Linguistics is undoubtedly one of the most misunderstood of the sciences. Many people see linguists as finger-waving language critics, and even some other scientists don’t think of the field as “real science.” But linguists may get the chance to set the record straight this weekend with the release of the sci-fi blockbuster Arrival. The film follows linguistics professor Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, after a series of mysterious alien spacecraft suddenly appear in Earth’s skies.
While the world reacts with confusion and fear to the extraterrestrial visitors, Banks is recruited by the U.S. military to make contact with the aliens—large, seven-limbed “heptapods”—and make sense of their bizarre language, the written version of which constructs entire sentences as impossibly complex circles without a set word order. As it becomes increasingly clear just how different the heptapods are from humans, it’s up to Banks to understand what they’re trying to tell us—and to possibly save humanity in the process.
The film’s attention to linguistic detail, thanks in part to scientific advisers including linguist Jessica Coon of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, has had many in the field watching Arrival's arrival with a close eye. A popular linguistics blog has already taken an in-depth look at the contents of Banks’s on-set office, and linguists have started to share their thoughts after attending advanced screenings of the film. So far, the verdict has been mostly positive.
“The linguistics was very good,” says David Adger, a linguist at Queen Mary University of London who specializes in syntax, the rules that govern sentence structure. “The portrayal of trying different hypotheses about the language, coming up with generalizations, and testing them out was spot on. It gave a good sense of the excitement of fieldwork on a new language, as well as of some of the frustrations.”
“There’s a lot regarding the experience of being a linguist that rang true,” says Jennifer Nycz, a linguist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “For example, the fact that other characters in the film expect the linguist to just know all the languages, including the alien one. None of us are C-3PO!”
But the work of understanding a new language is only a small part of what linguists actually do. “For many of us, the focus of our work is less about the details of any particular language and more about larger questions, like how languages are learned,” says Georgetown linguist Nicholas Subtirelu. He adds that the film focuses on the multilingual abilities of Banks in a way that feeds into popular perceptions of linguists as “professional polyglots.”
Linguists also questioned Arrival's perspective on the age-old dispute: What is the place of linguistics in science? In the film, Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist (played by Jeremy Renner) working with Banks “in the field,” perceives the two to be separate. “The cornerstone of society isn’t language—it’s science,” he says to Banks, shortly after they first meet. Nycz disagrees with the implication. “The linguistics versus science contrast is false,” she says. It reflects a common idea that science deals with physical objects of study like photons, cells, and atoms, rather than a way of acquiring knowledge, she adds. “Not all linguists take a scientific approach to the study of language … but many do, or strive to.” As it turns out (spoiler alert), of the film’s two leads, it’s Banks who makes the breakthrough that leads to mutual understanding.
But what would happen if we were actually visited by aliens and needed to understand them? “Language on earth is both physically and socially embedded. That is, we speak and hear (or sign and see) with the bodies and brains we have, and we use language in the context of our society,” Nycz says. “So I'd have to know something about their physiology, their cognition, and their society to even begin to speculate.”