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A Linguistics Revolution: 'Arrival' and the Politics of Language

After watching Arrival, the sci-fi technology we think about is not possible developments in the future, but rather, one of our most intimate and fundamental technologies: the technology of language.


Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Year: 2016

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is an alien movie in so many ways. Most conspicuously, the movie centers on the first contact between humans and extraterrestrials. But beyond this obvious plot point, Arrival is alien in other ways. This big-budget, beautiful movie retreats from the spectacle it seems to initially be and instead, becomes a quiet, introspective narrative whose central theme is how language foundationally shapes the way we perceive and conceive the world. A Hollywood production that asks us to meditate and recognize the politics of language may be the most alien thing about the movie.

Arrival’s narrative tension is introduced when 12 alien spacecraft suddenly appear at 12 diverse locations across Earth, including the US, Russia, China, and Pakistan. Across multiple nationalities and languages, experts in various fields must decode the aliens’ presence and their language. One of the experts recruited into this global mission is linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams).

The movie’s drama is fueled by the question of how Dr. Banks and those around her, both near and far, interpret the aliens’ speech. Should humans react with hospitality or hostility? Interpreting language, of course, is a political issue. As Dr. Banks explains, “Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”

Surrounding Dr. Banks are a throng of politicians and military personnel who immediately read the aliens' presence as an imminent threat. But as Dr. Banks understands, these State representatives are not simply reading the situation at hand; rather, their language conditions their response. The institutional language of politics and the military frames the world as one of conflict and combat. In this dominant language, the world is categorically divided into an absolute binary of “us” and “them”, and anyone occupying the position of “them” is seen as oppositional and threatening.

Of course, this isn’t just the language of the State. Our everyday language frames the world as one of incessant competition and conflict. Whether on a sports field, a classroom, a business meeting, or a political platform, our dominant language turns every space into an arena of us versus them, of winners and losers.

We shouldn’t be surprised that one of the most intelligent and political movies of 2016 is a science-fiction film. The genre is frequently at the vanguard of intellectual developments, especially in terms of how technology mediates social relations. But one of the great surprises is that when we leave the theater, the technology we think about is not possible developments in the future, but rather, one of our most intimate and fundamental technologies: the technology of language. (For more on how language is a technology and not “natural”, see Mark Changizi’s Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, BenBella, August 2011)

As explained in the movie, language isn’t simply a vehicle for conveying our thoughts. Rather, our language actively shapes the ways in which we process and frame the world. This is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Arrival is both an exploration and dramatization of this theory.

Linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, working in the early decades of the 20th century, studied the relationship between language and cognition. Their famed hypothesis became popularized by Whorf’s study of the multiple words for "snow" in the "Eskimo" (Inuit and Yupik peoples) vocabulary. Whorf argued that because Eskimos live in the Artic, they have developed a robust, nuanced, and varied vocabulary describing snow. In contrast, cultures that experienced snow temporarily or not at all, have a scarce vocabulary on the subject, typically reduced to a single, generic noun: “snow”. According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, because Eskimo communities have developed multiple, varied words for “snow”, they see, feel, and think the world differently than their cultural counterparts with an impoverished vocabulary for snow.

Although today the theory is steeped in controversy, recent studies have defended the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, such as Igor Krupnik’s’ 2010 study SIKU: Knowing Our Ice: Documenting Inuit Sea Ice Knowledge and Use (Springer, 2010), which documents and explores how the Yupik language has more than 100 words for sea ice. (For more on the controversy, see "Does the Linguistic Theory at the Center of the Film ‘Arrival’ Have Any Merit?", Ben Pako, Smithsonian.com 02 December 2016) One of the pleasures of Villeneuve’s Arrival is its commitment to and expansion of Sapir and Whorf’s theory.

Major spoilers ahead. (However, if you speak the heptapod language, there are no spoilers.)

The English language frames the aliens, called heptapods, as a threat. However, in contrast to this linguistic framing, the heptapods arrive on Earth to bestow humanity with the ultimate gift: a new language rooted not in conflict and combat, but in collaboration and community.

To decode their language, Dr. Banks insists that she appear face-to-face with the heptapods. In contrast to typical Hollywood narratives of inter-species communication in which the linguistic gap is overcome by means of non-verbal gestures such as shared smiles, in Arrival such understanding occurs because of writing.

For the heptapods, writing consists of squirting a vapory substance into the air that resembles a circle, a form that symbolizes the heptapod ability to think multiple temporalities simultaneously.

