Language at the Movies: Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

Popcorn with your linguistics, anyone? Photo by

This week’s blog post is about language at the movies. What do you mean by ‘language at the movies’, I hear you ask?

Well, in teaching undergraduate English language courses, I often use film to demonstrate and tease out particular linguistic concepts. I regularly come across movies that take language, or philosophies of language, as their subject; that is, films which range from focus on fictional representations of linguists and the field of linguistics, a lack or loss, of language, representations of dialect, class, race and gender, or even youth speech in film, to documentaries about constructed, endangered or ritual languages, and films which involve artistic/fictional ones (Klingon, Elvish, Dothraki, anyone?), to name only a few examples.

This blog post had one aim: to watch and comment on a film that is of relevance to those interested in language – adding new excitement to movie nights, for those of us who don’t get out much!

So, my film of choice is Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016). Quite apart from the child-like frisson created in my colleagues by seeing an academic as the focus of a major Hollywood blockbuster, and enjoying the linguistic fracas created by the potential mistranslation of the Sanskrit word for ‘war’ (context: in an attempt to win her place on the expedition, Dr Banks challenges a rival academic’s translation of the word as ‘an argument’, while she translates it as ‘a desire for more cows’ –  a harmless mistake you might think…), it was a film I used to illustrate the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

The film took $24,000,000 in its opening weekend and went on to gross $100,501,349 to March 2017, garnering 46 awards, and 224 nominations (source: Who says science doesn’t sell? As an aside, I’m proud to say several of my students went on to watch this film because of my riveting explanation…


[warning: contains spoilers]

Run time: 116 mins

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker

‘Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”‘ (Dr Louise Banks, Arrival)

Adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang called ‘The Story of your Life’ (1998), this recent science fiction film charts the story of a professor of linguistics, Dr Louise Banks. Banks is engaged by the U.S. army, alongside the other members of the UN in whose countries eleven other alien spacecraft have appeared, to assist in deciphering the alien language in order to communicate with the so-called Heptapods and discover their purpose on earth.

However, each nation is cautious about sharing their knowledge, especially after it appears that the aliens want to ‘offer weapon.’ As a linguist, Dr Banks understands they may not mean ‘weapon’ but a plethora of near-synonyms: ‘technology’, or ‘tool’, or (as it turns out to be) a ‘gift’. Nonetheless, the potential threat creates a communication breakdown between nations, some of whom want to attack the Heptapods. Dr Banks struggles to convince the world’s military to allow the communication process to do its work before striking.

SPOILER ALERT! Alongside this, the narrative allows us to experience Louise’s increasing awareness of her future in which she sees her daughter, her daughter’s early death, and a lost relationship with her husband. While we begin the narrative with these seeming ‘flashbacks’ we later realise that these are, indeed, ‘flash-forwards’, as our whole concept of time, memory and perception alter along with hers during the film’s narrative.

LEGO Heptapod B – Photo by Simon Liu, at flickrCC by 2.0

Where all this becomes interesting for us, is in the film’s use / treatment of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (a mid-20th century idea which states, generally, that people who speak different languages think about the world differently).  In addition to the above-mentioned problems of basic communication, the Heptapods have a complicated written, circular language (logograms). The use of logograms, it is pointed out, means that the Heptapods practice a non-linear orthography – unlike our Western, linear, left-to-right, written system – and the question is raised as to whether this means that the Heptopods’ thinking processes (their organisation of time, space, memory, and perception) are reflected in their language; for example, whether their concept of time is non-linear, as opposed to the Western, human, linear experience of time.

At another point, Ian (Jeremy Renner – the non-linguist) explicitly states: ‘the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says that if you immerse yourself in another language, you can rewire your brain.’ Hmmmmn… well, while Whorf didn’t explicitly state this in so many words, it is the logical progression of extreme Whorfism – taken to the nth degree. This caveat aside, the film runs with the idea and commits to the suggestion that, as Louise gains proficiency in Heptapod B, her world view alters – her brain is ‘re-wired’ and she is, like the Heptapods, able to see through time/space to experience the future, the past, the present.

Alien Warning – Photo from

ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT! Indeed, as Louise builds her Heptapod B vocabulary database, and becomes proficient in communicating with the aliens, Louise starts to have ‘dreams’ or ‘visions’ of herself and her daughter, her daughter’s early death, as well as her relationship with the unseen father. Here we see that her perception of time shifts from linear to circular – with the whole of ‘time’ experienced at once. So, in learning the Heptapod language, Dr Banks receives the Heptapod ‘gift’: time. It seems that thinking in a different language causes her thought patterns to change. This is a core idea at the heart of the film: that an intimate relationship exists between the language you speak and the way you perceive the world, demonstrated by Louise’s acquisition of Heptapod B.

So, the film, in its effort to present us with ‘thinking that time travels’, runs with the extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: linguistic determinism, which suggests that language determines the way you see/perceive reality, rather than the weaker version: linguistic relativity, which suggests a relationship between language and your view of the world; that is, the notion that different language communities experience reality, well…. differently!

Further Information:

If you are interested in further commentary on the film and related topics, there are articles / videos available on the web about Arrival and its relationship to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, and/or the field work of linguists, as well as the study of artificial and/or endangered languages.

Some interesting ones are listed here:

Coon, J. (2016) ‘Alien Speak: Linguist Dr. Jessica Coon on Villeneuve’s Arrival’, for Museum of the Moving Image: SLOAN Science and Film, available at:

Martinelli, M. (2016) ‘How Realistic Is the Way Amy Adams’ Character Hacks the Alien Language in Arrival? We Asked a Linguist’, available from SLATE at:

Panko, B. (2016) ‘Does the Linguistic Theory at the Center of the Film Arrival Have Any Merit?’, available from:

Video on the linguistics of Arrival:

‘The Linguistics of Arrival’The Ling Space interview with linguistic consultant on Arrival, available at:


Dr Jessica Coon’s website (linguistic consultant on Arrival), at:

And, just for fun, Google Translate’s April Fool blog post this year featured Arrival-themed japes:

‘The Arrival of our 32nd Word Lens Language, Heptapod B’, available at:

Happy viewing!