What 'Arrival' Gets Right — and Wrong — About Linguistics

Short Wave


Jessica con was a teenager when she first learned that linguistics is a thing. She stumbled upon story of Your Life, a science fiction novella by Ted Chiang. It's all about linguist- trying to figure out how to communicate with well aliens I. Think it was actually probably the first time I heard about the field of linguistics. And then I started college the year I saw an introduction to linguistics curson signed up for it. These days Jessica's field linguist at McGill University in particular I work on. Syntax. Basically the way words combine to make sentences in a few years ago. She got an email to be a consultant on a movie, a movie that was coincidentally based on the exact novella she read as a teenager. I'm not trying to draw any connections that aren't there, but you read about linguistics for the first time in a book that became a movie that you became the the person they consulted with. It's amazing right? It's pretty wild I mean when I first got the email that asks me to work on this film I was really ready to push spam because it sounded very strange and then at some point I saw the story of your life and I wait a minute I haven't thought about that in years and then I responded That Film Twenty Sixteen Sifi hit a rival. So real quick. In case you haven't seen it. Here's the gist. This is Davy arrived. All of a sudden twelve spaceships land all over earth trouble saying. And we don't know why they're not doing anything after landing there. Still no signs of first contact or just the sitting there are at least and so governments around the world are panicking trying to figure out why are these alien spaceship sitting here and different teams are going into try to understand why they're here what they want. And we are following one of these spaceships that I think is somewhere in Wyoming and the. Amy Adams who is a linguist? Production. And her job is to decipher the alien language and figuring out what they want. So today in the show another installment of the Shortwave Science Movie Club what the movie arrival got wrong about linguistics what it got. and. Whether or not Field Linguists Jessica coon has actually communicated with aliens. Honestly it's a tossup. I mattie Safai you're listening to shortwave NPR's Daily Science podcast. So Jessica you were the linguist who consulted on the movie arrival. So give me a big picture sense of what that means like. What did they actually have you do? Yeah. So the first thing I did was I got to read drafts of the screenplay which was really fun because it's a very common thing to do and academia we read things and we give feedback on them but usually not this fund of a scale committee meeting ever exactly yeah. It was very funds so I got to read the screenplay and they especially wanted. Feedback on how linguistics and linguists were represented in the film. So there were lots of places where I gave feedback and they incorporated it into the film. There were other places where they would say, okay just, Kinda yes. Yes. Thanks for your help but really in the end linguists are not Hollywood's primary audience and we're not going to get everything right here and now linguists just get to join like all the other fields of people who get really annoyed when science misrepresented onscreen. So welcome to the club. Sorry, we're not GONNA change that. The movie makers also put Jessica through some exercises, basically giving her a whiteboard and asking her would you do if aliens showed up and those exercises actually informed one of the most famous scenes in the movie when the main character we spanks played by Amy Adams. Schools the guy in charge of the mission about the fundamentals of linguistics. He asks her for a list of vocab words. Essentially, the keywords she was planning on teaching the aliens, that day. Cavaliers responding. Lock. help you understand. So Amy. Adams walks over to the whiteboard and scribbles what is your purpose on earth? This is where you want to get to. The question. Okay. So first, we need to make sure that they understand what a questions. The nature of A. Request for information along with the response then. We need to clarify the difference between a specific you. And a collective you because we don't want to know why Joe Alien is here we want to know why they all landed. In purpose requires an understanding of intent we need to find out. Do they make conscious choices or is their motivation? So instinctive that they don't understand a why question at all and and biggest of all, we need to have enough vocabulary with them that we understand their answer. I love that scene Yes that is one of the great triumphs of of linguistics in the film. I mean this was. So this was one of the most interesting parts of the movie for me because I'm you know this idea of building a base for understanding of a new language is like really interesting and and like the first steps in trying to communicate, which is you know like your thing right? So but it's something that I think we. Just, don't think about into see it in kind of in practice was so fascinating and I'm glad to hear it was like pretty well done your eyes question Mark Yeah I. Think I. Think it was really well done. I. Mean I think one thing that is really neat about this movie and what makes it such? You know interesting and intellectual Sifi is. They're not just typical humanoid creatures. We don't already have some kind of magical universal translator in place, and so we have to figure out how how do they even communicate and will we be able to communicate with them given how advanced they are that they've made these spaceships have arrived on earth I, think it's safe to assume that they have some advanced form of. Communication and that that form of communication should have patterns in it that we could eventually decipher. But thinking about you know, is it audible or is it written or could creatures communicate with smells or we just have no idea what could be out there if it's audible is in a sound frequency that human

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