Arrival

Arrival

Going to see Arrival as a linguist felt like being a kid in a candy store. Or, more accurately, it felt like being any kind of scientist going to see any movie involving science (i.e. what these days seems like most movies), or a pilot going to see Top Gun...? This analogy is falling apart. My point is that it is not very often that linguists get to go see a movie whose plot is all about linguistics.

So to those of you who recommended I go see this movie (and there were a lot of you, like a weirdly large amount of you): you were right to do so. I loved it. I loved being an expert in the audience for once. I loved knowing what I would say in certain situations and having Amy Adams say the same thing. I loved hearing her mention the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and feeling that special brand of smugness called "I already know what that is" [+ optional "and it was debunked years ago"]. I loved hearing Jeremy Renner talk about how immersing yourself in a new language can help you "re-wire your brain" and looking at the Jeremy sitting next to me and sharing an eye-roll. I loved that, for the most part, the movie was smart and did its research.

If you want to read a detailed account of the linguistic theory featured in Arrival, read this excellent interview on Slate. Jeremy and I essentially had the same conversation about linguistic determinism vs. relativism on our bike ride home from the movie. Our conversation veered more into the culture vs. language debate: how much of our worldview is influenced by culture, and how much by language? Can you even separate the two? I don't really think so; Jeremy disagrees. I don't buy into Eskimo words for snow (nor should anyone, really), but I have to believe that language is a lens through which we experience the world and then interpret our experiences. And culture is another lens, sure, or the other side of that lens (maybe it's a two-way one?), but they're inextricably linked. So while I'm not sure that

SPOILER
learning a nonlinear language would "re-wire" your brain and therefore allow you to reinterpret and manipulate the concept of time,
END SPOILER

I do think it could have an effect on the way you see the world.

Consider Finnish. Here in Finland, I don't have to differentiate in speech whether a third person is a man or a woman. I can just say hän (he/she) or hänen (his/her). There's just the one word. But since I'm a native English speaker (or since I'm an American - again, language or culture?), I still make that distinction - ever so slightly, and only in my mind - before I speak. I probably always will. So maybe the movie takes this hypothesis a little farther than is warranted. Just the way Whorf would have liked it, I suppose.

Still, though, I loved the movie. There was a bit of unexpected additional suspense near the end, thanks to real-life linguistic drama. The way subtitled movies in the theater work here, in case you didn't know, is that the movie itself is in English and there are Finnish and Swedish subtitles at the bottom of the screen. However, if there is a scene in the movie where the language spoken out loud is something other than English, then we don't get English subtitles - still just the Finnish and Swedish ones.

Fortunately and nerdily, this has never really been an issue for Jeremy and me since we often end up being able to understand whatever language is being spoken on the screen anyway. There are tons of movies containing an odd scene in Russian or Arabic, for example.

But we don't speak Heptapod. So when the scene came where Amy Adams is talking to the aliens and they talk back and it's subtitled...well, we were up the creek with only Finnish and Swedish as a paddle. And that's fine - we understand a ton of Finnish. But imagine if comprehending the central point of a movie plot depended on your Finnish skills! I did have to ask Jeremy about one word, and later clarify one other phrase (I always get "years ago" and "in __ years" mixed up), but otherwise it turned out ok.

I already can't wait to see Arrival again. Linguist or not, you'll probably like it, too. It's smart, thought-provoking, well acted, and it has an amazing soundtrack.

My best books of 2016 (and other distinctions)

My best books of 2016 (and other distinctions)

The graveyard on Christmas Eve

The graveyard on Christmas Eve