This weekend the Phono Lab research assistants took a study break and got together to see the new science-fiction movie “Arrival”. The main reason for this study break: THE MAIN CHARACTER IS A LINGUIST!
One of the key ideas in the movie is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (which is a bit of misnomer considering Sapir and Whorf never published anything together and never actually stated their ideas as a hypothesis). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis at its core implies that the language we speak shapes the way that we see the world. The hypothesis is played out in the movie in a lot of different ways: how the aliens view the world, how each of the countries affected views the world and even in how each of these countries perceive the way that the aliens view the world. The movie really highlighted just how important language is in the way we understand and interact with each other in day to day life even though we tend not to give it much thought.
Perhaps one of the moments that made all the linguists most proud of what they do was when the physicist (played by Jeremy Renner) acknowledged the mathematical way in which the linguist (played by Amy Adams) viewed language. While often considered a social science, linguistics is a science. Whether looking phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax or semantics, all of those disciplines use facets of mathematics and statistics to form and understand the languages that we speak every day. And for a movie to show a physicist, who in most sci-fi movies would be the leading scientific authority, putting their efforts into helping the linguist was refreshing.
The movie itself was an alien contact movie, so the linguistic references that we were all secretly hoping to nerd out over weren’t as prominent as we would have liked. However, for a movie to have a linguist as the main character might be the first step to getting linguistics more recognition in everyday life.