biblical Archaeological Review magazines). I’ve always been partial to pith helmets. If Spielberg had paid more attention to Gary Larson’s Far Side… Can you imagine Harrison Ford in a pith helmet?

  4. I guess it’s one of those professions that most people don’t even know is a thing. Translator, yes, linguist, no. So the writers can watch a TED talk on the subject and then write a script without worrying about their own ignorance. I’m not a professional anything, but I see mistakes on TV shows all the time. Sometimes I wonder how obvious mistakes make it to screen. Those scripts go through several hands.

    • One of the biggest was in Independence Day. Remember Jeff Goldblum’s stupid drunk scene? It was because he couldn’t decipher the alien computer language to write a virus for it. But a little later in the movie, suddenly the task was done, with no explanation! Really lame.

  5. lamarhowell says:

    Good review and you brought up many things I never considered.
    I did a bit of eye-rolling during this film myself. If I were to do a film on meeting an alien species, I would consider using the table of elements as a starter, then go to metals/precious metals and their qualities and characteristics. I would use light as a constant to help both parties learn speed and distance terms. Use space and heavenly bodies to connect understanding.
    I don’t think I would write words on a card because without clear context that is nonsense. Unless, of course, the parties think learning to read is easier than learning to speak. I didn’t get how they went from “man” and “woman” to their names. And the stupidity of the officer who had her listen to sounds and translate into meaning.

    • It looked like the other contact points were using scientific and mathematical materials with some success to establish communication. But they wouldn’t necessarily provide a basic vocabulary for communication. Communication by writing (especially using standard English orthography, which is useless from a phonological standpoint) is not very feasible as a beginning.

  6. John says:

    I will point out that when the US govt wants to translate a sensitive Farsi* document, they do NOT go to a native Iranian – they go to an American [possibly Canadian or Brit or Ozzie, but someone who can pass their security checks and has been under their watchful eye to have a good idea of the person’s biases], typically who learned it as an adult at one of the government language institutes (LI). The not so sensitive documents go to the native speaker.
    Why? because it’s best to have a native speaker of the language you are translating INTO. You mentioned SIL linguists. Today the SIL linguist is facilitating the translation by native speakers of language Y INTO language Y. The SIL linguist helps with going from language Z (English, German, Spanish, Chinese – the language he or she is native in) to the language Y speaker [there are a lot of techniques to help ensure it gets done correctly, but to oversimplify, I’ll leave out the details].
    The govt does something like that, but hopes that the training by native speakers at the LI served the purpose of having language Z helpers work with the language Y speakers [here language Y is English, language Z is Farsi*].
    Being a linguist myself, I’m not sure that a govt translation can ever need the care of a translation of the Bible, but maybe I’m odd about that: look at many of our English Bible translations and paraphrases, etc. When I was in college, I went thru the NUC [Library of Congress’ periodic catalog listings] and found over 2000 translations of the Bible [or published significant portions] into English – more translations in English than there were languages with translations of significant portions of the Bible.
    Speaking again of SIL linguists – it was fascinating watching Ken Pike do his monolingual elicitations – within minutes he was speaking with the speaker of a language he knew nothing about when he started. Wish I could do it so easily!

    *You can replace Farsi with the name of whichever language you’re interested in, spoken by a group we don’t trust. I used Farsi since you did.

    • Yeah, documents that are going into English ideally should be reviewed by a native speaker, but it depends on what they are. If they just need to be comprehensible, a native Farsi speaker will have a better grasp on what they mean in the first place and can generate an adequate draft. Among the government translators I’ve met and talked with, I’ve never gotten hints of discrimination between immigrant citizens and the white guys (usually Mormon or ex-military).

      I never got to watch Pike do a monolingual demonstration, but I’ve seen others do it and tried it myself once. Too bad the movie producers never saw it.

      • John says:

        I wasn’t talking discrimination, either [certainly not in the modern meaning], so I’m not sure what you mean. So I’ll word it this way.

