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What's a working linguist's take on the processes seen in the movie "Arrival," and...

asked 2017-01-16 15:26:22 -0400

smartalek gravatar image

updated 2017-03-02 12:38:11 -0400

ksteimel gravatar image

...how accurately or inaccurately they're portrayed? Are there any other movies with linguistic relevance that you might recommend as doing justice to the realities of the profession? Any worth seeing despite any inaccuracies? Thanks in advance for any feedback and especially for any suggestions. Cheers

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answered 2017-01-24 17:00:52 -0400

Sarah R. gravatar image

Thanks for asking! Every linguist I know who has seen this movie has an opinion on it.

As for the process depicted in the movie--how the linguist approaches her task--it's accurate within the limits of how film works. In fact, the film was made with a linguist acting as a consultant! The linguist in the movie seems to be performing a variation of a "monolingual demonstration," a technique formalized and pioneered by linguist Kenneth Pike, which is an important first step in establishing a base vocabulary to work with when you are encountering an new language and you have no common language to act as a point of reference. She is also seen working with phonetic analysis software similar to Praat, a real program used by linguists to perform phonetic analysis. My understanding is that the filmmakers didn't have the rights to use real Praat, so they used a similar-looking fake. Her methodology in building a common vocabulary with the alien language is also perfectly accurate, at least in my experience. In fact, though every linguist has a slightly different opinion of this movie, I think it is probably the most accurate film depiction of the science and scientific process of linguistics I have ever seen. The way she answers the military's continued demands for instant results is also amusingly accurate.

This is not to say there aren't problems. In my opinion, its treatment of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is the most problematic, but, again, there are differing opinions. She states Sapir-Whorf thus: "the language you speak language DETERMINES the way you see the world." That's actually the "strong version" of Sapir-Whorf. By contrast, the "weak version" states that the language you speak INFLUENCES the way you see the world." I don't know any linguists who support the strong version, which is far too deterministic of a statement. Language, worldview, and perception are all fluid and changeable. It is possible to change one's worldview or perception without changing one's language, and vice versa--therefore the language you speak cannot have a DETERMINISTIC effect on perception/worldview. The weak version seems more probable, but isn't well attested, and hard to test or prove in a scientific way. How is the linguist to determine when they are seeing language influence perception, rather than the other way around?

So the film's dependence on the strong version of Sapir-Whorf is its weakest point, in my opinion. However, it presents a thoughtful and enjoyable exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, at least, and it's certainly an interesting thought experiment.

There are other details that are troublesome, but not serious. The linguist in the film supposedly had military contacts because she translated Farsi for them once. But Farsi is a language with millions of speakers, and is considered a language of "critical interest" to the US. As such, the military certainly has plenty of Farsi translators. They don't need a linguist's help. In fact, the consulting ... (more)

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answered 2017-03-02 12:36:13 -0400

ksteimel gravatar image

I agree with Sarah's sentiments.

CAUTION There's spoilers ahead.

An additional thing that I thought was odd was the role of the writing system. I think that almost all linguists would agree that written language is not the whole of language. The contention of the film is that, because the hepapods used a non-linear writing system, their perception of time as a whole was non-linear and they were able to travel transcend time as a result. However, they even mention in the beginning of their encounters that the spoken communication they are producing is temporally bound. This is a necessary fact for the transmission of sound: because the rate of vibration of air molecules determines the pitch and timbre of the sounds we hear, time is always strictly linear. Therefore, I think that even if we adopt determinism, there are still some holes in the conclusions drawn from determinism. For most linguists, spoken language is viewed as the more basic and core component of language. A written form of the language is not necessary for the language to be real. In this way, Arrival seems to reverse direction and take the writing system as the core component of the hepapod's language faculty.

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Asked: 2017-01-16 15:26:22 -0400

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Last updated: Mar 02