The Real-Life Linguist Behind Arrival Weighs the Chilling Challenges of Alien Contact


Toiling away in academia is usually a million miles from Hollywood, but you never know when some geek-friendly director might pick up the phone and ask for your expertise.

Associate Professor Jessica Coon of the Department of Languages at Montreal’s McGill University got her brush with moviedom when the film Arrival came calling. From Denis Villeneuve (Sicario), it depicts the social and political reaction when a series of giant spaceships touch down, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) called up to decipher the beautiful circular inkblots that seem to be the visitors’ language.

The story depicts Bank’s race to try and ascertain the visitors’ intentions and wrestle with her own emotional demons while trigger fingers itch worldwide and international relations crumble in the fallout. Coon was called in (‘When I got the email I almost sent it to spam’, she says now, thinking it was a joke) to wrangle authenticity.

A lunch with Amy Adams and some advance glimpses at the script later, and Coon’s experience and perspective as a linguist, a scientist and even a woman in academia is now part of what might be the most visually lush first contact movie ever.

What does a linguist do?

A lot of people assume we just speak lots of languages, but it’s a science that asks what the principles that underlie all languages are and in which ways do languages vary?

There are actually a striking number of properties human languages share and it seems like there’s a limited number of ways they can vary. We look at variations and try and figure out the properties that seem to cluster together in different languages.

So the big question in linguistics is; what is it that’s shared? What is it that allows babies to learn languages so quickly and effortlessly? What parts of language are hardwired into the brain and what parts do we learn?

What did the production want a linguist to contribute?

I was asked to comment on some of the linguistic-related components in the script and worked with the set crew, which was a lot of fun. They came to my office and took pictures of everything, saying ‘so this is what a linguist’s bag looks like’. I was really impressed with how much goes into making a movie.

At some point they brought me to the military tent set and said ‘okay, imagine you’ve just been helicoptered here from your office and you have a team of 50 military cryptographers. Your job is to decipher this language. What do you write on the whiteboard?’

Was the script pretty authentic when you came on?

They had the basics worked out because Ted Chiang’s short story [on which Arrival is based] is excellent, he clearly did his linguistics homework. So they had a really strong starting point and there was great stuff in the script already.

They did tell me very gently that some of my feedback was great but linguists are not Hollywood’s primary audience so they might not get it all perfect. There are some parts linguists might roll their eyes at but on the whole they did a great job.

If aliens really did arrive, the way they’d communicate might not even be something we recognize as a language. How can a linguist help?

The basic path of a field linguist when looking at a language that hasn’t been studied or described is to look for patterns, but when it comes to how concepts get mapped in the language, how events get located in space and time and how different an alien communication system might really be, those are excellent questions.

When we think of language we usually think of speech, but plenty of languages aren’t spoken.

Right, and that plays a big role in the movie. Spoken language is constrained temporally because when you speak you have to say one thing before the other – you can only produce so many things at a time. But the written heptapod [the names of the aliens] has these lovely circular flowing logograms that aren’t constrained temporally in the same way, it gives the strange language a really different character.

According to Chomsky and his contemporaries, there is a theoretical commonality across all languages. Doesn’t that mean she we should be able to learn any new language?

For human languages, yes. Even though sign languages use a different modality from spoken languages they share a lot of the same basic structural properties and building blocks. So there’s definitely a consensus among linguists that all human languages do share some basic components.

But if we saw or heard an alien language should we still think in terms of human language components like phonemes, words and sentences or forget everything we know?

That’s exactly Louise Banks’ [Amy Adams] task in the movie 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?

So if universal language theory only applies to humans there’s a real danger that if an alien race started communicating we’d simply have no hope of deciphering it?

Yeah, definitely. When people talk about universal grammar it’s just the genetic endowment that allows humans to acquire language. There are grammatical properties we could imagine that we just don’t ever find in any human language, so we know what’s specific to humans and our endowment for language. There’s no reason to expect aliens would have the same system – in fact it would be very surprising if they did.

But while having a better understanding of human language wouldn’t necessarily help, hopefully it’d give us tools to know how we might at least approach the problem.