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How alien can language be?

Update: a longer and more linguistically focussed review of Arrival has appeared in Inference.
 Last night I went to an advanced showing of Denis Villeneuve’s new film Arrival, which is showing as part of the London Film Festival (a perk of being on the committee of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain that was a little unexpected!). Linguistics is central to the film, and, it’s very well done. Based on a Ted Chiang short story, the film tells of the arrival of enigmatic alien ships on Earth, and the involvement of Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics, in figuring out the aliens’ language. It’s an intelligent, beautifully designed, and thought provoking film. And the linguistics in it is a real step above what linguists have come to expect of cinematic portrayals of our discipline (thanks in no small part to Jessica Coon acting as a consultant).

The film turns on the visual language of the heptapods, the name given to the aliens because of their seven tentacular feet. In Chiang’s short story, the spoken language looks pretty familiar to Dr Banks; nouns have special markers, similar to the grammatical cases of Latin or German, that signify meaning; there are words, and they seem to come in particular orders depending on what their function is in the grammar of the sentence. But it is the visual language that is at the heart of the story. This language, as presented in the film, is just beautiful; the aliens squirt some kind of squid-like ink into the air which resolves holistically into a presentation of the thought they want to express. It looks like a circular whorl drawn with complex curlicues twisting off of the main circumference. The form of the language is not linear in any sense. The whorls emerge simultaneously as wholes. The orientation, shape, modulation, and direction of the tendrils that build the whorls serve to convey the meaningful connections of the parts to the whole. Multiple sentences can all be combined into more and more complex forms that, in the film, require GPS style computer analysis. The atemporality and multidimensionality of the heptapods’ written language is a core part of the plot.

So, could a human language work like this, or is that just too alien?
There are two big competing ideas in linguistics about what a language is. One is that  it’s the outcome of an evolutionary process of expansion and refinement of a basic system of communication. It has evolved culturally, buffeted by the pressures of its use as a communicative and social artefact. Language is a cultural object. The other idea is that a language is what happens when the human mind is faced with certain experiences that it can understand as linguistic. The human mind cant help but build a general system, the language, that allows it to connect speech or sign (or, in Dr Banks’ case, alien ink shapes hovering in thin air) to meaning. Language is a cognitive object.
The linguistics of Arrival sits a little uneasily between these poles. For the story, the heptapod language has to be profoundly different from human language. There’s a Sapir-Whorf idea underlying the plot. The language creates, in fact forces, a new way of understanding reality, an understanding that is, until the events of the film, truly alien. But, at the same time, Louise Banks’ linguistic methods have to work, or there is no story, no way of connecting with the heptapods. There has to be a means to segment the whorls, to codify the visual syntax, to connect the forms to the meanings. In fact, to do the kind of fieldwork that linguists do, when they are faced with a new language.
If language were a cultural object, and the heptapods’ culture was as alien as one would expect from their technology, appearance and biology, there’s no reason to expect Dr Banks could segment, classify and analyse the system using the techniques of linguistics. But she did. If language were a cognitive object, then, assuming the heptapods’ mental set-up to be profoundly different from ours, the task of coming up with a theory that could guide the fieldwork in profitable ways would be insurmountable. But Dr Banks generates new whorls to communicate with the aliens, using a kind of iPad type device to select and combine the convoluted shapes. This means that their language has a syntax, a way of systematically connecting the shapes to the meaning of the whole. But if syntax is an attribute of the human mind, why would we expect the heptapods to have it?
In fact, human language, just like the heptapod language, is multidimensional. Syntax is in a different dimension from the words we speak one after another. It is a mostly invisible scaffolding that holds words together, even though they are pronounced far apart, and keeps them structurally apart, even though they are pronounced together. In a sentence like Louise knew which heptapod the captain of the soldiers likes best, the phrase the soldiers is right next to likes but while soldiers is plural, likes is a singular verb (because captain is singular). Things pronounced together are grammatically distinct. And which heptapod is of course the object of likes. The captain likes some heptapod. Things which are far apart, are, in terms of meaning and structure, closely connected. There’s an invisible set of connections, in a different dimension from the linear way the words are pronounced one after the other. Human syntax is just as multidimensional as the heptapods visual language. The  heptapods, and their language, far from being too alien, are, in fact, very human. Why?
An answer is available to this question. Perhaps syntax, the system that infinitely extends the abstract connection between form and meaning beyond the simplest cases, is the only solution, cultural or biological, that is consistent with rational thought, and hence, eventually, advanced technology. Across the galaxy, different species can only connect because, independently,  we have all evolved syntax.
So, NASA, you know where your next big funding push has to be!

Syntax is not a Custom

I had a brief twitter exchange with @david_colquhoun the other day. Prof Colquhoun tweeted a response to a UCL press release about how learning something about grammar could be good for school children (a point made by Bas Aarts). Colquhoun’s view was that teaching children things about formal grammar was ‘daft’, and I’m sure he’s not alone in this view. When I suggested that learning about a fundamental attribute of human beings was a good thing for children, Colquhoon responded that ‘syntax isn’t an attribute. It’s a custom and it changes’.

