Arrival: Linguistics on the Silver Screen

Dear LINGUIST List readers and subscribers,

For this year’s Fund Drive, we wanted shine a spotlight on pieces of pop culture that feature linguists and languages. It is not often that we see linguists portrayed on the silver screen. So, when Arrival was said to feature a linguist as the leading lady, it was not unexpected that many in the linguistic community were excited at the prospect of having our field highlighted by Hollywood. Today’s letter discusses the image of the discipline and its practitioners as represented in the movie—if you have yet to see the film here is an official spoiler warning and an endorsement by us here at LINGUIST List.

Arrival begins with the appearance of 12 alien spacecrafts landing in various countries on Earth. As a result, Dr. Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics, is contracted by the US military to decrypt the alien’s language and orthography, which appears as non-linear circular symbols.  To do so, Dr. Banks uses a whiteboard and markers to communicate with the aliens. The simplicity of this solution was comically juxtaposed by the intricate machinery used by the physicist working alongside her. As usually, simplest solutions turn out to be be most ingenious. She uses fieldwork techniques that many linguists who do language documentation would be familiar with. She begins by teaching the alien lifeforms her name in attempts to elicit the same information back and moves on to more complex concepts once basic words are established. One of the most exciting aspects of watching the movie as a linguist was seeing how well they portrayed fieldwork, particularly the moments when she has been mulling over a theory and has a break through. Unlike many fields portrayed in movies, Dr. Banks isn’t portrayed as someone who can magically solve the riddle of the language immediately but has to work through the language like any other linguist would.

The film doesn’t just use linguistic fieldwork methods to drive the plot forward but utilizes popular linguistic theories at its thematic center. The film’s plot relies heavily on an extrapolated version Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In particular, Benjamin Lee Whorf’s theory of linguistic relativity, and his discussion of Hopi time. This theory suggested that the Hopi people did not consider the passing of time as a linear progression of days but rather as a cyclic return of daylight. The concept of time and language is central to the film’s plot and Dr. Banks understanding of the alien lifeforms’ language. While this theory is largely contested by the wider linguistic community, the film uses it as a thought experiment on how language could determine the way in which we see and interact with the world. While the film takes it to a degree that the linguistic community at large would find implausible, the film does do a decent job of extrapolating on Whorf’s theory while maintaining the basis of it. More importantly, the film highlights the fact that language is the basis for how we interact as a society and that part of linguistics is trying to better understand humanity through how we communicate.

Despite the fact that her office appears only in a few short scenes early in plot, the filmmakers also put in the time and effort to create a linguistic space for Dr. Louise Banks to inhabit. Leading up to the film’s release, Ben Zimmer at the Language Log documented the painstaking detail with which the filmmakers modeled Dr. Banks’ office, visiting the offices of the film’s linguistic consultants–Jessica Coon, Lisa deMena Travis, and Morgan Sonderegger–taking pictures, mapping the space, and even renting stacks of books from the real-world linguists to intellectually populate the fictional linguist’s world. Eagle-eyed viewers could spot the works of Andrew Carnie, Noam Chomsky, Roman Jakobson, and even Jessica Coon herself, as well as a biography of Ken Hale—whose pioneering fieldwork in language documentation is particularly relevant to Dr. Banks’ role in the film. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer added that Dr. Banks’ most prized books are those of Dan Everett, and that the set designer even sought out a copy of Dan Everett’s work just to appear somewhere in the background of Louise Banks’ life.

Despite the films accurate portrayal of fieldwork and its inclusion of relevant linguistic theory, it still fails to shake some of the stereotypes of linguists. One of which is the idea that all linguists are polyglots and know a wide variety of languages. While having Dr. Banks be a polyglot aided the plot, it perpetuates this stereotype that linguistics is about knowing languages rather than understanding language. The film also implies that linguistics isn’t scientific in its research with Dr. Donnelly stating, “The cornerstone of society isn’t language—it’s science.” A line that is wrong on many of its implications, and which Louise Banks does not go out of her way to contest.

While the movie had its flaws, it was nice seeing a linguist doing accurately portrayed fieldwork on the silver screen. Hopefully, Hollywood can take a hint from the success of Arrival and put more linguists in the spotlight.

Linguistically yours,
The LINGUIST List Crew

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