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.

Language, Music, My life, Spanish, Translation

The loveliest version of the loveliest tango…

…is this recording made of El día que me quieras by my wife, Alicia Isabel Santacruz. I have scoured the internet, and have not found a better performance.

It was written by Alfredo Le Pera and Carlos Gardel, and featured in a movie by the same name in 1935, performed by Gardel. Alicia’s recording was released a couple of years ago but is not widely available.


Following are the lyrics, along with my translation:

Acaricia mi ensueño el suave murmullo de tu suspirar
Como ríe la vida si tus ojos negros me quieren mirar
Y si es mío el amparo de tu risa leve que es como un cantar
Ella aquieta mi herida. Todo, todo se olvida

El día que me quieras la rosa que engalana
Se vestirá de fiesta con su mejor color
Y al viento las campanas dirán que ya eres mía
Y locas las fontanas se contarán su amor

La noche que me quieras desde el azul del cielo
Las estrellas celosas nos mirarán pasar
Y un rayo misterioso hará nido en tu pelo
Luciernaga curiosa que verá que eres mi consuelo

The soft murmur of your sighing caresses my reverie
How life will laugh if your dark eyes choose to see me
And if the refuge of your light song-like laughter is mine
It will soothe my wound. All, all is forgotten
The day that you love me, the rose that adorns
will put on party clothes of its favorite color
And the bells will tell the wind that you are finally mine
The fountains, delirious, will tell each other of their love
The night that you love me, from the blue of the sky
the jealous stars will watch us go by
And a mysterious ray will make its nest in your hair
A curious firefly that will see that you are my solace


Language, My life

Back when I was a real linguist…

…one of my profs was Kenneth Pike. He was an eminence in American linguistics, although his name became less known following the Chomskyan revolution. Pike is responsible for the terms “etic” and “emic” which have to do with description of behavior by an outside observer or by an insider. His 1943 book Phonetics was for many years the most comprehensive resource for articulatory phonetics, his 1947 book Phonemics became the essential text on phonology, and those are just two of 0ver 250 works he published in the course of over 60 years as a linguist.

One of my favorite and most challenging courses in grad school was a history of American linguistics taught by Dr. Pike. Our text was a pamphlet written in 1965 by him and his sister Eunice Pike called Live Issues in Descriptive Linguistics, which was a linguistics bibliography organized under discussion questions. For each class, one of the discussion questions was assigned and we had to read several of the listed publications and write a response paper. In class, Pike would flip through our papers, select a few, and cross-examine each author regarding what he had said. (I don’t recall any women in that class.) It could be quite intimidating.

One of my proudest moments was when I compared an old article by Pike on Immediate Constituent analysis with one by Longacre (another of my profs and a close colleague of Pike’s) on string analysis. IC analysis breaks linguistic constructs into two parts (subject/predicate, verb phrase/prepositional phrase, preposition/noun phrase, etc.) until a sentence is completely parsed. String analysis, on the other hand, parses a sentence based on the number of sentence-level elements it contains (subject/verb/object/location/time, etc.) and then each of those elements is parsed similarly. I argued that the IC assumption that each structure can be divided into two primary parts was arbitrary, and that the tree chart in Pike’s article made it look like some phrase elements were at the same level as some sentence elements, whereas Longacre’s chart made it much clearer to which level the elements belonged. Pike and I had a fairly long discussion about this in class, while my classmates looked on in admiration and/or bewilderment. In the end, Pike agreed with me.

Occasionally Ken  would scrawl comments in the margins of our papers. His handwriting was worse than a medical doctor’s. I once showed him one of his notes and asked him what it said. He stared at it and said, “I have no idea.”

Pike’s sister Eunice and wife Evelyn were also outstanding linguists. I never had a class with either, but Eunice had taught phonology to some of my classmates, and Evelyn lectured in Pike’s class once on discourse analysis. I argued with Evelyn about one part of her analysis of a narrative about the Dunkirk evacuation; the story included a sentence something along the lines of “Then a miracle began to occur.” Evelyn had charted it as a sequential part of the narrative, whereas I argued that it was an editorial comment by the narrator. She agreed that I had a valid point.

I sat with the Pikes three times that I can recall: for a UTA faculty meeting (I was briefly an adjunct professor), in the cafeteria at the SIL linguistics institute, and at a neighborhood association meeting (the Pikes lived a couple of blocks from me in a little neighborhood full of missionary linguists). Each time we had stimulating conversations. At least once, maybe twice, I heard Ken ask his wife afterwards, “Who was that young man?” He was a genius but not known for his social skills.

Pike died in 2000. Evelyn died just the other day. You can read her obit here.

Language, Spanish, Translation

False friends beginning with P (Spanish-English)

This list of false friends includes several of my favorites. It’s fascinating to see that plaga means “pest” and peste means “plague.” As a result, Hay una peste de plaga por aquí gets translated backwards: “There’s a plague of pests around here,” or much better: “This place is infested with bugs.”

In Costa Rica, 20 years ago, I heard the term plagio in reference to a kidnapping. I thought it was funny because in English, “plagiarism” only refers to what students have done since antiquity: copying other people’s work and presenting it as their own. But when I investigated the etymology of the word, I discovered that in Latin, plagium means “kidnapping.” The term was modified in English about four centuries ago to refer to certain kinds of intellectual property theft.