I thought this exchange was interesting, though I did find it irksome. A well-respected scientist (a Fellow of the Royal Society), who comes from outside of linguistics, thinks that syntax is trivial enough that it’s legitimate to make categorical (and quite incorrect) pronouncements about it. Would he make such pronouncements about, say, palaeolimnology, or astrophysics? Why are we syntacticians doing such a bad job that academics from other fields think they know enough about syntax to say that it’s a ‘custom’? I don’t know, but I want to just give a few arguments here that syntax does not derive from culture and it is not a custom. The syntax of languages changes as Colquhoun noted, of course, but it does in ways that we have been describing quantitatively for years, and that we have have some theoretical grasp of. None of that work involves thinking of it as a custom.

In fact, one of the important findings of syntactic research over the last 50 years (if not longer) is that structure doesn’t reduce to custom or culture. The idea that the structure of a language is intimately connected to its culture is, I think, quite a common view amongst people who don’t study languages. Though it’s a stronger position than `syntax is custom’, it is, therefore, worthwhile to address first.

This view abjectly fails. Take how languages ask questions about things. In English, if you bought something, and your partner sees the shopping bag, they can ask What did you buy? There’s something funny going on with the syntax here. The part of the sentence that you are asking a question about appears, not where it would go if you weren’t asking a question, but right at the front. I bought a book but Which book did you buy? Linguists call this kind of syntax question-movement (or, more commonly, wh-movement, though that’s not such a good term). There are question-movement languages. English is one, so is Inuktitut, so is Mohawk. But there aren’t question movement cultures. There’s nothing about the culture of the Anglo Saxons and the Mohawks that leads to them having the syntax of question-movement in their languages.

There are also languages that are wh-in-situ. When speakers of these languages ask a question like what did you buy? they say it as you bought what?, leaving the question word in the same place (‘in situ’) as it would be in a declarative statement like you bought a book. This is a property shared by Turkish, Chinese, Malayalam, and many other languages. But again these are not wh-in-situ cultures. There are other languages that adopt a mixed strategy. Indeed, languages with very similar cultures can vary quite wildly in what they do with questions, with some dialects of Italian moving question words and others leaving them in situ.

There is a weaker version of the idea that syntax is custom, which is, I think, what Colquhoun was meaning. If someone comes visiting you, you tell them `the custom in London is to stand on the right hand side of a moving staircase’, so they avoid being mown down by irate Londoners. You can see people obeying customs like this, and once you know the custom, you can tell others what it is. But the syntactic rules of a language are not like this. Take movement of question words in English. Now I’ve told you what that is, perhaps you could think of it like a custom: you know it when you see it, and you can tell me about it. But that won’t work. Though you can say David likes the man you gave the book to, you can’t ask a question about the book, following this `custom’. You can’t say in English Which book did David like the man you gave to? Why not? There are hidden patterns, discovered by syntactic research over the years, that capture when this syntactic pattern works, and when it doesn’t. Unlike standing on the right, English speakers are neither aware of the syntactic patterns they use, nor can they say what they are. In fact, it required a lot of research to find out how this bit of syntax works, and we now have a good understanding of the abstract generalizations that predict whether a speaker of English will react to a sentence positively or not. That speaker has no idea of what these patterns in their use of language are, but syntactic theory can predict them. That’s not how customs work. Syntax is not a custom: it’s a complex, highly abstract system of rules generating patterns in the sentences we use. Different languages have different syntax because, as children acquire a language, there is to-and-fro between the set up of their brains (how human brains process linguistic data they are exposed to and what they do with it) and the linguistic acts of the people around them. Syntax is constrained by the ways our mind works, and it’s within these limits that historical change takes place.

The whole of syntax is like this: there are tiny scraps of it that are similar to customs (don’t end a sentence with a preposition, etc.), and those tend to be what people know about. But these are close to scientifically trivial, though they act as cultural shibboleths. The rest of syntax goes unnoticed; because we find it so effortless, we are unaware of the rich, abstract, and complex flow of syntax in our language.

The study of syntax is a straightforward scientific enterprise. There are many complex facts and phenomena that you need to do a lot of descriptive research to find. There are many possible hypotheses about what is going on, most falsified by new data that comes from observation or experiment. And there are fairly good explanations of many of these in terms of basic theoretical primitives and formalised theories of how they relate and combine. The theories are, without doubt, in a primitive state (maybe around about the level of chemical theory pre-Dalton). Indeed, we are very possibly not even thinking about this stuff in the right way. Nevertheless, research in syntax has been extremely intellectually fertile for years now, revealing many new discoveries about how the grammar of many different languages work, and uncovering broad laws and principles that govern these. There are areas of great controversy, but the basic phenomena, generalisations, and concepts are well researched.

I’ll finish on what the initial tweet was about. Is it a good idea to teach grammar to kids? My own view is that it’s a good idea to teach syntax to kids, looking at many languages, and showing them what some of the basic ideas are. Linguistics, and syntax particularly, is an excellent way to teach the basics of the scientific method. Children can go very quickly from observation to hypothesis to experiment to (dis)confirmation (though less easily to theory, it’s true). All using sentences of their own languages. From this they can learn precision in thinking, the rudiments of science, and, it must be said, some facts about the grammar of the language(s) they speak. None of these is daft.