“It is Spia-Worf. It is a theory that the language determines how you think.”
- Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Lou Adams)–
Audiences are puzzled at the movie scenes, which were randomly inserted on screen regardless of the real-time flow. At the beginning of the movie, the main character Louise Banks (Amy Lou Adams) saw the daughter’s death. And she suddenly talked with her daughter, communicated with aliens, and got the hint to solve the problem. This confused presentation of scenes is showing the view of Louise, who acquired the alien’s language and began to think like them. It is correctly reflecting the Spia-Whorf hypothesis mentioned by her in the film.
One day, 12 Shell which is an extraterrestrial spacecraft 450 meters high suddenly landed on earth. In the United States, the military and the experts in various fields, including the linguist Louise Banks (Amy Lou Adams) and physicist Lan Donnelly (Jeremy Lee Renner), attempted to make contact with aliens to get to the bottom of their “arrival” on earth. In the shell of the spacecraft, they faced two aliens, “hepatods,” through the transparent wall.
The heptapods have a totally different language from that of human beings. Heptapods, which have seven tentacles like an octopus, start to emit the complex written letters using a black substance while speaking in a resonant voice “like that of a wet dog shaking the water out of its fur.” It is giving shock to the audience who have implicitly believed the alien’s language is similar to that of human beings.
"It needed to be alien to our civilization, alien to our technology, alien to everything our mind knows. When Louise first sees the language, you don’t want to give it away to the audience that it's a language," said production designer Patrice Vermette.
Efforts to describe the heptapod’s language
Arrival (컨택트, 2016) was adapted from the novel Stories of Your Life and Others (당신 인생의 이야기, 2002) by Ted Chang that incorporated such disciplines as linguistics and physics. a Quebec director Ednis Villeneuve said, “It is very difficult to create a being that is fresh, original.” It was hard work for the producer to describe the written word of heptapods into the film’s language. Because the language of aliens has a totally different vocal organ and mind. So that film had to deeply focus on study for a detailed description of them. The linguistics researcher Jessica Coon, one of the advisors on the film long before it entered production, said, “I was so surprised at how much detail went into this movie.”
When the character Lan Donnelly (Jeremy Lee Renner) analyzed the heptapod’s language, he questioned “Is this how they think?” The language of heptapods, which cannot distinguish between starting and finishing points, just like their body form, is different from the linear language of humans. Their written language does not have a forward or backward direction. It means that the heptapod language users already knew the whole word and the length of sentence to be used for occupied sentence even before they start to write it. That is the interesting premise of the film: heptapod’s language reflects their perception of the world.
The plot of the film is also reflecting this premise through the personal changes the main character Louise undergoes. She has acquired their language and realized that she perceives the world like heptapod. She does not distinguish between the past and the future but just knows her future as part of the present. The randomly arranged scenes and the surprising climax is also based on this premise. The film will also make viewers question the correlation of the human mind with language. “Does the language we speak shape the way we think?”
Correlation of minds with language
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis, refers to the proposal that the particular language one speaks influences the way one thinks about reality. People have been speculating about this issue, but the contemporary period has seen a quality empirical research. For instance, an English speaker lays out one’s lifetime picture from left to right and a speaker of Hebrew or Arabic, who write the words from right to left, do it in the opposite direction. Kuuk Thaayoree people from the west of Cape York, who do not use words like “left” and “right” but use the cardinal directions, organize time differently: from east to west. Contrary to popular belief, they also can accurately stay oriented well. It means that your language and culture can train you to do it. For this, the cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky said that the different language speakers have “big difference in cognitive ability across languages.”
This correlation opened an old debate, but the new results based on cognitive scientific observations seem to buttress the argument for linguistic influence. In this situation, Arrival (컨택트, 2016) makes the audience curious “How can we communicate in aliens in their language?” or “Does our language be influencing on my thought?” The film also begins to make us question the relationship between our native tongue and our cognitive tendencies.
Cognitive science, the interdisciplinary science of minds including linguistics, became the base of study for core technology of the “fourth industrial revolution” such as natural language processing or speech recognition. The questions sparked by the film may provide the opportunity to understand the fact that someone’s way to understand the world is naturally different from the world’s peoples who have 7,000 different language - even artificial intelligence or aliens who just “arrived” on earth.