Language in “The Arrival”(2016)

“It Came…From Outer Space!”

“The Arrival” is a film centered around a linguist, Louise, and an alien race that lands in 12 different locations on Earth.  She is recruited by the military to help decipher their language, which is first believed to be oral, but later determined to be centered around symbols. Throughout her interactions, Louise learns how to properly communicate with the creatures, teaching them English vocabulary, as well as learning their language and creating complex phrases with their own symbols in order to establish their true purpose for “arriving”.

Highly-Intelligent Heptapods

“The Arrival,” demonstrates many challenges when it comes to interacting with beings who speak a different language, one of those things being language competency (the capacity to which a speaker knows how the language operates). Upon first interacting with the “heptapods,” the aforementioned arrivers in the film, Louise has no prior knowledge of their language, whether that is the strange clicking or humming noise that they produce, or the symbols that appear later. Initially, the linguist didn’t even now that these creatures could produce symbols, only figuring this out once she wrote the word “HUMAN,” on a board, demonstrating her competency in her own language in hope of gaining insight into their language. Once the circular symbol was produced by the aliens, Louise then realized that there is no direct connection between the rumbling, clicking noise made by these creatures, and the black symbols that they create. In doing so, she was then able to establish a plan to increase her competency of the heptapods language. She learns to identify the intricately artistic curls and lines that vary in the symbols in order to identify phrases, which she then produces on her own to communicate back to the aliens.

Alien Syntax

In trying to communicate with these other-worldly visitors, it is discovered that the researchers will need to teach the heptapods about syntax before they are able to fully communicate with the creatures. Louise breaks down their main question “What is your purpose on Earth?” for her commanding Colonel. She explains that first, the aliens must understand what a question is, this being identified by the word “what.” She then must teach them the difference between the collective “you” and the singular “you.” The idea of the word “purpose” also implies that that these creatures are able to choose their course of action and think intelligently. The understanding of the question also implies that they will be able to respond with a “why” answer, if there is a reason for their visit. The breakdown of syntax implies that the creatures must have a wide amount of vocabulary to fully comprehend the question and provide an appropriate response. The syntax of the English question was not the only important syntax in this film. The symbols created by the aliens themselves were actually complex sentences composed of several phrases that could be pulled out and identified through the use of morphology. Once these individual morphemes and phrases were identified, along with their proper order, Louise could create her own responses to their symbols, using a screen and program to emulate their symbols. Understanding the word order allowed her to properly communicate and clarify the differences in the aliens’ language that could have led to further conflict between the species.

Arbitrariness and Language Perception

In every language there is a degree of arbitrariness that comes with defining and creating vocabulary. In this film’s case, arbitrariness becomes a huge sticking point for several of the other countries that encounter the heptapod’s ship. The aliens have come down to offer help to the humans, giving them the gift to see into the future, so Earth can then help the aliens in 3,000 years. In offering this gift, the aliens produce a symbol saying, “OFFER WEAPON.” The U.S. military is concerned about the use of the word weapon, while Louise identifies the arbitrariness behind the specific word choice. She proposes alternate meaning’s behind the word weapon, suggesting that it could mean a “tool.” Louise has had her perception of the heptapods’ language cast in a positive view, interacting with them numerous times and having nothing violent come from their interactions. The military, however, has been instructed to be on guard and monitor the heptapods as invaders. Their militaristic view changes their perception of the heptapods use of language to be more threatening, due to their job and goals.

1 thought on “Language in “The Arrival”(2016)

  1. aupadhya

    I have not had the opportunity to see this movie yet, but this post was still very fascinating. It’s interesting to think about this type of alien language, and how Louise had to start from the ground up when communicating with them. There are so many little things about language that we know and don’t have to think about, but trying to explain them to someone who has never encountered the language sounds difficult. It’s harder than just learning a second language, because at that point, you already know what syntax is. I also found it interesting that the military interpreted the word weapon differently than Louise, because the military has different goals and thoughts about the aliens than her.

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