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Universal Language: The Science Behind 'Arrival'

Unpacking the science behind the sci-fi at Silicon Valley Comic-Con.


This story originally appeared on Outer Places

When we heard about the movie Arrival, we had the same reaction a lot of sci-fi fans did: "Linguistics? They're going to make a movie about linguistics into a sci-fi blockbuster?" And damn it if that isn't what they did. Arrival proved that thoughtful, thought-provoking sci-fi still has a place in pop culture, and it did it with language. With that in mind, we went to a talk at Silicon Valley Comic-Con to learn more about the science behind the movie, presented by Jessica Coon, who served as the consulting linguist for the film.

Early in the talk, Coon described her undergraduate trip to a small village in Chiapas, Mexico, where she was completing her undergraduate thesis on Ch'ol, one of the dozens of languages in the Mayan language family. Ch'ol is only spoken by about 200,000 indigenous Mayans, but despite its rarity, there's one trait that it shares with all human languages: a 'hierarchical structure'. 

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science of Arrival
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  • Still from Arrival.

    Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

Essentially, all human sentences can be broken up into phrases, which are units of meaning. No matter what the language is, linguists can always arrange sentences into hierarchical structures, which help them make sense of what someone is trying to say. Some languages reverse the order in which verbs and objects are placed (Japanese has its verbs and objects 'backward' in their sentences, leading phrases like "books read" instead of "read books"), but the key point is that sentences always have to be arranged in a certain order to make sense.

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When it comes to communicating with aliens, hierarchical structure in language is pretty much the most important thing for cross-species communication: if aliens don't have that, then we have almost no human models for how to communicate with them. Still, there are three things Coon recommends for communicating with someone from another language: first, establish a relationship (in the movie, this takes the form of Louise removing her helmet and environment suit and touching the glass), start small (throughout the movie, Louise is focused on learning the basic ins and outs of heptapod before asking big questions, like "Why are you here?"), and don't assume too much (for example, assuming that heptapods have a similar concept for how sentences should work).

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On the other hand, humans have an incredible amount of tools to learn almost any (human) language: babies, as Coon brought up, can already absorb most of the complex nuances of language and grammar by age 5 almost intuitively. Part of this is because the human brain is hardwired to learn language, and in reality, babies are never learning from scratch—human language falls into a couple of different patterns, and it's really up to the baby's brain to figure out which pre-determined pattern it should be following.

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This observation, that language is ingrained into the human mind, is a major part of something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is at the heart of Arrival. Essentially, the hypothesis states that the language we speak constrains or determines how we see our world. In the movie, the heptapod language reflects their non-linear view of time: everything they write takes the form of a circle, which (Spoiler!) mirrors the way the movie is structured.

If alien languages don't operate on a hierarchical structure, where words have to be in a certain order to make sense, then communication is going to be nigh impossible. Taking it a step further, the idea that alien languages may reflect the way they view the world is based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says that the language we speak constrains how we view the world.

Now go tell your friends everything you just learned.

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Featured still from "Arrival" via Paramount Pictures