Last night Songdog and I went to see the new movie Arrival, which I had been very much looking forward to because it features a linguist as its hero and was rumored to do so pretty well. I’m here to tell you that it surpassed my expectations; it’s not only a wonderful movie from the cinematic point of view (I realized that was going to be the case at the very beginning, when the camera slides over/down a mysterious surface which turns out to be the ceiling of a room, leading to a spectacular view through tree branches to a body of water), it is that rare science fiction movie that had a similar effect on my brain to that produced by a good sf novel. (The gold standard in that regard is still 2001: A Space Odyssey; most sf movies are just westerns, adventure movies, or romances dressed up with spaceships and/or time travel.) That’s not to say it’s flawless; I agree with the reservations expressed by Anthony Lane in his New Yorker review about the blurred focus and the “rushed and scruffy subplot,” but I also second his enthusiasm:

The first forty minutes of “Arrival” consumed me utterly. I gave up taking notes and resorted to scrawling sketches in the dark, as one prodigious image followed another. So sure is the stride of the narrative, and so bracing the air of expectation, that you feel yourself, like Louise, beginning to spin, and barely able to catch your breath. […] It may be weaker in the resolution than in the setup, but that is an inbuilt hazard of science fiction, and what lingers, days after you leave the cinema, is neither the wizardry nor the climax but the zephyr of emotional intensity that blows through the film.

Amy Adams is convincing both as a woman who’s going through hard times and as a linguist; apparently she “studied as much as she could about how linguists do fieldwork, including watching documentaries about preserving endangered languages,” and she won me over early on by first telling someone the well-worn anecdote that kangaroo comes from an Aboriginal phrase meaning “I don’t understand,” then turning to another character and muttering exactly what I had been thinking: “That’s not true, but it’s a great story.” For more on the linguistic aspect, see Ben Zimmer at the Log; he avoids spoilers, but the thread below may well contain them if LH readers feel the urge to talk about the plot, so if you want to see the movie — and I hope you will — you might want to do that before joining the discussion. (Warning: Arrival gets loud at times and contains varying elements of anxiety and grief, all of which will keep my wife away, so if that sort of thing bothers you, now you know.)

Addendum. How I Wrote Arrival (and What I Learned Doing It): Screenwriter Eric Heisserer shares notes and extracts from early drafts as he breaks down how he adapted Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.” Via MetaFilter, where you will find more people burbling with enthusiasm about the movie, as well as links to Ted Chiang’s stories.

Update. Jessica Coon provides a list of linguistics-related links about the movie.


  1. Having seen it in the weekend, I’ll make a case for the prosecution. I too enjoyed the first 40 minutes, but after that I found the cheesiness reached critical mass and left the cinema thinking, “That was another Interstellar: interesting basis, Hollywood execution.”

    There were minor niggles aplenty: almost from the start the script raised linguist-related questions. The Amy Adams character introduces her lecture’s subject as “why Portuguese sounds different from the other Romance languages” – is that really a thing? In a university class? (Yes, Portuguese has its own distinctive phonemic realisations, but….) Then she’s in her office and Army spooks appear out of nowhere to invite her to work for them again, because she has a top secret clearance dating from when she did some Farsi translations for them. So all the Farsi specialists at the National Security Agency must have been on vacation? As the Army guys are leaving they ask her if she can speak Mandarin, and of course she can – she’s a linguist!

    I’m being picky highlighting these minor problems (and they kept coming), but they smelt of scriptwriters talking down to the audience. The big problem came when the script totally elided the process of taking interspecies vocabulary comprehension beyond personal/species designations to verbal and abstract concepts – which, according to a convenient but jarring voiceover, all happened in a month. Linguistic fieldwork is probably never going to be the stuff of Hollywood movies, but this was the point at which my willing suspension of disbelief collapsed into annoyance that I was being gypped.

    And after that: some geopolitical nonsense out of a Tom Cruise movie, and a Big Revelation in the final minutes that was implausible on every level – temporal, emotional, teleological, behavioural.

    I agree 2001 is the SF gold standard – I still remember my 11-year-old mind being blown when my father took me to see it (in the days when cinemas still followed Kubrick’s instructions about the music and lighting as buildup to the actual screening). In 2001 the sense of wonder, fear and displacement, which will surely be our collective reaction when/if aliens make contact, always stays ahead of the audience; whatever you think of Kubrick’s coldness and technology obsessions, he made something that’s greater than its mere narrative. But Arrival just defaults to Spielberg-type tropes: ordinary people run around like headless chickens, the military & CIA treat it like an invasion from Scarystan, and disaster is narrowly averted by a plucky hero who doesn’t play by the rules.

    When in a couple of years publicists again announce that “Hollywood has made an intelligent sci-fi movie,” I will duly line up for tickets, because I am incapable of learning my lesson.

