In the 2016 film Arrival – an adaptation of a short story by Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life – Earth is visited by extraterrestrials, known by humans as “heptapods”. They appear in huge, black spacecraft and, although they don’t attack mankind, various leaders of the world view them as a threat. Unable to communicate with the aliens, Dr Banks, a linguistics teacher, is employed by the US army to translate their language into English.
Jessica Coon, an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics at McGill University, Montreal, acted as a consultant on Arrival, helping director Denis Villeneuve and Actor Amy Adams accurately bring Dr Banks to life. As well as providing pointers to what the character’s office would look like, Coon looked over the film’s script, discussing with the filmmakers how a linguist – a person who studies linguistics, defined as “the scientific study of human language” – would go about communicating with an alien life form.
“There were a lot of things the film got really right when it comes to doing fieldwork,” Coon says. “Earlier on in the film, she’s the first person to take off her helmet and really try to interact with the heptapods in a meaningful way. As linguists, we’re interested in the more abstract properties of languages, but you can’t get at those directly. You have to interact with speakers of those languages, whether that be human language or alien languages.”
Another prominent point the filmmakers get right is how Banks asks simple questions at first, rather than complex. “You have to understand the smaller parts first because there’s so much room for miscommunication and certainly – in this case – the stakes are very high. You want to make sure you understand what’s being communicated, and what the possible ambiguities are.”
In many ways, Coon explains, the way Banks translates the alien language is similar to how we would translate another human language into our own. First, you have to establish that both parties are trying to communicate with each other. One starting point is then looking at common objects and attempting to interpret how each group communicates what that thing is. For instance, the scientists in Arrival names the two heptapods Abbott and Costello. After learning how the aliens say these, Banks can act out walking and get the sentence “Costello is walking” from them. By taking away the known word for “Costello”, the scientists can work out the action itself.
While building from simple to complex sentences is a tactic used when communicating between unknown languages, when it comes to human languages we have a huge head start. “Human languages share certain things in common,” Coon says. “We know how to find certain patterns, and when we find one common property we are able to find others. Human language seems to be very directly linked to other more general aspects of human cognition.”
“Humans are born ready to learn human languages and humans can do this effortlessly. When it comes to alien languages, we do not have this luxury. It would be very surprising, actually, if they were similar-to-human language because, really, human languages are directly tied to out genes – to our humanness – and so we can expect alien languages to differ hugely from our own.”