Talk Talk

Ar­rival re­cruited lin­guis­tics ex­pert Pro­fes­sor Jes­sica Coon of Canada’s Mcgill Uni­ver­sity

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Arrival -

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.

Drew Tur­ney

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