What do linguists think of the movie Arrival?

By: | Post date: 2016-12-27 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: General Language, Linguistics

You have waited a long time, Hansolophontes, for me to answer this A2A. I did not read any spoilers. I did not read any of the other answers (which may make this look silly this late).

I finally watched Arrival last night. Very well made movie: great sense of atmosphere, and fear, and awe. I was annoyed at the plot twist: it’s annoying and cheap whenever it shows up in science fiction (it was a letdown whenever it was used in Star Trek). But given that it was going to happen, I have to say, it was handled poetically by the movie. As long as you don’t think about the plot holes (and associated plot laziness) too closely.

What did I think about it as a linguist?

  • They fast-forwarded the best part, how Louise worked out the language past the first two words. They got the start of the process, but not the heart of the process. But that’s OK: not many people would have found it cinematic.
  • The start of the process of working out the aliens’ language was beautifully handled.
  • The whole non-linearity thing about the aliens’ language? Shoehorned in to connect to the plot twist. It wasn’t explained so as to make sense: all I could see was a circle with a bunch of words in it, I wasn’t persuaded there was anything intrinsically non-linear going on.
  • Movies with any degree of complexity have an obligatory whiteboard scene. The whiteboard scene was well done: the questions Louise was raising about what basic concepts they had to establish were rattled through rather quickly, but they all made sense, and were well thought through.
  • The derision of Ian wanting to talk to the aliens in maths was silly. And mercifully, the guys in Australia did not think it was silly. It’s been accepted for decades that if you want to confirm alien sentience, you use maths that does not occur in nature. (Although that means primes, not the Fibonacci sequence.)
  • What sort of a linguist was she? There’s hints she’s an historical linguist (she knows some Sanskrit, and she knows both the anecdote about kangaroo = “I don’t understand”, and the fact that when someone bothered to record the language where Cook landed, it turned out not to be true). But what historical linguist has a photo of fricking Chomsky at her desk? Chomsky is a big part of the reason why historical linguists don’t get jobs.
  • That was probably a freshman lecture on linguistics; the textbook she was cradling certainly looked like Linguistics 101. But what Linguistics 101 course dedicates a whole lecture to Portuguese (outside the Lusosphere)? And who the hell explains Portuguese by saying that the mediaeval Galicians thought language was art? You don’t say Onde é o banheiro? in Portuguese as an act of art.
  • I’m amused that Ian brought up the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and Louise didn’t immediately start guffawing. My own opinion is that there is a little bit (a little bit) to the hypothesis. But derision of Sapir-Whorf within linguistics is universal, and in fact is something of a shibboleth: it is ideologically driven because of how linguistics currently thinks of language. It’s only non-linguists who take Sapir-Whorf seriously.
  • Oh, the army guy dumping the tape recording and saying “translate this”?! Come on. Even grunts aren’t that silly…

The director has obviously talked to linguists, and has certainly read up on linguistics. The details (such as the university setting) did look to have come from someone who wasn’t that clear about how university linguistics actually works. The linguistically challenging bits were swept under the carpet. But the core scenes about establishing communication (including the whiteboard scene) were right.

OK, now to read what everybody else said…

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