Arrival was released last Friday. It is about how a linguist saved the world by deciphering an alien language.
I watched it last night, and had a couple of thoughts I’d like to share with you. [spoiler alert]
The movie did not go into details about the phonology or phonetics of the alien language, because humans are not capable of producing those alien speech sounds. This, of course, is not a valid reason not to analyze the speech sound, because we might have machines to generate those sounds for us.
The linguist in the movie opted to learn the alien orthography instead. I can sort of understand this, because an alien speech sound could be hard to describe, especially when we do not know the physiology of the aliens. In intro phonetics classes, we often learn the terms such as bilabial, plosive, aspiration etc., which are all related to human physiology. Since we don’t know how exactly the aliens made the sounds, it would be hard to come up with the terms. However, this is only an issue for the film makers or the novelist who came up with this story. It should not be a problem in the real world. Many animal language experts have indeed figured out ways to analyze and discribe animal “speech sound”.
As explained in this movie, the alien orthography looks like a circle, and shows a non-linear word order, which means the word order is free. However, there does seem to be “words” in it, which means there are symbols that correspond to concepts (semantics). Sort of like Chinese orthography. “Free-order” language is not very alien to us, because some human languages seem to have, at least on the syntax level, a relatively free word order (e.g Irish exhibits different kinds of word orders). Linearization in the Phonological form (PF) might put extra constraints on word-order formation.
The movie in general tries to convey a philosophical idea that is quite human. The non-linear perception of time, for example, is no different from core ideas in Buddhism and various schools of Hinduism (e.g. Sansara). The plot in the movie was also structured in a non-linear fashion, which is reminiscent of Memento and Mulholland Drive.

The part about alien language was boring, but it is nevertheless an important plot. As mentioned briefly in the movie, learning the alien language enables one to acquire the aliens’ way of thinking (the sapir-whorf hypothesis). The reason why the linguist can see the future is because she learned the alien language, and thus acquired the aliens’ non-linear perception of time.

The Chinese and the Russians were portrayed as the ones who want to blow up the aliens, and therefore were the “bad guys”. As a Chinese person, I would say that the plot about Chinese being aggressive is not surprising nor offensive. We all know that it is kind of a normal narrative in American media nowadays. I would indeed be surprised if any American movie depicts the Chinese as the good guys. One thing I want to point out is that in China, Army generals do not have the power to declare war. That’s the president’s job, and the president, by law, should be a civilian. I think the film makers should have checked this. Maybe I am expecting too much from the film makers.
Okay, somebody asked me what the linguist said on the phone with the Chinese general. For those of you who don’t remember this particular plot, the linguist told the Chinese general the dying words of the general’s wife.
According to this post, the words supposedly are ” in war there’re no winners, but only widows”.
ps: I was born and raised in China, but I could not understand a thing Amy Adams (the linguist) said. We can’t really blame her, since she is not really a Mandarin speaker.

all right, a friend of mine pointed out that the poster bellow has an error on it. It was supposed to be the skyline of Hong Kong, but the Oriental Pearl Tower was somehow placed there. The tower is acctually in Shanghai. The production company of the film had corrected the mistake. I am keeping this poster here just for fun.

#alien-language, #arrival, #movie, #linguistics