Arrival and the meaning of language

What is the nature of our relationship to language? To our own and to new ones that we might acquire? A common conception is that we have knowledge and thoughts, some of which we can express in language and an even minor fraction of which will be understood by others. Some others ascribe language greater importance and see it as defining for our thought. In linguistics the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that different cultures have different views and conceptions on the world due to differences in their respective languages, and thus learning a new language can alter one’s worldview.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis plays a central role in the recent science fiction movie Arrival by Denis Villeneuve, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguist professor with the task of translating and making sense of the language of aliens that have landed (almost) at different locations on earth. She is somewhat aided by Renner’s theoretical physicist Ian Donnely, but she is really the star and leader of the team of linguists that is assigned by Whitaker’s Colonel Weber. Weber’s plan is simple and straightforward: make a translation possible so we can ask them what is the purpose of their arrival.

In Weber’s conception asking the question shouldn’t take that long, just find the corresponding alien sign for the English “purpose” and so forth. But his plan comes from a very limited understanding of what language is and how to build up communication between two vastly different species. Louise explains that there are a lot of presuppositions that are implicit in that question, e.g. do the aliens (or heptapods as they are later referred to) understand what a question is and that it requires an answer? Do they understand causality the same way we do, which is essential in order to having a purpose and intention directed forward in time? As it will be reviled, conceptions of time will play another central role in the movie.

But before these very abstract concepts can be mediated Louise and Ian have to start from scratch and from kindergarten level with concepts of low complexity, e.g. in terms of MHC: “human” (not that low, though, 9 th order of hierarchical complexity), “Louise”, “Ian” and then simple combinations “Ian walks”, orders 4, 4 and 5, respectively. It´s not a horizontal and translational task but rather a vertical and transformational in terms of hierarchical complexity and development. For each concept they convey the heptapods answer with a circular calligraphic-ish sign. But the team is on a clock, people are getting nervous having twelve large black pods hovering around the globe. Pressure is being put on the military and consequently on the language team, and communication between the different teams around the world breaks down. Even though people around the world have a common language and can communicate, it’s not always they succeed. All struggle to make sense of the alien language. And even if we can understand their language, how do we know we can trust them? How do we know that the heptapods aren’t playing out the different cultures against each other?

Communicating is more than just a cognitive and linear affair, it’s not only about taking the heptapod’s symbols, translating them to a corresponding word and thus assimilating it to our language and to our understanding. When asking the question on the heptapods’ purpose, Louise initial interpretation of their answer is “offer weapon”, which causes even more concern and stress among all involved. But does the concept of “weapon” have the same meaning as in our respective languages? Is it a thing used for harming others and wage war or do the heptapods mean it as a tool in a broader term? And is “offer” an offering or an injunction?

It seems that understanding the heptapods is not only a complex problem of deciphering a code, but rather a problem of meaning making. And not only in the sense of “for a certain signifier, is the signified the same in both languages?”, but also on a more fundamental level in terms of how reality is perceived and understood by the respective species (here is a discussion on the difference between complex thinking and meaning making). This requires respect and humility towards the other party, a recognition of the inevitable limitations of one’s own worldview, and a willingness to connect and to see the world from the other’s perspective. The other just might have a more complex and mature view on the world. The more immersed in the heptapod language Louise becomes, the more she experiences reality from the corresponding perspective, in accordance with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This hypothesis has been widely debated in linguistic communities for decades, although there are several interesting experiments on how we describe and perceive colours differently across cultures. If we broaden the notion of language to incorporate also mathematics and physics I would say the hypothesis is clearly valid.

Without giving any major spoilers to the movie, I find it highly relevant, not only in today’s post-truth society but also as a reflection on what we commonly take for granted, on how we perceive the world and on our underlying assumptions about reality and our place in it. But I see it mainly as an illustration (a really good one) on how a new language, and even new concepts within the given language, can open up new doors and perspectives on the world and on ourselves. And even though acquiring a new language can expand our minds, it can still be a very limited part of the fragile communication process that can break down for so many reasons.

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