The Arrival of the Aliens

By Lynette Kirschner

The lim­its of my language
mean the limits
of my world.

- Lud­wig Wittgenstein


Does time only flow in a con­tin­u­um? Does a sen­tence have to con­tain a verb? The answer to the first ques­tion hasn’t been defin­i­tive­ly answered. The answer to the sec­ond one is def­i­nite­ly no. Both play a role in the sci­ence fic­tion movie Arrival, direct­ed by Denis Villeneuve.

For once, the U.S. gov­ern­ment doesn’t bomb first and ask ques­tions lat­er. When aliens arrive, they send the lin­guist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to try to solve the mys­tery of their lan­guage so that peace­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion can take place. This is where my lit­tle geeky lan­guage heart starts to beat faster. Con­cepts such as the Sapir-Whorf hypoth­e­sis (the cor­re­la­tion between lan­guage and world­view), logograms (sym­bols stand­ing for words and not a sin­gle sound), and palin­dromes (words read­ing the same back­wards and for­wards) are used. The movie does an excel­lent job explain­ing these con­cepts so that non-lin­guists under­stand and lin­guists don’t get bored.

Dr. Banks and Ian Don­nel­ly (Jere­my Ren­ner), a lead­ing quan­tum physi­cist, are instru­men­tal in deci­pher­ing the alien lan­guage of the hep­tapods whose writ­ten lan­guage is also a key to the cyclic­i­ty of their world­view. These beings have land­ed on earth in 12 dif­fer­ent places and are try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate with humans. Ian and Louise have to find out what the hep­tapods – who they named Abbot and Costel­lo – actu­al­ly want. Here is anoth­er exam­ple where my lan­guage geek comes out: Lan­guage isn’t pre­cise. For exam­ple, my favorite Ger­man word is Absatz – which means busi­ness sales, para­graph, sub­sec­tion, and a shoe’s heel. These con­cepts are not even remote­ly relat­ed. How in the world can a per­son keep this straight? And that is pre­cise­ly the prob­lem Ian and Louise have with one word: weapon/tool. Which one is it? The world’s future depends on it.

If you are expect­ing anoth­er ver­sion of Inde­pen­dence Day, don’t go. If you want an Intel­li­gence Day, this is a movie for you.


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