The Linguistics In Arrival Is Based On True Theories

Note: This article may contain spoilers for the movie.  Read on only if you’ve seen the movie, or you don’t care.

One of the best parts about the new movie Arrival is the fact that it is based on the theory of linguistic relativity, one of my favorite theories in linguistics itself.

The study of linguistics is broad, covering many topics.  One of those topics is centered around how the language you speak affects the way you perceive certain things in the world.  It is known as linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  In a nutshell, this theory suggests that languages can change the way you think.

In the movie Arrival we meet an alien race whose language is described as circular, having no beginning or end.  The written version of the language is depicted as a circle, something similar to a coffee cup stain.  As the researchers start to decipher the language they find that it doesn’t have a start or finish, that it’s in some way free of the constraints of time.

Concurrently, the main character Louise Banks, begins to have visions in her dreams of a child.  We assume it’s her daughter, but the movie tricks us into thinking these things happened in the past.  As it is revealed at the end of the movie, as Louise slowly learned the language, she began to start perceiving time in a different way.  Without any context, however, Louise doesn’t know who or what this child is.  It’s only until the heptapods explain that the visions are “memories of the future” that Louise connects the dots.

Essentially the heptapod alien language enables the speaker (once they have enough of a basic understanding of the language) to view time in a completely different manner.  It involves a bit of magical thinking, but essentially the language “changes” the brain of the speaker enough that they can break free of the linear manner of thinking that humans tend to possess and view events from outside the constraints of time – enabling forwards and backwards viewing and “remembering the future”.  This is how the heptapods were able to know that they needed humans help in 3000 years, and how Louise was able to “remember” the words of the Chinese general in order to stop the impending attack on the heptapods by the Chinese.

Now, before you think this is all complete baloney, it is very interesting to note that there have been real academic studies on how languages can affect the speakers perception of time.  We touched on this in another post called How Language Can Shape The Perception Of Time.

Mandarin speakers view time as above and below them.  English speakers see it as in front of and behind them, or more linearly.  Greek speakers think of time in measures of “big” and “small” whereas English speakers think of it in terms of distance “short” and “long”.

In a study by Lera Boroditsky, she noted this interesting aspect:

Imagine this simple experiment. I stand next to you, point to a spot in space directly in front of you, and tell you, “This spot, here, is today. Where would you put yesterday? And where would you put tomorrow?” When English speakers are asked to do this, they nearly always point horizontally. But Mandarin speakers often point vertically, about seven or eight times more often than do English speakers.4

I find this incredibly interesting.  It seems to prove that languages can really have an effect on perception.

If the heptapod language was suitably different and complex, could it lift human perception free of its temporal constraints?  It’s a fun question to think about, and the implications are explored by the movie.

If nothing else, this movie brought the spotlight to linguistics, which is a fairly forgotten and little talked about field of study.  However it’s an important field, helping bridge the gap between how our brains work and the uniquely human aspect of language.

Liz Blake

Liz Blake is a language enthusiast who takes a special interest in linguistic anthropology and how language affects the way people interact and see the world. In her spare time she likes to read, garden, and most of all: travel!

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