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How alien can language be?

 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!

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