Letter to the Editor: It has Arrived
By Conor Vaughn
It Has Arrived, the time when a linguist is at the forefront of science fiction. The time when a linguist saves the world from its imminent destruction and tactfully brokers peace between unfriendly nations. We’re talking about the movie “Arrival” and, man, did somebody do their homework. In fact, the mastermind of the film, Eric Heisserer, says to have extensively studied linguistics before putting pen to paper—finger to keyboard.
The plot of the movie is based around a linguistic notion, the Sapir-Whorfian Hypothesis, which basically states that the language you speak has some effect on your perception of the world. Now the extent to which one’s perception is affected is hotly debated. Does speaking the alien language Heptapodian really allow you to perceive time in a different manner, or even see the future? Sure, to the first one and a—“Hey, anything’s possible”—to the latter.
Benjamin Lee Whorf formalized his hypothesis while studying the Hopi language of the American southwest. The Hopi don’t see time, or at least describe it in their language, as a linear thing as an English speaker might. In English, we classify increments of time into year, month, day, hour, minute, etc. We can always refer, linguistically, to the day after tomorrow or the day before last. This is an abstraction not possible, or necessary, in Hopi. They see time as a cyclic thing—the day leaves as the sun sets and returns as the sun rises. Tomorrow has no relation to the day before or the day after because it is the day before and the day after. To the Hopi, everything happens, happened and will happen in the present. This is the grand and sometimes inconceivable idea that the aliens bestow upon the human race, a gift which allows for the cognitive advancement and assisted evolution of all who understand it.
These incongruities between languages extend further than what people can say or describe. They play out in human behavior. The categorization effect can limit a speaker’s ability to put what they see into words. The Hixkaryana, a people who live deep in the jungles of the amazon, have no translation for ‘monkey’. They see monkeys every day and know what they are, yet have no word to describe them as a whole. Instead, they have individual words for each monkey—much how we would have scientific names for them. If a member of the Hixkaryana were to see an orangutan, native only to parts of Africa and Asia, they would have no word for it. If we saw a breed of dog, but did not know the breed, we could still call it a dog. Makes one wonder what the Hixkaryana would call Bigfoot if they ever saw him.
To end my propaganda for how interesting the field of linguistics is and how expertly the movie “Arrival” portrays it, think on this—if you and a member of the San people of South Africa were to look at the same two lines of the same length, you would be much more likely to think one line is longer than the other. When this test was performed on the San, almost none of them fell for it. They nearly unanimously said the two lines are the same. Does the language you speak make you perceive the length of things differently? Evidently.
This has been a UMD linguistics student’s review of “Arrival.” The movie where, finally, linguistics saves the world.