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.