Arrival (the movie), and Linguistic Determinism

(Note: No Spoilers)

We went and saw Arrival over the weekend, and both thoroughly enjoyed it. I think part of the reason may be that as scholars in an associated, yet even more obscure field, there is some natural bias to cheer on a linguistics professor protagonist, especially when her theoretical physicist companion is reduced to a mere sidekick. Arts and humanities are often maligned against the “important” STEM subjects like math and science, and while I respect the importance of those subjects, I think the study of human behavior and experiential reality through language and stories is equally important.

Arrival is completely cerebral sci-fi, if you are going for action and explosions you’ll be disappointed. However, it does contain an interesting exploration of linguistic theory and an extrapolation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was created out of the works sparked by Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf, although they never actually published any such hypothesis together. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis deals with linguistic relativity, which simply means that language and the way we use it impacts the way we perceive the world, and in turn our reality. Whorf then supported this theory by providing examples of the way in which both behaviors and conceptual understanding changed between cultures in line with their grammatical systems. His most noted, but also most criticized work on linguistic relativity was a study on the Hopi Indians. He argued that the way they spoke about time was completely different to the three-tense system of past, present and future that we use in English and other SAE (Standard Average European) languages, and as such created the circular view of time they had in contrast to the linear one established by the three-tense system (Arrival seemingly  gives  a nod to this in the circular patterned writing of the aliens and their alternate perception of time).

Arrival uses the strongest version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that of linguistic determinism, which basically tells us that our language use determines the way in which we think and perceive reality. While the movie stretches this idea to its outer limits, it does make you think about the way in which language works, and how complex it really is. It also brings up the issues that come from cross cultural communication, and how easily things can be miscommunicated, mistranslated, and misunderstood in a global society. Perhaps we should revive the push for Esperanto after all…

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