  2. Greg Pandatshang says:

    I found the linguistics of it a little hard to take seriously. I didn’t consider this a serious storytelling flaw – it was one of a number of plot points that one had to just accept in order that the story could proceed – but I would have enjoyed it even more if they had somehow worked in better linguistics.

    For instance, early on, the main character suggests that her army handler challenge a rival linguist by asking him “the Sanskrit word for ‘war’ and its translation”. For one thing, this is phrased incoherently: obviously, the translation of a word for war is “war”. What she means is a literal calque of the word’s etymology. It would be understandable if anyone else but a linguist was confused on that point.

    Second, I don’t know a ton of Sanskrit, so I consulted and was advised that the word for war is युद्ध yuddha. Wiktionary agrees. Neither lists any synonyms. So, I suppose that if one did challenge a rival linguist to name this word, the response would be “yuddha … and so what?” The word the main character evidently has in mind is गविष्टि gaviṣṭi, which spokensanskrit glosses with words such as “ardour” or “eagerness” and more specifically “ardour of battle” or “desire for fighting”. Its etymology appears to have something to do with cows (I wonder what the etymology of “yuddha” is. Couldn’t find any info on that).

    Lastly, it’s obviously a bad idea to fill a crucial job on the basis of a pop quiz with only two questions. But, look, this is precisely the sort of thing that almost nobody would do in real life but somehow makes perfect sense to movie characters. That’s roughly the level of linguistics in this film: makes sense in terms of movie logic.

    P.S. I don’t mean to take anything away from the beautiful and impressive visual design that was done for Arrival.

  3. I agree with both of you that the linguistics was on a superficial and occasionally implausible level, but I think your ideas of how much actual linguistics it’s possible to cram into a major motion picture, while still leaving room for emotion, plot, character, and such other matters, may be inflated. But of course we each have our limits of tolerance, and I can’t blame anyone for having a lower limit than mine in this case.

    I will take issue with Ian’s accusation of Spielbergianism, because I have a hair-trigger revulsion reaction to that, and it wasn’t activated here. What you’re talking about is not Spielberg tropes but movie tropes, and you’re not really going to have a major motion picture without movie tropes.

    One thing that did bother me and that I forgot to mention in the post was the blatant mispronunciation of “semasiographic” (as having a stressed -SIGH- in the middle). Come on, people, use a damn dictionary.

  4. Greg Pandatshang says:

    P.P.S.: Overall there was a lot that I liked about Arrival, but it was a bit of a different sort of film than I expected because I really loved Denis Villeneuve’s 2014 movie Enemy, and that one felt a lot further away from familiar Hollywood tropes.

  5. LH – sure, they’re movie tropes rather than Spielberg tropes: I had dim memories of Close Encounters and ET as examples of the genre at its dumbest. (I’d love to see an aliens movie in which humankind calmly and thoughtfully responds, “Hmm, this is interesting.”) The disappointment was that Arrival resorted to tropes that were so run-of-the-mill.

    How much linguistics can a mainstream movie tolerate? I get the exigencies of filmmaking, mainstream or otherwise, and I don’t claim to have any answers to the exposition problems. Compressing the painstaking process of language documentation (especially when the only fieldwork informants are a radically different species and behind a glass wall) would be horribly tricky for a filmmaker. But it was frustrating that Arrival chose to ignore the problem completely. If a movie’s plotline is based around code-breaking, and the central character says, “I think I know how to approach this” – and the next scene has the code already broken and the plot hurriedly switching to something with more action, the script will look pretty lazy. Essentially that’s the way Arrival did it, with a rushed voiceover as band-aid. Sorry to moan on about this, but that was the point where the movie lost me. I did enjoy the visuals!

  6. I don’t recall the short story as explicating the process of language documentation either; I wonder if you’d have a similar response to seeing it glossed over with fictional devices rather than with movie devices?

    The story certainly resorted to skipping around certain things and describing their results and receptions rather than them themselves. Which is pretty common generally, often for narrative shape — it’s just a kind of “tell, don’t show” — but especially in science fiction when you want to cheat and write about something you can’t write about. Is it dumb and lazy?

    Discussing this technique reminds me of Patrick O’Brian. Of course there is skipping and skipping.

  7. In addition, I think this particular trope is exceedingly realistic. As Tolkien says: “A child may well believe a report that there are ogres in the next county; many grown-up persons find it easy to believe of another country; and as for another planet, very few adults seem able to imagine it as peopled, if at all, by anything but monsters of iniquity.” I suppose Tolkien was alluding by contrast to Lewis’s space trilogy, in which it is we, the humans, who are the monsters of iniquity — not all of us, of course.

  8. I’m looking forward to seing it this w/e, but as an aside:

    “most sf movies are just westerns” and the Joss Whedon TV series Firefly made good use of this, even including an interplanetary cattle drive!

