If aliens come to Earth, call a linguist

In Arrival, Amy Adams figures out that the aliens communicate using a written language of complex swirls and circular symbols known as logograms.
In Arrival, Amy Adams figures out that the aliens communicate using a written language of complex swirls and circular symbols known as logograms.PHOTO: SONY PICTURES
Jessica Coon.
Jessica Coon.PHOTO: OWEN EGAN

Linguistics professor says sci-fi film Arrival is spot on about people in her field being apt for working out the meaning of alien languages

If aliens were to come to Earth, do not summon the artillery - call linguist Jessica Coon.

The Montreal-based linguistics professor believes that people in her profession would be the best bet at establishing proper communication with a species even as foreign as aliens.

"As linguists, we know the way languages work - even the ones that we haven't worked on before. We know how grammar works and the characteristics that go together to form a language.

"Of course, we wouldn't really have a head start with alien languages, but we would have the tools we can use to try to understand them. It's about recognising patterns," she tells The Straits Times in a telephone interview.

What she is describing is, in fact, the premise of the new science fiction movie Arrival, in which a linguistics professor named Dr Louise Banks (played by actress Amy Adams) is hired by the United States military to find out from a group of visiting extra-terrestrials what they want on Earth.

In a lot of sci-fi films where aliens show up, some kind of universal translator is there and that person can somehow talk freely to the aliens. No one ever questions that kind of thing, but Arrival is unique because it asks these questions head-on.

LINGUISTICS PROFESSOR JESSICA COON , who was an adviser for the film Arrival

Based on Ted Chiang's 1998 short story Story Of Your Life, the film looks at the challenges of establishing connection with a foreign species when no common language, whether written or spoken, is available for anyone to work with.

Arrival opens in cinemas tomorrow.

Coon, who is an expert on rare Mayan languages and was called in to act as a linguistics adviser for the film, says: "In a lot of sci-fi films where aliens show up, some kind of universal translator is there and that person can somehow talk freely to the aliens.

"No one ever questions that kind of thing, but Arrival is unique because it asks these questions head- on. This movie has been great for the field of linguistics."

In Arrival, Dr Banks eventually figures out that the aliens, known as heptapods, communicate using a written language of complex swirls and circular symbols known as logograms.

While Coon was not the one who came up with the look of these logograms - production designer Patrice Vermette was behind them - she was asked to work with them as if they were real.

"The producers wanted to see what it would look like if a linguistics professor were to write and take notes on these.

"So I didn't design the linguistics in the film, but I gave them feedback on the way I work. Amy Adams' office in the film looks shockingly like mine - she has all the books that I have on my shelves," she says with a chuckle.

In its examination of linguistics, the film at one point also brings up the Sapir-Whorf theory of linguistic relativity from the early 20th century - the idea that the language you know influences and even constrains your world view.

But Coon says that many linguists today would refute the concept.

"People have tried to test this via various tests and experiments and there's no strong evidence that that is true.

"For example, languages can vary in terms of how many colours there are - some languages have different words for dark blue and light blue. But there is no evidence to show that that affects the ability of the speaker to perceive the colours.

"But that is a thought-provoking part of the movie - it makes you think, which is what fun sci-fi movies should do."

One part of the film that she was less pleased about is the scene where army colonel Weber (played by Forest Whitaker) says he hired Banks because she is one of the best when it comes to translation.

She says: "There is a general misconception that linguists are glorified translators. But we're not translators - in fact, a lot of linguists are not even polyglots. We're interested in the structure of language.

"He just sort of makes her look like a translator, which I think will make a lot of linguists cringe. But otherwise, the rest of the film is fantastic."

•Arrival opens in cinemas tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2017, with the headline 'The best person to speak to an alien'. Print Edition | Subscribe