Arrival recruited linguistics expert Professor Jessica Coon of Canada’s Mcgill University
Why did the production need a linguist? I was asked to comment on the script and work with the set crew. They brought me to the military tent set and said, “Imagine you’ve just been helicoptered here and you have a team of 50 military cryptographers. Your job is to decipher this language. what do you write on the whiteboard?”
If aliens really did arrive, how would we even start deciphering their language? when looking at a language that hasn’t been studied or described, a field linguist looks for patterns.
And there’s every chance it won’t be spoken? Right. Spoken language is constrained temporally – when you speak you can only produce so many things at a time. But the written language of the Heptapods uses circular logograms that aren’t constrained temporally in the same way.
Should we forget everything we know about human language? That’s exactly Louise’s task when she’s trying to convince the general that he can’t start asking very complicated questions – they have to start with something more basic. Does the concept of a question even apply to alien languages? when we talk about universal grammar it’s the genetic endowment that allows us to acquire language. There’s no reason to expect aliens would have the same system – in fact it would be very surprising if they did.