Analyzing Arrival: The Linguistics Behind the Film

This week’s post is something new for this blog: a movie review. Movies involving language learning are rare, so I had to write about Arrival. It’s best to read this post after seeing the movie; it’s a “car ride home from the theater” type of rant and might not make sense if you haven’t seen it yet.

Arrival has an unlikely hero. Amy Adams plays Louise, a professor who hears that aliens have touched down on earth during a lecture on Portuguese. She’s soon recruited by the government to figure out what these visitors want. Since she’s a skilled translator and speaks several very different languages (Farsi, Chinese, Sanskrit, and it’s implied that she’s fluent in several others), Forest Whitaker’s character believes she’s the person who will be able to learn the aliens’ language and communicate with them.

Louise is a cool character. She’s an insanely talented polyglot who learns an alien language, sees the future, and saves the world. It’s not every day that a linguist gets to do that in a Hollywood movie.

But as someone who is familiar with a lot of the concepts tossed around in the movie, I found myself scratching my head, or at least tilting it in confusion or mild annoyance. All the “linguisticky” stuff is off. Pretty far off actually.

Of course our disbelief is supposed to be suspended for this film. I mean, there’s aliens in it. For some reason I was accepting of that fact pretty easily, but I couldn’t get my mind around the film’s interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

An article in the Washington Post has already chronicled the annoyances of a linguist who was consulted for the film. But I think there were a few other cool concepts that the film brought up but executed poorly.  Here are a few.

CAUTION: Several spoilers ahead.

cxdmw1rThe Heptapod “spoken” language. Run through a spectogram, the peaks show the coordinates for the places on earth where the aliens touched down.

Written vs. Spoken language

Near the beginning of the movie, Forest Whitaker bursts into Amy Adams’s office, plays a recording of some strange noises from a recording device, and asks her how she would translate it. Pretty tough ask.

In fact, she never does translate it. She doesn’t translate any of the “spoken” Heptapod language – the sounds they make are eschewed in favor of the “writing” they show that they can do.

Louise makes a good point – human spoken language is made by human mouths. The phonemes we use to make words are created by lips, tongue, teeth, etc. Since humans don’t have the same sound articulators that the Heptapods do, it’s impossible for us to speak their language.

But… is it? I wonder what Stephen Hawking would have to say about that.

What if they took the recordings of the Heptapod language and played them back in response to have a conversation?

My hypothesis is that spoken language would be too linear.

The whole concept of the Heptapod language and their perception of reality is that time doesn’t exist, or exists all together at once. But in spoken language, one sound necessarily follows another in a linear progression of phonemes and syllables. That just doesn’t work with the central plot point.

Directions of Language

Let’s talk about the written language of the Heptapods. First of all, Heptapods “spray” rather than “write” – they shoot ink out into circular messages that somehow linger in their misty atmosphere for a few moments.

Now, this seems too much of a coincidence.

Ink? You mean, the same stuff humans use to write?

But anyway, let’s talk about the product: the circular writing symbols that the Heptapods produce.

The circles of their writing is meant to reflect the way they perceive time. Every component of meaning is combined into one circular logogram, the same way all things are seen at once rather than in a linear way.

Let’s look at the analysis of a Heptapod symbol:


So all of these words (or ideas) are contained in this one symbol at the same time. But hold on a second, we do this in our languages. Sentences themselves are non-linear. Word order is often flexible within languages, and changes wildly between different languages. Take a sentence in Korean and try translating each word directly and see what a mess you get. In fact, “see find think understand query ask truth” looks like something I might get if put a piece of old Chinese poetry into Google Translate.

My point is: order is flexible. If you put something in a circle, it doesn’t change anything. Some languages write left to right (English), right to left (Arabic), or left to right, top to bottom, and left to right and top to bottom (Korean).

Now, I haven’t read the short story that the movie is based upon. But I have read that the author describes the Heptapod language as an “Escheresque lattice.” Who knows what that would look like – maybe something much more complex (three dimensional) and more difficult to interpret than an inky circle.

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Let’s finally get into it. This is the bizarre-sounding theory that the plot of the movie is based on. Essentially, the idea behind it is that the language someone speaks influences the way they perceive the world.

Needless to say, this is a very difficult hypothesis to prove. It’s also very easy to argue against, and Chomsky and Pinker have both done just that.

But nevertheless, many compelling ideas have come out of this hypothesis. One of the most interesting ones is that the way we perceive time is based on our native language. The most famous case concerning time and language is the study of the language of the Hopi.

Whorf noticed that the verbs of the Hopi language didn’t change tenses for past, present, and future in the way most languages do (is, was, will be). This analysis morphed into the urban legend that the Hopi don’t have the concept of time in the same way Europeans do. Sound familiar? The Heptapods are also timeless.

Unfortunately for Whorf and lots of hippies who wanted to believe in a timeless people, this analysis was disproved. The Hopi know what time is, they just include it in their grammar in a different way.

Still, the idea lingers on. There’s even a TED talk that discusses the connection between perceptions of time and native language.

This talk has a lot of cool information. I love the interesting language differences Chen describes.

But I think this theory that the language you speak can determine how much money you save is, as he says himself, very fanciful. My first qualm is with the way he describes languages as “futured” or not. Essentially, non-“futured” languages are those that don’t conjugate their verbs based on time (like the Hopi). Although, as I mentioned before, verb conjugations aren’t the only way to show time in language, so the distinction between “futured” and “futureless” languages is a little contrived. My guess is that there are other cultural factors at work and, despite all his manipulation of data, Chen just got lucky and found a neat correlation.

What does all this have to do with Arrival?

Louise becomes able to see the future when she understands Heptapod, which is crazy of course. The only tenuous fiber that connects that possibility to reality is this Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is itself questionable at its very best.

In short: time travel via language, while cool, just didn’t do it for me.

Beyond Language

There is much more to the movie than linguistics (“Thank God” I can hear some of you say).

Louise’s choice about her daughter is very philosophical and mind-blowing. The different guesses about the motives of the aliens and the different methods of approaching their language are also compelling. One of my favorite parts was the way the different countries alternately work together and bicker about what should be done.

It’s a good film and I really did enjoy it a great deal. See it if you haven’t.

Just don’t watch it before you take the final for your Introduction to Linguistics class.

Thanks for reading.

For more linguistic nerd analysis, check out the discussion on Reddit.


Photos via Paramount Pictures

4 thoughts on “Analyzing Arrival: The Linguistics Behind the Film

  1. The original story on which the film is base, Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, is much more focussed on the linguistic aspects and is more coherent in that aspect.

  2. I am not a linguist but as a programmer, this movie somehow resonates very well with my experience. The programming language we choose define how we see things, how we plan and how we choose our friends and how to cooperate with them. For a few moments, I thought this movie was about programming.

    1. Very interesting! Programming languages seem very similar to human languages in those ways. Do you know of any good stories or movies that touch on the same topics as Arrival, but are concerned with programming languages instead? I’d be interested in something like that!

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