Arrival and the power of language

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An article contributed by Jack, a Dublin-based copywriter/jack-of-all-trades, who still hasn’t given up hope of playing for Liverpool FC one day.

With a linguist/translator as its protagonist, it’s perhaps unsurprising that sci-fi thriller Arrival has a lot to say about the transformative power of language.

When a dozen spaceships suddenly appear around the globe, linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called in to communicate with the floating squid-like inhabitants. But as she tries to decipher their cryptic language, she begins to perceive things in dramatically new ways. Concepts that once seemed set in stone, such as time, birth and death, suddenly feel a lot less stable. Her experience follows the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis of language. Seen as an extreme example of linguistic determinism, the theory states that the language you speak dramatically determines the way you interact with and interpret the world around you.

Sapir-Whorf Theory

The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached…Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose – Edward Sapir

We see another example of Sapir-Whorf theory in action when Chinese translators try to teach the extra-terrestrials Mandarin through the game Mah-jong. Banks points out that if you can only use vocabulary of a game based around victory and defeat, conflict is going to be hard-wired into every interaction. A colleague adds, “if you only give someone a hammer, everything becomes a nail.”

In the real world, a more minor example of linguistic determinism is found in languages like Spanish which require speakers to pick a form of second person address (You, is Tu or Usted, depending on the level of formality needed). So every time a Spanish speaker addresses someone, they are forced to place them in one of two predefined groups based on their perceived seniority, formality, class etc.  By using this linguistic structure, they are unconsciously dividing the world into two different types of people in a way that people speaking other languages may not.

A ‘common meaning’ system?

The more moderate theory of linguistic relativism states that language merely influences our thoughts about the real world. Charles E. Osgood’s ‘common meaning system’ study found that, “human beings the world over, no matter what their language or culture, do share a common meaning system and organize experience along similar symbolic dimensions.” Unfortunately for our translator hero, these aren’t humans she’s dealing with, so finding a common meaning system is not so easy. With time of the essence, can she discover why the aliens have landed here before trigger-happy Governments start blowing things up? Director Denis Villeneuve plays with this tension masterfully as the film builds towards its thought-provoking climax.

The power of language

Whether you’re a determinist or a relativist, it’s clear that language is a hugely powerful tool. Physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) hints at this power early on when he recites a quote from one of Banks’ books; “Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” In many ways, however, Arrival shows that the power in language and communication lies not in starting conflict, but preventing it. As the governments of the world scramble to learn the purpose of the alien invasion, it is only through misunderstandings and misinterpretations that situations get escalated, and the threat of violence is elevated. The subtle difference between the words ‘weapon’ and ‘tool’, is enough to create pandemonium. Striving towards greater understanding and communication is presented as the only way to alleviate growing fears and tensions and ultimately, to prevent all-out war.

“Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another, who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.” -Paul Auster

Having a linguist-translator at its centre means Arrival differs from the likes of Independence Day or War of the Worlds (fewer explosions for one thing). It doesn’t focus on the terror of the unknown visitors, and what we have to lose by their arrival. Instead it centres on the awe of it all, what we can learn from those different from us and what we stand to gain by trying to understand them. In a year that has seen a rise in xenophobic, isolationist rhetoric, Arrival provides a much needed counter argument.

We LOVE language.