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The Smartest Sci-Fi Movie on Amazon Promotes an Outdated Scientific Theory

Arrival gets a lot of things right — but one big thing wrong.

Dewey Saunders/Inverse; Paramount Pictures

If aliens landed on Earth tomorrow, how would we even ask them what they wanted?

Linguist Louise Banks, portrayed by Amy Adams, has to solve that problem in time to save the world from interplanetary war in the 2016 movie Arrival. Twelve pairs of seven-limbed aliens, dubbed Heptapods, land at sites around the world, inviting humans into their ships and trying to communicate — first in eerie vocalizations that sound a bit like whalesong, and then in complex three-dimensional logograms, or written symbols.

Spoilers ahead for Arrival.

Arrival’s Heptapods communicate in a language with no sense of time or direction; their logograms are written in circles, with no forward or backward. Eventually, learning the Heptapods’ language causes humans to stop seeing time as linear, and Amy Adams’ character starts to remember her future. That’s a really extreme version of what linguists call the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that language can determine how we experience reality.

McGill University linguist Jessica Coon, who consulted with Arrival’s filmmakers on the science of linguistics, spoke with Inverse about what the movie got right, and wrong, about language.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams in Arrival.

Paramount Pictures

What did the movie get right about trying to learn a completely unknown language?

People often start with concrete objects and build up from there, and I think this is something that the film actually did a pretty good job of conveying.

You see Dr. Banks in the film, when Forrest Whitaker's character says, “Hurry up, we need to ask the big important question.” And she says, “No, we can’t, so I have to start with asking simple words in order to be able to build up to simple phrases.”

The scene where Amy Adams is at the whiteboard explaining why it's complicated to ask questions is one that I think linguists everywhere really enjoyed because she's breaking down this sentence and exploring some of the more difficult parts of it.

What’s different about fieldwork in the movie and in real life?

Amy Adams’ job is definitely more difficult than the average linguistic fieldworker’s job for a couple of reasons. One reason is that most linguistic fieldwork is done through some shared language. For example, I've done a lot of work with Mayan languages spoken in southern Mexico and Guatemala, but many speakers of Mayan languages today are also bilingual in Spanish. Amy Adams didn't have the luxury of a shared language.

The other thing that she really didn't have is any of these common principles that we expect to find in languages in the world. As a linguist, if I happen to work with a speaker of a language that nobody has ever documented before (this is increasingly less common), there are certain things that we can expect. If I find that verbs come before objects, I can start making some reasonable guesses about other elements of this language, because of these shared principles that human languages have. Whereas when we're talking about Heptapods, who knows?

The hope would be that there are going to be patterns. If they're advanced enough to have built ships and traveled the galaxy, then they're going to have some kind of rule-governed communication system that maps meaning to output, whether it be sounds, gestures, or written forms.

An alien spaceship arrives on Earth.

Paramount Pictures

Why do linguists do field research to document languages that people already speak?

Many of the world's languages are undocumented. Most of the languages of the world don't have descriptions, don't have dictionaries, and don't have books.

As linguists, we're interested in what it is that all human languages share, and what are the ways in which languages can vary from one another. We know that different languages differ in very interesting ways, but one of the important findings of linguistics is that they differ in constrained ways; there are certain ways that we could imagine a language behaving, but that we just don't find in the languages of the world. What does that tell us about the human brain?

Is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis still taken seriously today?

The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or the idea that the language you speak constrains the way you think at some major level ... I think that most people agree that this is probably not right. At worst, it's also sort of a dangerous way of thinking, that if people speak a different language, then they are probably really deeply different or other in some way.

Human languages do share all of these patterns and human brains are learning human languages, what we seem to find is that languages don't differ in such radical ways.

Arrival’s Heptapod aliens.

Paramount Pictures

Of course, there might be more words for snow in the language spoken by people who live near the Arctic than there would be in a language spoken by people who live in the desert, but is that really any more interesting than the fact that an interior designer probably knows a lot more words for different colors than somebody else?

When people talk about universal grammar and human language, we're reasonably certain that humans don't have radically different cognitive abilities. But when it comes to aliens, who knows? That's sort of, I think, one of the more thought-provoking parts of this movie: thinking through how different could communication systems be, and how those might reflect what is happening with cognition in another life form.

In science fiction, it's important to bear the fiction in mind, and I think it's a great story.

In the seven years since the movie premiered, has Arrival sparked any interest in studying linguistics?

Yes. I still get students in “Introduction to Linguistics” who say that they first heard about linguistics through the movie Arrival. Not to mention, it's unique that there is a linguist in the starring role — that doesn't happen very often in movies — but there also aren't a whole lot of movies where the main character is a woman scientist. It's not that she is just the love interest scientist; she's the main character.

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