        If my L1 (native language, or FSI level 5) is Spanish and K’iche is my L2 (some lesser degree of fluency – say FSI 3+), then for anything formal, I’m not the best person to translate from Spanish to K’iche, but I might be a good person to translate from K’iche to Spanish. [I might do a fine job translating much of the time, but not good enough for many purposes.]
        In the case of a US official needing a very good translation of something written in Farsi so the official knows for sure what it says and what it implies, it should be done by a native American English speaker (L1) who has a good understanding of Farsi (preferably FSI 4 or 4+).
        Better yet would be an American or Iranian who has both Farsi and English as L1s. Since there aren’t enough of those, and if he has two choices, an L1 Farsi / L2 English, or an L1 English / L2 Farsi, both professional translators, he should go with the L1 Engish speaker, “all other things being equal” (an impossibility, but …). Better yet would be for the L1 English speaker to do the translation from Farsi to Englisah WITH the help of the L1 Farsi, who might catch extra nuances in the original Farsi.
        If that US official wanted to create a document that appears to have been written by a native Iranian, then those two translators would be in the reverse positions.

        Nothing to do with discrimination – it’s strictly a matter of getting the better translation done as to which person does it. Always when possible, have a translator who is a native speaker of the target language do the translation. Better yet, have a translator who is a native of the source language help. But that doubles the cost (actually, they usually consider it more like 2.5 times the cost for economic reasons I don’t find fully convincing, but I’ll grant that it may more than double the cost in time and money).

        So SIL tries to do the multiple person team work. Most US government agencies can’t afford the time or money, so they settle with somebody they’ve trained to speak the language as an L2. They would be happy to get more L1 speakers, but most of them are not available. So they send people to one of the DLIs to study intensively for a few months. Leaving out most of the details along the way, eventually that person is known and trusted to translate from, e. g., Farsi to English, though they probably don’t know most Farsi children’s songs, or some of the back country slang, etc, and might not be over an FSI 4 or 4+.

        But if they need to go the other direction (especially if it needs to look like native Farsi, they will probably use the L2 to do a basic translation (‘good draft’), and then have that L2 work with an L1 to polish it off (or more likely, ‘unpolish’ it to look more natural). But that has made the job more difficult, more costly (in several senses), and adds to the security problems involved.

        So, yes, any time multiple humans work together, their is some level of discrimination (from, it takes an expert to accurately detect it, all the way to outright bigotry and hatred), but everything in my earlier comment was assuming such a low level for a general rule so as to assume there was none. In this comment the only place I was looking at that was in response to your comment. [Again, maybe you were using discrimination in an older sense: people should discriminate properly between two things so as to make the correct choice.]

  7. This is so interesting to read, Tim! To get your “grumpy” perspective! Thanks! I always enjoy your movie reviews! 🙂
    AND this is very interesting to me, because when I watched the movie, many months ago now, I thought of you.
    I enjoyed the movie, but wondered how many misconceptions and falsities there were in it. Hollywood often just assumes we will be happy to suspend/sacrifice truth, realism, and logic for the sake of enjoyment. But, that’s hard to do sometimes. 🙂
    HUGS for you and for Alicia!!! 🙂

    • In the original Independence Day movie, Jeff Goldblum was tasked with deciphering alien communications and writing a virus in their language. It was really weird that they had that stupid scene where he was drunk because he couldn’t do it, and then sometime later it was no longer a problem, with no explanation whatsoever of his success. I hate stuff like that. This movie at least showed something about the process, even if it was unrealistic.

  8. Tim I loved reading your post. You are a linguist, and so you can nit pick and know how to critique the movie, and see the flaws that are glaring. I am exactly like that when I watch a medical drama or movie…. and my family hisses at me when I say.. “As IF! That never can happen in an operating room or in the ER. ”
    I totally understand where you are coming from!

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