There will be **spoilers** below.
OK, sure, some linguists do speak a lot of languages to varying degrees. But the film starts with the military thanking her for a Farsi translation. Translation is a hard job and linguistics is hard job and there isn’t that much overlap between them. Though, maybe she’s just insanely talented and that’s how she pays for her ridiculously expensive house? To her credit the linguist who assisted on the film fought this:
Why, you ask, did they not approach Noam Chomsky, with his understanding of “deep structure” in language? Perhaps Prof Chomsky did not care to help America’s military-intelligence complex
Putting aside the fact that Chomsky’s work has, in fact been funded by “America’s military-intelligence complex” and that he famously dislikes the kind of field work linguistics that the hero of the film is involved in, it is not clear to me how knowledge of ‘deep structure‘ would have helped a linguistic dealing with a language they had no knowledge of.
What is your purpose on Earth?
@ebefl Just saw it. I don’t mind Sapir-Whorf used for drama!
— John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) 20 November 2016
There’s a lot to say about this, but the TL:DR is that the strong form while being very attractive is patently false, whereas the weak form has some empirical support. The idea that the language you speak makes certain thoughts unthinkable (the strong version) is so seductive, it’s very hard to resist.
Language can obviously influence though (like if I ask you to think about elephants and you do then my language influenced your thought) but it would be a brave soul who argued that the lack of a word for ‘he’ and ‘she’ in spoken Chinese means that Chinese people have no concept of whether they are talking about a man or a woman. One would have to wonder how we ever come up with concepts and then name them were this theory true.
The most commonly known manifestation of this theory is the ever expanding number of words Eskimos are alleged to have for ‘snow‘. It started off as about 7 words in 1911 and reached 100 by 1984. All of this leading Geoff Pullum to pen his classic ‘The Great Eskimo vocabulary hoax‘. This even led to the creation of the term ‘snowclone‘ which describes “some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists” such as “If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.“.
The Eskimo Snow theory is attractive because it posits that Eskimos are surrounded by so much snow that their language represents their increased sensitivity to it, while us dumb Westerners just see all the subtle variety and diversity as plain old ‘snow’. It’s an attractive theory and the original Sapir-Whorf hypothesis had good intentions. Back in the days when Latin was considered the pinnacle of language, Sapir introduced the idea that rather than other languages being ‘primitive’ these languages offered insights into the world we would never be able to even perceive:
“Human beings… are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society… The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.”(Sapir)
It was social justice of its day, but sadly it was not true.
The film arrival takes the strong form of the theory to its logical conclusion. Learning the language of the heptopods, literally changes the protagonists outlook to an incredible degree. The Alien language is represented in circles and we are told the aliens have no concept of ordinal numbers. This, we later learn is because the aliens do not share our concept of time. In fact, the heptopods experience all time at once. Thus their sentence appear in circles. Once the protagonist learns their language she starts to be able to see into the future. The language she learns literally changes her perception of the world.
How would circular sentences lead to a timeless world view? It’s hard to say anything about an alien language but as it is translatable, in the film into English sentences like ‘we bring a tool’ there are certain things we can say. Firstly, word order is essential in English. ‘We bring a tool’ is a lot different from ‘a tool brings us’ or ‘Bring us a tool’. If there was no case marking in the alien language (for instance ‘I’ is the subject in English but the same word is ‘me’ when it’s the object.) the there would have to be a lot of guessing as to the meaning of the sentences. If there were markers of case, then the circular nature of the sentence is really just an artistic flourish.
Lastly, at what point would someone learning a new language obtain the ability to see into the future? After the first lesson? after a few months? Would it happen all at once, or gradually? People don’t tend to hit a point at which on Tuesday they were OK at French but on Wednesday they were fluent. So when does the new world view kick in?
To its credit the film handles this point quite well. As Amy Adams eventually learns a language which makes the concept of ‘time’ disappear, so it follows she must have always possessed the ability to speak the language. The her in the past who couldn’t speak the language exists in the same time as the her who can speak the language. But presumably they also exist simultaneously with the her who couldn’t. Best not to think too much about this.
In short the language can’t do what the film proposes it does and even if it could it wouldn’t lead to mind altering powers. But really….who cares? It’s a good film go and watch it!