  9. Yes, I enjoyed Firefly immensely.

  10. Re yuddha-: according to Mayrhofer’s “Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindoarischen”, it belongs to the root yodh “fight” (Vol. II, p. 418), which goes back to PIE *Hyewdh- “move, stir”. That means it’s related to Latin iubeo “to order, bid, tell, command”.

  11. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Neat, that means “yuddha” is cognate with “jussive”. If I had written the screenplay, the rival linguist would have challenged the Amy Adams character back with that tidbit and thereby won the big contract to talk with Kang and Kodos.

  12. Yes, that would have been excellent.

  13. Is it dumb and lazy?

    If a movie is about boldly going where no man has gone before and fighting evil Klingons et al, then everyone’s happy with the plot device of a spacecraft that can do warp speed 9, no questions asked.

    If a movie is about building a spacecraft that can go faster than light, and the maverick hero engineer says, “Ok, let’s try this,” and in the next scene the Starship Enterprise has been built, that’s dumb and lazy.

    Confession: I’ve never seen a Star Trek movie, so if they have subplots about the mechanics of superluminal travel, my example has just turned on me.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    The Amy Adams character introduces her lecture’s subject as “why Portuguese sounds different from the other Romance languages” – is that really a thing? In a university class?

    Probably not in the case of Portuguese; but in general I can easily imagine a lecture on how a language’s weirdness compared to its relatives can be explained by a substrate or some other contact phenomenon. English is a case in point that has had lots of papers written about it.

    So all the Farsi specialists at the National Security Agency must have been on vacation?

    Or they’ve all been fired for being gay. That pretty much happened with the Arabic specialists around the start of the latest Gulf war.

    (…Not at the NSA of course, or it wouldn’t have been published, obviously.)

    if they have subplots about the mechanics of superluminal travel

    Nah, just treknobabble.

  15. There was a “Star Trek” episode explaining (away) why all aliens look human.

    Having watched “Arrival”, I still don’t understand the character-to-character purpose of the Sanskrit question (as opposed to the screenwriter-to-audience purpose, which is to foreshadow the weapon-tool ambiguity).

  16. Greg Pandatshang says:

    character-to-character, I think the idea is that it allows the colonel to test how good this person is at Obscure Language Stuffs (OLS). It simultaneously sheds light on the rival linguists’ ideas about conflict: the guy who thinks the Sanskritians would be so trite as to have a word for war that just means “argument” might think that the only danger is a spat or a misunderstanding, but Main Character has a more fulsome understanding of how greed and status competition can lead to war, which is exactly the sort of thing that impresses Forest Whitaker (both on screen and, in my experience, off). We all want peace, but it’s always just out of reach. So, what’s the best way to get peace? Not with the olive branch but the bayonet!

  17. David Marjanović says:

    There was a “Star Trek” episode explaining (away) why all aliens look human.

    Yeah, by creationist frontloading. *grumble*

  18. Tamas Marcuis says:

    Lithuanian is very old and still has great similarities with Sanskrit.
    At first when I learn the Sanskrit for war was meant to mean “desire for more cows” I looked at how it was spelled.
    There was no likeness to the Lithuanian words n; ” Karas ” or v; ” kariauti * apparent.
    Of course then I remembered the Lithuanian for cow is ” Karve “.
    Never though about it before but I suppose these could be from the same root.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    No, the Balto-Slavic “cow” word is a loanword from the Celtic for “deer”; maybe the Celts mocked the cows they found in the east.

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    Just seen it and like it a lot. Certainly not Spielberg nonsense. I wasn’t expecting the linguistics to be realistic, which helped; that meant I was able to enjoy the nice realistic touches when they happened (like the iPads with the preprogrammed graphics for real-time communication.)

    It probably also helped that I’d read the short story beforehand. And nevertheless didn’t see the big twist at the end coming (I never work out who the villain is before the grand unmasking in whodunnits either. Non omnia possumus omnes.) And the twist was set up perfectly fairly within the film, in hindsight. Good stuff.

    There was admittedly a fair bit of Hollywood silliness. I mean, if you’re worried about your experts freaking out terminally when they first see an alien, mightn’t it be an idea to at least brief them a bit beforehand? I think the army is actually quite clued up on things like that … after all, they have people who can do rocket science.

    Reassured to find that I’m not alone in being utterly mystified by the Sanskrit “war” thing.

  21. And nevertheless didn’t see the big twist at the end coming (I never work out who the villain is before the grand unmasking in whodunnits either. Non omnia possumus omnes.)

    Same here! I’m always impressed and mystified when my wife (who used to write screenplays) figures out what’s going to happen in a novel we’re reading or a movie we’re watching; I’m sophisticated in terms of language and references but as a little child in terms of plot: I just gawp and take it in and am surprised when the author wanted me to be surprised.

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