Monday, 21 November 2016

Movie Review: Arrival

I took a trip to my local picture house recently to view one of the talkies. I've not reviewed a movie before but as this one touches on linguistics I felt like it wouldn't be too out of place on this blog. 

There will be **spoilers** below. 

You have been warned. 

Arrival is a sci-fi flick in which Aliens come to Earth and humans try to communicate with them. The hero is a linguist. Predictably this has linguists very excited. Ben Zimmer, for instance has written that the film "does a remarkably good job of depicting how a linguist goes about her work" and Rob Drummond made a similar point on 'Kermode and Mayo's Film Review'. David Adger noted that "The linguistics was very good". 

I can understand the excitement at having a linguistics prof as a hero and I have to agree that it was a well made film. However, the contrarian in me wasn't able to look past some of the linguistics and just enjoy the film. In fact, the whole central premise of the plot falls to pieces because it just isn't backed up by what we know about languages.  Yes, I'm being a kill joy. Yes it's just a movie. But here's a list of the three things that bothered me in the film. The first two peeves are relatively minor, the last one was a clanger. 

The parts that rankled were the following (apologies if I've mis-remembered any parts). 

*peeve 1: linguist means linguist means linguist. 
Our hero was introduced as a linguist. If you're not sure, in academia that means 'someone who studies languages'. It doesn't mean 'someone who speaks a lot of languages'. Those people are usually called polyglots. Our hero is a linguist and a polyglot, speaking Mandarin, Farsi, Sanskrit and is shown giving a lecture on "romance languages". 

OK, sure, some linguists do speak a lot of languages to varying degrees. But the film starts with the military thanking her for a Farsi translation. Translation is a hard job and linguistics is hard job and there isn't that much overlap between them. Though, maybe she's just insanely talented and that's how she pays for her ridiculously expensive house? To her credit the linguist who assisted on the film fought this:
Coon unsuccessfully lobbied the filmmakers to change a line describing Louise, arguing that it misrepresents what linguists do: “You’re at the top of everyone’s list,” Forest Whitaker’s Army colonel says to Louise, “when it comes to translations.”
So well done and bad luck to Jessica Coon. By the by, The Guardian, rather densely asks why Chomsky wasn't a consultant on the film:
Why, you ask, did they not approach Noam Chomsky, with his understanding of “deep structure” in language? Perhaps Prof Chomsky did not care to help America’s military-intelligence complex
Putting aside the fact that Chomsky's work has, in fact been funded by "America’s military-intelligence complex" and that he famously dislikes the kind of field work linguistics that the hero of the film is involved in, it is not clear to me how knowledge of 'deep structure' would have helped a linguistic dealing with a language they had no knowledge of. 

*peeve 2: The white board scene 
Our linguist hero is trying to convince the army that her method is the right way to go about things. She writes on a white board:
What is your purpose on Earth? 
She attempts to explain that in order to ask the aliens questions, she first needs to make sure they know what a question is. She goes on to make other points concerning things like vocabulary. This is all fine and quite sensible but there are a few clangers here. first she says (paraphrase) 'we need to make sure they understand the difference between you singular and (crosses out the 'r' in 'your') you plural.' In English there is no difference between singular and plural you (I -we, s/he -them, you -you). 

She then says 'we need to make sure they understand 'why questions'. Now I've heard of 'wh' questions, but 'why questions'...? The sentence on the white board seemed to be lacking an essential item in what could be defined as a 'why question'...that is, a 'why'. Perhaps the script originally had the question as 'why are you here?' who knows. 

Next, (and this is really nit picky), if we're talking to aliens, do we really need the words 'on Earth'? I mean, are these aliens going to get confused by 'what is your purpose' and think we might be asking what their plans for Sunday afternoon are? 

*peeve 3: Eskimo's and their many many words for snow. 
All of the other issues I could have happily put aside. However, when the words Saphir-Whorf were mentioned I tensed up. It's hard to imagine something annoying me more than learning styles...but here it is. With this in mind, why have I never written about it before? It's such an attractive and widely believed idea, that I really felt I needed quite a powerful response to it...and I'm really quite lazy. Linguist John McWhorter wrote an excellent book on the topic called 'the Language Hoax' and even he was reluctant to criticise the movie: 

If you're not familiar with Saphir-Whorf I'll present a very reductionist overview here. Basically it can be divided into two version. The first (which is the most attractive to click bait headlines) postulates that the language we speak allows us to think certain thoughts. It's also known as linguistic determinism. The second is the idea that the language we speak influences the way we think. This is known as linguistic relativism

There's a lot to say about this, but the TL:DR is that the strong form while being very attractive is patently false, whereas the weak form has some empirical support. The idea that the language you speak makes certain thoughts unthinkable (the strong version) is so seductive, it's very hard to resist.  

