Ask a Linguist. That is what this article does:
How Realistic Is the Way Amy Adams’ Character Hacks the Alien Language In Arrival? We Asked a Linguist.
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival makes being a linguist look pretty cool—its hero Louise (Amy Adams) gets up close and personal with extraterrestrials and manages to save the entire world with her translation skills (and lives in a chic, glass-walled modernist palace all by herself). But how realistic were her methods? We talked to Betty Birner, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Northern Illinois University, to find out what she thinks of the movie’s use of language, its linguist heroine, and how we might someday learn to communicate with aliens in real life.If you like linguistics, read the whole thing. I found it very interesting, the Linguist professor says mostly positive things about the movie, and discusses how there are some parallels with earth based languages (written languages that don't phonetically represent spoken language) and other linguistic concepts. Lots of interesting observations and food for thought.
What was it like to watch Arrival as an actual linguist?
I loved the movie. It was a ton of fun to see a movie that’s basically all about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. On the other hand, they took the hypothesis way beyond anything that is plausible.
In the movie they kind of gloss over the hypothesis, explaining it as the idea that the language you speak can affect the way you think. Is that accurate?
There are two ways of thinking about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and scholars have argued over which of these two Sapir and/or Whorf actually intended. The weaker version is linguistic relativity, which is the notion that there’s a correlation between language and worldview. “Different language communities experience reality differently.”
The stronger view is called linguistic determinism, and that’s the view that language actually determines the way you see reality, the way you perceive it. That’s a much stronger claim. At one point in the movie, the character Ian [Jeremy Renner] says, “The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says that if you immerse yourself in another language, you can rewire your brain.” And that made me laugh out loud, because Whorf never said anything about rewiring your brain. But since this wasn’t the linguist speaking, it’s fine that another character is misunderstanding the Sapir-Whorf.
But the movie accepts that as true! By learning the aliens’ language, Louise completely alters her brain.
Oh yeah, the movie is clearly on board with linguistic determinism, which is funny because most linguists these days would not accept that.
So in real life, learning another language can’t suddenly alter how you perceive time?
No linguist would ever buy into the notion that the minute you understand something about this second language, get sort of a lightbulb going off, and you say, “Oh my gosh, I completely see how the speakers of Swahili view plant life now.” It’s just silly and its false. It makes for a rollicking good story, but I would never want somebody to come away from a movie like this with the notion that that’s actually a power that language can bestow.
Is there anything to the idea at all?
There have been studies about speakers of languages that have classifier markers—suffixes, for example, that go on to every noun to indicate what class they’re in. Some languages mark round things differently than they mark long things, soft things differently than rigid things. If you ask speakers of such a language to sort a big heap of stuff into piles, they will tend to sort them based on what classifier they take.
Whorf argued that because the Hopi [the Native American group he was studying] have verbs for certain concepts that English speakers use nouns for, such as, thunder, lightning, storm, noise, that the speakers view those things as events in a way that we don’t. We view lightning, thunder, and storms as things. He argued that we objectify time, that because we talk about hours and minutes and days as things that you can count or save or spend.
It was funny in this movie to see this notion of the cyclicity of time. That’s really central in Whorf’s writings, that English speakers have a linear view of time, and it’s made up in individually packaged objects, days, hours, and minutes that march along from past to future, while the Hopi have a more cyclical notion that days aren’t separate things but that “day” is something that comes and goes.
So tomorrow isn’t another day. Tomorrow is day returning. You see that concept coming from Whorf into this movie was actually kind of fun. I thought, well they got that right! They took it in a really weird direction, but ...
Someone did their homework.
Also see: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
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