The Arrival: Metaphor for Language

“Language is the cornerstone of any civilization. Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”

The arrival, whilst a brilliantly entertaining piece of filmography; also contains an in-depth exploration at human’s relationship with language, concepts and science. From the moment the new species “the Heptapods” arrive on Earth, the humans are confronted with the issue of how they can communicate with the new species in order to work out the reason for their visit and their intentions.

In order to overcome the language barrier and the issues this causes, the military enlist the help of linguist Dr. Louise Banks.

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The fact that the first course of action is to explore and learn, says something important for the necessity of communication and the understanding it enables us. Before panicking and attacking: due the fear and shock of the unknown, the plan is to meet with the aliens, in short, periodic meetings and learn more from what they have to say and strategies ways for us to translate their intentions.

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Meanwhile it showcases that what remains ever present is the panic and fear of the humans around the world, that fear the aliens arrived only to attack, and in defence they are constantly teetering on the edge of retaliating with violence.

The film is pinnacle in demonstrating how our own perceptions and pre-conceptions shape the meaning we take from conversation. The words we use build our associations.

[answering a previous question about the Sanskrit word for war and it’s meaning]

Gravisti. He says it means “an argument.” What do you say it means?

Dr. Louise Banks: “A desire for more cows.”

The framework of language and the associations we make with what concepts that language represents, provide the guidelines of that conversation. One thing the film also demonstrates is how different discourses offer only particular discussions and conversations to take place.

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While the Heptapods are communicating with the linguist, empathy and emotion are displayed, promoting concepts of connection, love and warmth.

Meanwhile as we are shown the other sites of humans who are also conversing with the Heptapods, we learn one way of doing so was by playing Mahjong. Instantly this changes the type of vernacular being shared and excludes particular concepts from being discussed.

A game that defines their to be either one winner or loser, victory, competition and defeat; naturally shapes these as the topics of conversation in broader terms.

Dr. Louise Banks: If all I ever gave you was a hammer…

Colonel Weber: Everything’s a nail…

The film follows how Louise Banks uses theories of language acquisition to simplify the first interactions the humans have with the Heptapods. She presents them with simple phrases and actions to aid them in building their vocabulary and also to compare the symbols the Heptapods in turn use to represent the same action or event.

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Gradually she builds the vocabulary and complexity of the language exchanged, to proliferate the amount of communication they are able to co-operatively hold, so that they may learn the reason for the Heptapods visit, and above all confirm if their intentions are friendly.

If you immerse yourself into a foreign language, then you can actually rewire your brain.

Dr. Louise Banks: Yeah, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It’s the theory that the language you speak determines how you think and…

What can be observed in the film is the linguist’s gradual development in being able to interpret the Heptapod’s language. The more time she spends attempting to breakdown their form of communication and engaging with the symbols they create and questioning what they mean, the more she is able to empathise with their language.

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As the film progresses, we see visions appear in the linguist’s mind, at the time it is not clear of their meaning, until towards the end off the film when we learn she has been seeing events that have not yet taken place.


Linguists call this “nonlinear orthography,” which raises the question, “Is this how they think?”

The film also demonstrates the definition of language can be applied in a far wider parameter than we commonly assume; communication happens in many ways beyond simply the words we use.

Heptopods for example write using images, feelings and symbols that singularly contain more complexity and clauses than a complex sentence we write out. The exchanges between the two species represent how communication works as a whole, how two people attempt to understand one another, representing their own ideas, and sharing and learning one another’s individual experiences.

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It demonstrates the process of convergence, how people read one another and will amend and curve their processes of communication in order to encourage that connection and adapt in order to find common ground and better appreciate someone else’s point of view besides their own.

We are naturally designed to share our experiences with others.

A break down in these processes causes misunderstandings, pauses and fragmentation. This is turn provides friction and aggression.

Words and the way we construct them, in turn provide the building blocks to underpin how we think, how we form thought and how we perceive the world around us, and they our are way of categorising the reality around us, and weaving ourselves and identities into. Words are in many ways our relativity.

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