It was also in Costa Rica that I heard an amusing story about a missionary who was preaching about what Jesus meant when he said we are the salt of the world. The missionary unintentionally told the congregation that they needed  to be condoms (preservativos) in their society.

When I was a kid, I read  the question, ¿Qué pretendes? in an adventure book, and I was very confused because the character to whom the question was made wasn’t pretending anything. Upon examining the context, I came to the (correct) conclusion that the question meant, “What are you trying to do?”

My wife, a singer very well known in Colombia, plans to record the beautiful Gloria Estefan song called No Pretendo, which says the following:

No pretendo ser la huella que se deja en tu camino
ni pretendo ser aquella que se cruza en tu destino
Solo quiero descubrirme tras la luz de tu sonrisa
Ser el bálsamo que alivia tus tristezas en la vida

I don’t intend to be the footprint left on your path
nor do I intend to be the woman who crosses your destiny
I just want to find myself behind the light of your smile
to be the balsam that soothes the sorrows of your life…

What a fortunate man I am, that from among all of her pretendientes Alicia Isabel chose to love me.

Here is the list of false friends beginning with P:

Pariente: “relative”
Parent: “father or mother”

Peste: “plague”
Pest:  “destructive insect or animal; annoying person”

Plaga:  “pest; calamity”
Plague: “contagious disease; calamity”

Plagio:  “kidnapping; plagiarism”
Plagiarism: “copying another person’s work to present as one’s own”

Prácticamente: “in practice; in reality”
Practically: “almost, nearly”

Preservativo: “condom”
Preservative: “food additive to increase shelf life”

Pretender: “aspire; court; pretend”
Pretend: “simulate, fake, act as if something is true that is not”

Pretendiente: “candidate, claimant; suitor”
Pretender: “candidate, claimant; one who pretends”

Procurar: “try, attempt”
Procure: “acquire, get”

Propaganda: “advertisement”
Propaganda: “information issued by a political organization to promote an idea or cause”

Language, Spanish, Translation

False friends beginning with G-O (Spanish-English)

Most mistakes in translated texts are the result of overly literal translation, in my experience. When we translate word by word instead of creating an idiomatic translation, the result includes strange and sometimes incoherent phrases or sentences. For instance, “He waited a minute or two” can be translated literally: Él esperó un minuto o dos, but it sounds more natural to say, Esperó un par de minutos “He waited a pair of minutes” or Se detuvo un momento “He paused for a moment,” because these are Spanish idioms.

Note that in English every sentence has to have a subject, in this case “he.” In Spanish the subject is omitted when it is clear from context and conjugation, as in the latter two examples above. A common error made by native Spanish speakers translating into English is to omit the subject in such sentences. This is especially tricky in sentences that don’t ever have a subject in Spanish, like Está lloviendo, which they might translate as “Is raining” instead of “It’s raining.”

In the examples above, the meaning is retained despite the literal translations. However, in the worst cases, a literal translation produces completely incorrect meaning, especially when false friends are involved. For example, a Latin American family took their son to the emergency room because he was dizzy and almost unconscious. They didn’t speak English, and when they tried to explain to the (English-speaking) nurse that the boy appeared to have been poisoned, she heard the word intoxicado and thought they were saying that he was drunk. The result was tragic, because the doctors saw little urgency in attending to someone who was drunk, and by the time they discovered the real problem, it was too late.  “Intoxicated” can refer to poisoning in English, but its primary meaning is “inebriated.”

False friends are constant reminders of the dangers of literal translation. “A gracious hostess” is polite; on the other hand, una anfitriona graciosa makes us laugh. “The teacher molested the children” is a horrible situation, but El maestro molestó a los niños could mean something totally trivial. “It just hit the target” doesn’t mean Dió justo en el blanco “It hit exactly on target” but rather Apenas le dio al blanco “It barely hit the target.” But remember that “That was just what I needed” can actually be translated Era justo lo que necesitaba because that particular sense of the word “just” does coincide with its Spanish cognate.

The website is a great source of examples of translated words and phrases in context, extracted from  published text. It’s the site I most use when I’m translating documents. Of course, you have to look at the context to see if the examples are relevant, and you have to take care because not all of the translations are correct.

Following are false friends starting with G-O:

Gracioso: “funny”
Gracious: “polite, kind, hospitable”

Idioma: “language, spoken or written tongue”
Idiom: “figure of speech”

Inconsecuente: “inconsistent, contradictory”
Inconsequential: “trivial, of no importance”

Intoxicar: “poison”
Intoxicate: “inebriate”

Introducir: “insert”
Introduce: “make known by name”

Justo: “just, fair; exactly, precisely”
Just: “fair, equitable; only, barely; precisely”

Lenguaje: “terminology, jargon”
Language: “the tongue used by a community”

Maquinista: “train engineer, bus driver; machinist; machine operator”
Machinist: “lathe operator”

Molestar: “bother, pester”
Molest: “abuse sexually”

Noticia: “news”
Notice: “announcement; warning”

Ostensiblemente: “obviously, visibly”
Ostensibly: “supposedly”