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Linguistics in Pop Culture: Arrival (film)

So the film Arrival has come. Finally! A movie about linguistics! And the hero is a linguist!

Now I won’t go into detail about the film itself – see links at the bottom if you’re interested in it. But to mark the release of the film, one of our instructors Charlotte Vaughn invited Scott DeLancey, one of our resident fieldworker linguists, to her LING101 freshman interest group (FIG) “Speak Your Mind” to give them a taste of how linguistic fieldworkers might go about describing or deciphering a language they don’t speak. The FIG students could then see how realistic / unrealistic Amy Adams’ character’s work with the heptapods was.

Assisting them with the task was Michael from the FIG, who knows Tagalog. A standardized form of Tagalog, called Filipino, is one of the official languages of the Philippines. According to the 2011 census, Tagalog is also the 4th most commonly spoken home language in the US.

To show them how fieldwork might be down when the linguist and the language consultant don’t speak the same language, Scott decided to use some props while asking Michael questions in Thai (which Michael does not speak). Here are some pictures and videos from the session. Scott’s also using International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols on the board to transcribe what Michael’s saying.

In reality though, it is rare for linguists to do fieldwork with speakers of a language who are monolingual in their own language. Most of the time, some members of these language communities will know one or more major or national languages, e.g. Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea, Nepali in Nepal, Spanish in Boliva, which the linguistic fieldworker can use to help them in the initial stages of the work.

On the other hand, one of the problems with deciphering an alien language -as Scott pointed out to the FIG- is that in English, we often use spatial terms like side, back and front that are based on human body parts (English got front from French, where it still means ‘forehead’). We also extend these notions to other non-human entities, e.g. the side of a busthe back of a chair, the front of a building. And these sometimes end up in prepositions, e.g. beside. This phenomenon is by no means restricted to English: we see the same semantic extension in all kinds of human languages from Chinese to Basque.

But what happens when you are dealing with a species whose bodies (if they even have what we might think of as a “body”) do not have the same geometrical orientation as humans, such as the heptapods? If spatial concepts we take for granted have such a strong basis in our physical bodies, how might we communicate with a species with a different physical structure to us about where things are in the world?

Scott DeLancey, #linguistics professor and #wizard.

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Michael was a great language consultant, and the students loved having Scott in the class. They also got treated to his presence the following week when Charlotte and the other FIG instructors took them to see the movie.

It was definitely a movie we would recommend, even if many of the linguistic elements were glossed over. But hopefully it’ll help people see that doing linguistics requires a high level of analytic skills – that is, it’s like doing math, but with sounds / words / sentences.

For people who want to know more about the film,

And if you’re interested in more general pop linguistics references,

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