Arrival is a movie about language- its importance and how it impacts those who use it. Most of the movie is based on a linguistic field of study popularized by Benjamin Lee Whorf (and named after him) called Whorfianism or an updated version called Neo-Whorfianism. Whorfianism is even mentioned in the film.
The gist of the belief system is that the structures of different languages shape how those language speakers view and understand the world around them.
It is a tantalizing idea and one that has some fascinating studies connected to it. In one such study, linguists compared how different language speakers measure time (maybe a basis for Arrival). Certain languages, like English, measure time in length (i.e. a long time), others, like Greek, measure time in amount (i.e. a big relationship; which does not measure significance, like it would in English, but the length of said relationship). The test asked certain language speakers to guess when a line would reach the end of a screen, or when a screen would be filled from top to bottom, and those who spoke a language like English were better at the first, and those who spoke a language like Greek were better at the second. Pretty cool.
The most famous study measured language speakers’ ability to measure blueness. Using a cool test that asks participants to identify which blue square matches other blue squares, linguists were able to show that Russians who have different words for different types of blue are more sensitive to ‘blueness’ than English speakers who only have one.
The studies are fun, but the significance of them is up for debate. Does this really prove a difference in the way we conceptualize the world? That we are a little worse at noticing how blue something is… Villeneuve puts all that aside for Arrival and plays out this concept to its largest possible conclusion. If small differences in language can slightly change the way we conceptualize the world, then what could massive changes in language- alien languages, that are entirely and fundamentally different from our own- do?
Ultimately, this creates an amazing movie, and an equally amazing commentary on language, the least of which is the fantastic twist about perceiving time in a nonlinear way. As our linear time goes on, what has aged the best about Arrival is not its commentary on language’s affect on speakers, but on people’s willingness and ability to use language.
Arrival points out how flawed language is first. How a simple word like ‘weapon’ when taught in the context of playing chess, a competitive game built on winners and losers, could seem like an ample substitute for ‘tool.’ And in some ways, that feels like enough to explain the troubles in the film and the troubles in our corresponding reality. They struggle to communicate with the heptapods because they do not have the same language, and they struggle to work with other countries because of a language barrier. After all, only the most arrogant of men would claim that human-to-human and language-to-language translation is exempt from the lapses in communication we saw between the human-to-alien language process. In many ways, the language barrier, rooted in the differences in cultures that created those languages, is explanatory of the issues of diplomacy our world slogs through.
But to me, this feels like a secondary commentary of Arrival. Because, after all, errors in translation and lapses in communication can only happen when people choose to use language. And it is far from a given, that people even try to communicate with each other in the first place.
The most striking and tense moments in the film are not when issues in communication happen, or when deadlines loom large for Louise and she must conjure some sort of advancement in her understanding of the alien species. Instead, the heightened suspense happens when online video links go offline and when the heptapods move their ships a mile upwards or tilt them sideways into a defensive posture and when countries line up with tanks and missiles rather than video cameras and white boards.
Arrival is commenting on the difficulties in language yes, but more so pointing out how quick we are to cast aside communication for a much easier and more self-serving route, when diplomacy makes way for an offensive.
That happens on a national level, in the film and in reality, but it also plays out on an individual level. The soldiers in Arrival, who listened to fringe radio, hosted by men who use their words to rile up their listeners- a gross abuse of the power of language- are reminiscent of some of the radicalized men and women who have asserted themselves into our national conversation. Those in the movie distrusted the government, the aliens, and any diplomacy, conversation, or cooperation they might engender by talking to each other. And instead, without any attempt to understand, they tried to, quite literally, blow it all up. These men silently sat in their bunks signaling to each other with glances and nonverbals. They needed no words as they loaded their bombs into the heptapods’ shell with the most nefarious intentions.
But this radicalized view of foregoing language for personal beliefs is less nuanced that how it normally plays out. More viewers may connect to Louise’s conflict, after she transcends time and discovers she will have a child and that she will lose that child to a terrible illness, and she must decide whether to avert that pain and all of its happiness by telling the future father or foregoing the conversation and going forward without his consent. She chooses silence.
And here is the beauty of Arrival. It is not a banner for diplomacy, it is an explanation of the difficulties language presents. It is hard to learn a new language. It is hard to understand how someone from another culture or race understands or uses my language. And it is infinitely harder to understand when to speak, and when to remain silent.
We clearly haven’t figured this out yet. And Arrival does not make the case that we should have, but only that we should keep trying.
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