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Arrival: Exploring the role of language in our experience of life

Arrival (2016), directed by Denis Villeneuve and based on the novella Story of Your Life (1998, Chiang), explores the intertwining concepts of conflict resolution, time perception, and the central role of language in human relationships, psychology and culture. I believe that this film is a cinematic masterpiece because of how the writers and directors communicate such high-level, complex and important ideas through a relatable and engaging story.

Arrival follows the story of linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is recruited by the military to interpret the language of a group of aliens (Heptapods) who have brought twelve aircraft to earth for an unknown purpose. Louise partners with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to make contact with the Heptapods and decipher their language, in the hope of understanding why they have come to Earth, and prevent conflict between the alien race and humanity.

Through the exploration of the Heptapod’s language, which functions very differently from human language, Louise makes many important discoveries about the how Heptapods think and relate to time. This quote from Renner’s character, Ian, is an excellent summary of some their learnings:

“There is no correlation between what a Heptapod says and what a Heptapod writes. Unlike all written human languages, their writing… conveys meaning, it doesn’t represent sound… Unlike speech, a logogram (Heptapod written symbol) is free of time. Their written language has no forward or backward direction – linguists call this ‘nonlinear orthography’, which raises the question, is this how they think? Imagine you wanted to write a sentence using two hands, starting from either side. You would have to know each word you wanted to use, as well as how much space they would occupy. A Heptapod can write a complex sentence in two seconds, effortlessly. It’s taken us over two months to make a simple reply.”

Arrival is a stark reminder of how the languages we learn fundamentally shape our thought patterns and experiences, and how a language can shape the cultures surrounding it. As Louise says to Ian, “language is the foundation of civilisation, it is the glue that holds people together, it is the first weapon drawn in a conflict”.

As Louise begins to learn the Heptapod’s language and decipher their writing, she starts thinking like a Heptapod - fundamentally changing her relationship with important aspects of her existence, such as time and purpose. This is a demonstration of what scientists have called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis – “the language you speak influences how you think and how you see everything”.

The gradual reveal of exactly what this means for the plot’s resolution, and how Louise’s life unfolds, is something I don’t wish to spoil, because it is one of the most powerful film endings I have seen. I strongly encourage you to watch it yourself, if you haven’t already. If you would like a deeper analysis of the ending after you have watched it, I highly recommend this video by Logos Made Flesh (which does contain spoilers):

After watching Arrival, I encourage you to reflect on the following questions:

  • How are the languages you speak structured, and how might this frame your experiences?

  • If you speak more than one language, are there certain experiences or phenomenon that have a word in one language and not another? What might this mean for how people who predominantly speak these languages think and interpret the world differently?

  • If the timeline of your life was not a surprise to you, would that change how you engaged with life events, and the decisions you make? Would you celebrate and embrace each moment, or would you try and escape your destiny?

Images from this post are courtesy of Arrival, 2016, Paramount Picture


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