MIRKA LOISELLE/THE VARSITY

High-profile science fiction films have a tendency to evoke impassioned debates among the scientific community. Put simply, these films bring about greater public awareness of science, while dubiously blurring the lines between science and fantasy.

In Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, the appearance of 12 mysterious extra-terrestrial aircrafts prompts a swift international effort to discern their motives. Linguistics Professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is hired by the US army to decipher the alien language and, ultimately, shed light on the purpose of their visit.

The film touches on the resultant societal frenzy and diplomatic challenges, while maintaining unabashed dedication to the protagonist, her work, and the perception of language.

In doing so, the film spends a sizable portion of its run-time showing the arduous nature of linguistic fieldwork. It propels a narrative that is indebted to the idea that language can dramatically alter our thoughts and cognition — a notion linguists call the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Whorfianism.

Like many works in the sci-fi genre, Arrival arguably beckons scientific scrutiny. Dr. Nicholas Welch, Assistant Professor in U of T’s Department of Linguistics, weighed in on the validity of the theoretical framework underlying the plot.

“It is certainly true that the vocabularies of languages — and even of specialized dialects and terminologies within languages… are shaped by the kinds of things that are culturally significant,” said Welch. “But the idea that the culture of dimensions of language shape the way we think and the way we’re able to think, that’s much more problematical. And I think the biggest piece of evidence against that is simply that, if that were true, we wouldn’t ever be able to translate from one language to another.”

To what degree, then, does language affect thought? Welch seemed to suggest that there is a semblance of truth to a diluted version of the hypothesis — the idea that language can merely influence one’s thinking.

When asked about real-world evidence supporting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Welch cited the University of California, San Diego Professor Lera Boroditsky’s work in which French and German speakers were asked to draw a sun with facial features. French speakers were more likely to draw a male face, while German speakers were more likely to draw a female face, presumably due to the masculine and feminine words for ‘sun’ in those languages, respectively.

In reference to those results, Welch states that “there do seem to be some effects but they’re fairly subtle and weak. Some of the things that Whorf himself said in the 1930s, like [the idea that] people who speak tenseless languages have a radically different notion of time, [are] complete nonsense. That is like saying speakers of English who speak a language without gender must have a radically different concept of sex.”

Mind-altering properties aside, the alien language introduced in this film also faced technical hurdles, namely the lack of a sequential pattern. Welch emphasized that “structure is universal to human language. All human languages have structures and [they] are always recursive and hierarchical… [With some languages] you can change the order of the words to express emphasis or stylistic variance and what have you, and the meaning is still preserved. [These are] languages with free-word order. However, there’s no language that I know of that has total free-word order… All human languages have some role for word order to play.”

Consistently, the random permutation of logograms in the film presents an unfamiliar obstacle to the story’s protagonist. The question that begets itself is whether a non-fictional linguist would tackle the problem in the same manner.

Welch argued that the first step to deciphering the language would be to find a conceptual commonality shared by the two species. “With human languages, this is not usually an enormous challenge because at a basic level a lot of the concepts are the same from language to language. All languages have a word for stone or stick… If we’re dealing with a hypothetical alien species, all bets are off. We don’t even know if they would necessarily conceptualize common objects in the same way.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Arrival embellishes the science of linguistics by overstating language’s influence on cognition. After all, a departure from reality is at the core of science fiction.

One may argue that the proliferation of scientific inaccuracies in mainstream media requires us to fuss over small details, but such a mindset likely overestimates the role that science literacy plays in the public perception of controversial scientific and technological issues. Furthermore, the film’s attentiveness to the nuances of linguistic inquiry is commendable and echoed in Welch’s thoughts.

“[The film] does a much better job of dealing with linguistics than any previous science fiction dramatic work… They put a lot more effort into creating believable linguistic detail,” said Welch. “That is a great step forward and it’s helping make the public more aware and knowledgeable about what linguistics really is.”

“The most important [aspect of the film] is that they’re portraying linguistics as a real discipline and that there are people who can confront a previously unknown language and decipher its structure,” added Welch, highlighting the significance of scientific accuracy in the media. “I think there are viewers out there to whom this is going to be a completely novel concept.”

Increased prevalence of science in films can raise awareness of it by sparking curiosity among its viewers. The hope, according to Welch, is that over time this will increase a non-linguist’s appreciation for the similarities as well as the differences between languages.

“Lack of awareness of the differences… leads to hasty translations that can sometimes cause international incidents and even war. Lack of awareness of the similarities can lead to radical Whorfianism — thinking that because another group of people speaks a very different language that they must have a totally alien psychology which, of course, is not true at all,” said Welch.

Congruous with Banks’ response to the frenzy upon the aliens’ utterance of the word weapon, Welch argues for cautious interpretation — a worthwhile take-home message.

Like our content? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

* indicates required