Josef Fruehwald: We are linguists. We come in peace.


Linguistics has had a long history in sci-fi and fantasy, ever since J.R.R. Tolkien’s constructed languages and spelling systems of Middle Earth. Most recently, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding the Dothraki language, created by David J. Peterson for Game of Thrones. Personally, I’ve been taken with the realistic features and sociolinguistic patterns of the Belter Creole by Nick Farmer in The Expanse.

These constructed languages are our artifacts, but where have the linguists been? On the ill-fated Star Trek: Enterprise series, set before the magical “Universal Translator” had been perfected, Ensign Hoshi Sato (Linda Park) was the linguist on the bridge, tasked with translating the languages of newly encountered civilizations. Unfortunately, as the seasons wore on, the writers decided that the Universal Translator would start working again, and basically forgot about Hoshi except for occasional cryptography and signal processing tasks. The work she did was never that realistic anyway. It usually involved listening closely to recordings of screaming aliens for “phrases” and “the basic grammar.”

But now, linguists have Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) in Arrival! As Dr Banks runs from her office to lecture theatre, she misses the breaking news that alien vessels have arrived on Earth with an unclear purpose, and no translators. She must save the day, and Earth, with her linguistics skills. For weeks, linguistics Twitter has been hyped about the movie’s release. Seriously hyped. There was a forensic analysis of screenshots from the trailer of Banks’ office over on Language Log. A lot of our excitement was not just because a linguist was going to save the world in a movie, but because we know that real life linguists were consulted on the production: McGill’s Jessica Coon, Morgan Sonderegger and Lisa Travis. It seems that Dr. Coon had the greatest effect on the production, as she has done linguistic fieldwork herself, but with humans speaking Ch’ol.

So on the release weekend, I organised a Linguistics and English Language movie night! Can I say that the linguistics in it was totally accurate? No. But neither was the physics I’ll wager. However, the work of doing linguistics came across crystal clear. The military commander in charge of America’s response to the aliens (played by Forest Whitaker) must’ve been a big Star Trek fan. He plonked down a recording of screaming aliens (ok, more like whale song than screaming) and asks Louise if she can hear “any phrases”. Louise, being a linguist, counters with the more basic question “did they have mouths?”

Louise spends her time actually trying to crack two communication codes. One is a writing system of an alien species from millions of lightyears away, and the other is the demands of the US Military. With the aliens, she needs to figure out how they refer to entities and events, and make requests for information. With the military, she needs to communicate that linguistics is difficult, rigorous, and in this case, necessary. “You think about language like math” says Ian, the theoretical physicist on the team (Jeremy Renner), a high compliment for a linguist.

We only catch glimpses of Louise’ methodology, but it looks a lot like the monolingual fieldwork demonstration in this video.  If you watch that video, you’ll learn a few things. First, you have to start simple. What’s the word for “stick”? How do you count to 10? Second, it’s a joint activity. The teacher is doing just about as much work as the linguist is. In this way, every field linguist is starting off on much surer footing than Louise. Humans are basically humans everywhere, and we can recognize when someone is attempting to communicate with us. With squid aliens from distant planets, nothing can be taken for granted. As Louise points out to the colonel, we can’t even be sure that question asking is a component of their cognition, much less how they construct them in their language.

It wasn’t all roses, though. The plot seems clearly to be built to provide an opposition between Ian, the physicist, as the scientist, and Louise, the linguist, as… something else. And the fact that Ian is man and Louise is a woman only plays into gendered biases about science. There’s also too great an emphasis on the function of linguistics being translation. We’re working very hard to understand the nature of human cognition here. A real linguist would be eager to do a contrastive analysis between the aliens’ language and human language. Can these differences be attributed to general differences in our cognitive function? To differences in our social structures? Or is there a fundamentally different computational system running in our heads/tentacles? If questions like those aren’t scientific, I don’t know what is.

Josef Fruehwald is a lecturer in Linguistics and English Language in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

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