Arrival: Language and thought


Alien encounters and the study of language.

The theory of Linguistic Reality, expressed by  19th century thinker, Wilhelm Von Humboldt, tells us that language shapes our worldview and cognition. Language is a construct with intricate patterns that is heavily ingrained in our cognitive process, making it possible to influence our thoughts and decisions.

Other civilizations have language construct that may appear strange to western speakers. Quechua—an indigenous language spoken by the people of the Andes— never developed into a written form until the Spaniards arrived. It was always seen as an oral language that was kept alive by the descendants of the Incas. One can only imagine how it feels to know a language only through its oral form without ever having learned an alphabet system.

Arrival is one of the few films to explore connections between language, thought process and worldview. The work presents us with a realistic alien encounter that is relevant despite its futuristic elements. Arrival was directed by Denis Villeneuve, and is based on the 1998 short story, “Story of Your Life” by science fiction writer, Ted Chiang. Villeneuve also directed Enemy in 2013, which has been compared to Memento for it’s Kafkaesque style. Similarly this film carries flashbacks not always appearing in linear order. We meet Louise Banks, a linguistics professor, played by Amy Adams, who is the sole communicator between an alien species and the befuddled, and easily agitated human population. As the irrational generals and political pundits carry a message of fear, the populous tend to follows, but there’s a push and pull between the science community and elected officials. The scientists and linguists have less time to study the aliens than it would take for the military to blow the aliens’ heptapods (a gray structure resembling a pill) that floats over grand natural landscapes.

In the beginning of the film, we see glimpses of Banks playing with her daughter and subsequently learning that she has a rare disease. Though the film never explains the connection between the present and the past, we assume it’s her daughter, and believe those are memories.

When communicating with the aliens, Banks has a seemingly simple question, “What is your purpose on earth?” She breaks down the complexity of the question, that would hardly baffle an earthly being, but could be taken as something else entirely by an alien from another planet. They must first understand that a question demands an answer, Banks explains. We don’t know if “Your” for them means the individual or a collective group. She says what if they think of themselves as a collective body and not individuals? The idea of purpose may also be difficult to grasp, since that concept may not exist in their world. What if there is no such thing as reasons or outcomes for them?



When communicating with the aliens, Banks tries to find commonalities between the two worlds. In one scene she uses basic name introductions that may produce commonalities. Her study requires patience to understand the new language and their way of thinking, so she can phrase her questions properly. The scene is a reminder of compassionate forms of communicating. Irrational fear doesn’t play into Bank’s study until some soldiers, after having listened to an angry radio pundit, decide to take matters into their own hands.

Banks is the only woman among many men trying to influence the powerful to base their decisions less on fear and more on reason. What does that say about the role that women can play in society? How can we influence society to use language that is appropriate and helpful? The film draws a powerful connection to the current political climate. The shortsightedness that is present in the movie is one we see time and time again. We would gladly bomb an alien species that could help us, rather than understand their language. If the generals had their way Ian, a theoretical physicist, working alongside Banks, would have never realized the circular symbols were related to the concept time.

Arrival seems to appear in waves, carrying us through contemplative, foggy blue-gray skies and ongoing flashbacks. The way Banks stares out towards the endless fields of Montana is similar, as when she’s in front of the aliens; it’s a moment of awakened knowledge and peace. The film does leave out some logistical explanations, especially when the scientists suddenly arrive at fully interpreting and translating the alien symbols. There seems to be no eureka moment when they discovered how to decipher the circular symbols that have no correlation to anything human.