Language can obviously influence though (like if I ask you to think about elephants and you do then my language influenced your thought) but it would be a brave soul who argued that the lack of a word for 'he' and 'she' in spoken Chinese means that Chinese people have no concept of whether they are talking about a man or a woman. One would have to wonder how we ever come up with concepts and then name them were this theory true. 

The most commonly known manifestation of this theory is the ever expanding number of words Eskimos are alleged to have for 'snow'. It started off as about 7 words in 1911 and reached 100 by 1984. All of this leading Geoff Pullum to pen his classic 'The Great Eskimo vocabulary hoax'. This even led to the creation of the term 'snowclone' which describes "some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists" such as "If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.". 

The Eskimo Snow theory is attractive because it posits that Eskimos are surrounded by so much snow that their language represents their increased sensitivity to it, while us dumb Westerners just see all the subtle variety and diversity as plain old 'snow'. It's an attractive theory and the original Saphir-Whorf hypothesis had good intentions. Back in the days when Latin was considered the pinnacle of language, Saphir introduced the idea that rather than other languages being 'primitive' these languages offered insights into the world we would never be able to even perceive:
“Human beings… are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society... The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.”(Saphir

 It was social justice of its day, but sadly it was not true. 

The film arrival takes the strong form of the theory to its logical conclusion. Learning the language of the heptopods, literally changes the protagonists outlook to an incredible degree. The Alien language is represented in circles and we are told the aliens have no concept of ordinal numbers. This, we later learn is because the aliens do not share our concept of time. In fact, the heptopods experience all time at once. Thus their sentence appear in circles. Once the protagonist learns their language she starts to be able to see into the future. The language she learns literally changes her perception of the world. 

How would circular sentences lead to a timeless world view? It's hard to say anything about an alien language but as it is translatable, in the film into English sentences like 'we bring a tool' there are certain things we can say. Firstly, word order is essential in English. 'We bring a tool' is a lot different from 'a tool brings us' or 'Bring us a tool'. If there was no case marking in the alien language (for instance 'I' is the subject in English but the same word is 'me' when it's the object.) the there would have to be a lot of guessing as to the meaning of the sentences. If there were markers of case, then the circular nature of the sentence is really just an artistic flourish. 

Lastly, at what point would someone learning a new language obtain the ability to see into the future? After the first lesson? after a few months? Would it happen all at once, or gradually? People don't tend to hit a point at which on Tuesday they were OK at French but on Wednesday they were fluent. So when does the new world view kick in? 

To its credit the film handles this point quite well. As Amy Adams eventually learns a language which makes the concept of 'time' disappear, so it follows she must have always possessed the ability to speak the language. The her in the past who couldn't speak the language exists in the same time as the her who can speak the language. But presumably they also exist simultaneously with the her who couldn't. Best not to think too much about this. 

In short the language can't do what the film proposes it does and even if it could it wouldn't lead to mind altering powers. But really....who cares? It's a good film go and watch it! 


  1. It's a good movie with the bonus of allowing us to understand the theory they mention. Years watching sci-fi and this was the first time I got what they meant when they casually dropped the name of a theory. Plus, even though I don't subscribe to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (and always look puzzled when somebody says that a dying language means a dying world view), I was thrilled to uncover the premise of the film there and then. (Well, I'll admit I had the help of a little sci-fi background. The heptapods are quite similar to the species that Star Trek Deep Space Nine encounters in its first episode.)

    As regards your first point, I noticed she was a translator/interpreter of every language in the world plus a linguistics teacher at a uni (so potentially being required to publish research, etc), but I wasn't bothered by it at all. Most scientists in the movies are geniuses that can sort out any problem thrown their way. Why should it be different with us linguists? To me, if the linguist was too modest in what she could accomplish, it'd be as frustrating as finally getting a plus size model to represent beauty -- but then not putting make-up on her or refusing to photoshop anything. Do we really need that much reality?

    So all in all, it's a movie I'd recommend to linguists around the world. =)

    1. haha yes, I guess we get to feel what physicists must have been feeling for years when they see on screen 'scientists' eh?

  2. BTW, in the movie the linguist explains the "why questions" bit, which I also thought was weird. I thought of "wh" questions, like you did, but then she said something in the lines of "Do they do things intentionally, do they have a purpose behind the things they do, or do they just happen to be here?" Then to me it made sense. It wasn't the structure of the question, but the meaning.

    1. oooohhh... I must have missed that bit. Perhaps I was too busy with the popcorn?