The new trailer for Arrival debuted today, and with it, comes a new look at Amy Adams’s character, Dr. Louise Banks. Banks is an expert linguist enlisted to help the team investigating spacecrafts that have landed on Earth. Her role on the team is to attempt communication with the cephalopods on board the alien spacecraft, but finding a way to communicate turns out to be even trickier than it seems.
Arrival may be the stuff of fiction, but the intersection of linguistics and the study of hypothetical extraterrestrial life is very real. The two come together in a field called xenolinguistics, which is concerned with examining the functions of the vantage point of many disciplines, including philosophy, xenobiology, literature, and physics.
On the surface, trying to wrap your mind around a hypothetical alien language may seem like a fool’s errand, but linguistics is all about finding the commonalities in language, which in turn can shed light on its function and development. To that end, xenolinguistics experts extend what we know about Earth’s languages to understanding extraterrestrial languages, giving us some idea of their basic building blocks.
Bowling Green State University linguist Sheri Wells-Jensen, Ph.D., breaks it down in a brief explainer on xenolinguistics. In it, she points out that Earth-based languages dictate that all civilized and intelligent life will have a system of language, and within that system are some key components, including nouns and verbs as well as the ability to describe prior thoughts and use descriptions as components of other descriptions.
Science fiction is full of examples of humans communicating with aliens, but some examples are better than others. In Aliens and Linguists: Language Study and Science Fiction, Walter E. Meyers points out that science fiction writers often spare their characters the arduous process of learning a language, instead glossing over the intricacies of said language, relying on a method of decoding (my personal favorite is the Babel Fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), or explaining the prevalence of English in far-away systems as a kind of “galactic basic.”
We don’t yet know just how realistic the alien language or Banks’s method for decoding and using it will be, but the application of linguistics (along with a slew of other disciplines) to the understanding of hypothetical extraterrestrial languages is very real.
Arrival arrives in theaters November 11.