LINGUISTS PLAY A KEY ROLE IN NEW SCI-FI THRILLER ‘ARRIVAL’

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Linguists Play a Key Role in New Sci-fi Thriller ‘Arrival’
Washington Post (DC) (11/11/16) O’Sullivan, Michael

The new sci-fi thriller Arrival offers a contemplative look at the power and limitations of language and brings attention to the work of linguists. The film’s hero, Dr. Louise Banks, is an academic field researcher and translator who is recruited by U.S. military intelligence to help communicate with a race of seven-legged extraterrestrials that have descended on Earth with unclear intentions. “A lot of people don’t know what linguists do, or even that we exist, apart from some idea that we just translate lots of languages,” says Jessica Coon, an associate professor of linguistics at McGill University who was a consultant for the film. In the film, Banks is brought in due to her reputation as a competent translator for the military, but is initially unable to establish communication with the aliens, as their spoken language, referred to as Heptapod A, is irreproducible by human vocal cords. Instead, Banks relies on the aliens’ written language, Heptapod B, to communicate. The written script for Heptapod B is arranged in a circular pattern, the prototype for which is based on an altered version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish language. The fact that Heptapod B text is nonlinear—with no beginning, middle, or end—figures prominently in the plot, as well as in the movie’s key twist. So does something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a linguistic theory positing that the language we use influences the way we see the world. In the end, Arrival is not just a brainy meditation on how communication affects cognition, but also a deeply poignant rumination on memory, connection, and love. Coon jokes that anything that raises the profile of her field, while making linguists not just more down to earth but also heroes, is “a very, very good thing.”

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