We have adages that the seeds of the future are planted in the present, but as Arrival foregrounds, our language forecloses us from seeing this connection. English, as with so many human linguistic structures, is a linear grammar that flows in one temporal direction from the settled past to the nebulous future.

What is at stake in a new language? Everything. The heptapod language marks the conditions for their advanced politics.

The heptapod language, which sees and thinks with the future in sight. It's a language that does not see others as competitors, but as partners, and it remains open to a wider sense of community.

The heptapod’s mission is to convince earthlings that we need a linguistic revolution. To communicate this need, they strategically send 12 spacecraft to 12 different nations that speak 12 different languages. If the heptapod language is to be decoded, these nation-states should not conceive of each other as autonomous communities in competition for goods, services, and resources. Instead, they must work together, share their discoveries, interpretations and theories.

Tragically and tellingly, the heptapod’s presence, their mission of generosity, is interpreted by world leaders as an act of hostility and an imminent threat. This interpretation is because of our languages -- not theirs. When aliens are in our midst, whether human or extraterrestrial, our languages condition us to see them as a dangerous presence. The alien is the Other, a linguistic construct positioned as the opposite of and in conflict with the “us”, of “me”. Whether in a game, a contractual relationship, or a political discussion, the Other is structured by our language as an opponent. In our dominant language, English, all social relations are forms of conflict in which there will be one side that wins and one side that loses. In our dominant language, the future is reduced to a battleground in which present conflicts will be played out.

Put differently, we don’t have the language to accept the heptapod’s gift. We don’t have a language of hospitality.

But the utopian dimension of Arrival is its recognition that new languages are possible and forged, in large part, through art.

When Arrival opens, Dr. Banks appears haunted by the past. The movie cuts between the present with Dr. Banks living a quiet life of solitude as a linguistic professor and scenes from the ostensible past with her daughter, Hannah, who was once filled with vibrancy and creativity, but diagnosed with a rare form of pediatric cancer, she died as a teenager.

As moviegoers, we are conditioned to read the scenes featuring Hannah as flashbacks that are traumatizing Dr. Banks’ present. But the big twist of Arrival is that the heptapods gave Dr. Banks the gift of their language which allows her to see into the future. In other words, the scenes of Dr. Banks and her daughter are not flashbacks, but flashforwards; she sees events that have not happened yet.

One of the brilliant aspects of Arrival is the ways it suggests that the ability to forge a new language is not contingent upon aliens arriving on our planet, but rather, on our aesthetic practices in the present. In contrast to the dominant language of cinema which conditions us to read scenes between Dr. Banks and her daughter as flashbacks, Arrival makes evident that alternative cinematic languages can be developed, which enable us to see the world anew.

In a flashforward, Dr. Banks -- for the sake of intimacy, let’s now call her Louise -- sees a scene in which her daughter interrupts her academic work. Hannah asks her mom to help her remember a specific word. It's clear that Louise does not want to be bothered at this moment; what is most important in this moment is her academic work. But seeing this future, will Louise necessarily act this way? In the heptapod language, seeing the future may be a curse, but it can also be a blessing. This is because, the movie suggests, the future is not fixed.

Perhaps Louise’ future daughter will develop cancer, but perhaps not. Perhaps Louise will work tirelessly to work for a cure in the interim. There remains an opening for hope. Moreover, even if it is inevitable that her daughter will die at a young age, what is not inevitable is how Louise will spend her time with her.

In a sense, Hannah is an allegory for all mortal beings. We all have a limited time on this planet. And yet, we have constructed a language that doesn’t see the future, which is a way to not recognize our mortality. Rather than making the most of our precious, limited time, our language conditions us to see conflicts everywhere and time as a battleground upon which such conflicts are won and lost.

Arrival is a political allegory. And as the movie powerfully suggests, if we wish to have a future, we need to develop a language that thinks the future as open with utopian possibilities.

Now, more than ever, we need a language that fosters and encourages communication, collaboration, cooperation, and creativity for what we can become.

Ryan Poll teaches in the English department at Northeastern Illinois University, where his research focuses on the intersection of popular culture and politics. His first book, Main Street and Empire: The Fictional Small Town in the Age of Globalization, examines how the fictional small town is used to frame and stage normative US narratives and bodies throughout the 19th-, 20th- and into the 21st centuries. Other publications include essays on Twin Peaks, Bruce Springsteen, and detective fiction.

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