Cinelinguini: Arrival

*Warning: Spoiler. I am discussing and dissecting the film on all its social, political, and linguistic facets*


Ever since this film came out, everyone who knows I’m a true linguini was asking me if I’d seen it. So I went to see it. A bit of peer pressure mixed with curiosity and a sense of duty to report on the linguistic goings-on.

On the one hand, I’m excited linguistics is on the map and is recognized as the study of communication rather than the science that divides and categorizes languages. Like Zoology, the classification of languages in my view is akin to catching and killing butterflies just to have them framed and hung on a wall.  On the other hand, I was apprehensive: whenever there are aliens featured in films, they either embody dangerous monsters with no personality that pose a threat to humanity (Alien), or they are represented as misunderstood animals that get abused (District 9, E.T). Additionally, my aversion to the depiction of women and the central role of Hollywood in our culture generally put me off from going to the ultra-commercialized cine-mall we have here where I live.


The linguistics of the film rest on the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (more on this below) or Linguistic Relativity as it is also known, and it is a shame it has only been mentioned in passing in the film, because, as we shall see, it greatly influenced linguistics and gave rise to the development of Sociolinguistics. But what is the difference between ‘regular’ linguistics and sociolinguistics? What is a social view of language?

In order to understand ‘western’ linguistic thinking today, we need to look to the previous century that had been devoted to mapping the language families and the discovery that nearly all European languages and many of those in the Middle East and of the Indian subcontinent (Hittite, Farsi, Hindi, Urdu) were members of the one Indo-European ‘family’ of languages. (Kress, 2001). This diversity of languages is in fact the account of constant changes as the languages evolved across continents and time.


Ferdinand de Saussure, a linguist from Geneva who participated and contributed to this body of work (in mapping the sound systems of Indo-European languages) asked the question: ‘But what does a language look like, what is it like at a particular moment?’ Saussure was a semiologist and a structuralist: ‘The fundamental question posed in structuralism is that of the characteristics of the system. What are the elements of a structure [….], and what are the relations between the elements. Saussure gave a complex answer in which the focus was on the sign, and on the all-encompassing entity in which signs exist, language as such or langue’ (emphasis Kress, 2001: 30). To illustrate Kress’ point, Saussure, although he did see the social connection between language and society,  believed that linguistics should focus on the working system of language, which was composed of a system of signs. For Saussure, the sign is not an object and its name, but a concept and a sound that are arbitrarily connected to each other:


The linguistic sign is made up of the concept and the sound-image, the mental association the sounds imprints on our mind.  The relationship between the sound ‘tree’ and the object is arbitrary. We can see that in other languages the sound ‘tree’ is replaced by a different sound sequence: Arbre (French) or дерево (dierevo) (Russian) or עֵץ (Etz  – Hebrew). Although the connection is arbitrary, it’s not completely up to the speaker to choose what sound will signify which concept. The connection between the sound and its concept is bound by social convention. For Saussure, the speaker has no power to change this. His view on language and reality is, as he says:

‘Whether we try to find the meaning of the Latin word arbor or the word that Latin uses to designate the concept of ‘tree’, it is clear that only the associations sanctioned by that language appear to us to conform to reality, and so we disregard whatever others may be imagined’. (Saussure Course in General Linguistics – 1959 translation)

Alternatively, for Saussure the system is all-powerful, individual action is confined to usage which had no effect on the system.

For sociolinguists, such as Labov, linguistics are linked to society but still independent from it. The individual has the knowledge of codes, including codes which link the social and the linguistic. For Halliday, the founder of Systemic Functional Linguistics (who I must write a special post about), the linguistic is a socially shaped resource, organized as a system of choices, in which the action of the individual in making choices produces meaning. In other words, the participants can choose, syntagmatically (change the syntax, the order of words), and paradigmatically (there are many options for each part of speech: pig, swine, hog, sow, pork, etc) to create a specific meaning.

In critical linguistics the social is prior; it is a field of power; and power (and power differences) is the generative principle producing linguistic form and difference. Individuals are located in these fields of power, but the powerful carry the day, and the forms which they produce are the forms which shape the system. Kress (2001: 36). In other words, it is the social situation that dictates the language use and how the linguistic system ‘looks’, while for Saussure and other structuralists, the focus is on the sign, rather than the use of the language.



The relationship between language and reality was developed in the anthropological work of Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and his student and former chemical engineer Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941).

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is made up of two notions:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached […] We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.

(Sapir 1958 [1929], p.69)

  • Theory of linguistic determinism/relativity:

Strong version (linguistic determinism): language determines the way we think/determines different world views/cultures. The implications for this theory is that if a sign or concept is not available in our language, we cannot think the thought; we cannot think outside language.

Weaker version (linguistic relativity): language influences (rather than determines) the way we perceive the world, the way we think and the way we behave.

These claims were based on Whorf’s anthropological work. One example is the concept of time in Hopi (Native American) language: Differently from Standard Average European (SAE) Languages, time is not perceived in a linear way as a sequence of discrete units (e.g. minutes, hours, days/tense in past-present-future) but as an ongoing process, a continuum with events that are neither countable nor discrete but instead flow into each other (like a cycle).


This is reflected both on a grammatical and a lexical level. Whorf claimed that Hopi verbs do have tense endings like Standard American English (SAE) verbs. He also pointed out that phrases and metaphors reveal the different conceptualizations of time: whereas SAE languages worry about ‘saving’ and ‘wasting’ time, to Hopi people ‘everything that ever happens still is, but in a necessarily different form’ (Whorf, in Carroll, 1956:153; see also Andersen: 1988).

The film makes use of these linguistic theories and research to show humanity that there is more than one way to look at things. And not a moment too soon: with wars raging across the globe, animal and nature abuse, torture, killings and slaughter, it’s no wonder you should get tearful in that dark cinema hall.

However, the film also remind us that:

The digital era has allowed us to cross space and time, engage with people in a far-off time zone as though they were next door, do business with people around the world, and develop information systems that potentially network us all closer and closer every day. Yet, people don’t live in a global world  – they are more concerned with the cultures in which they participate. (boyd 2006, in Davies, 2011 )

Although the film depicts the success of communication (the lead character did manage to see her future self and relate a vital message to the Chinese leader at the 11th hour), it seems to suggest that without extraterrestrial intervention, without ‘superpowers’ (the god-like element, if you will) we are unable to save ourselves from total destruction. Even from large Fabergé egg shaped spaceships.


Obviously, the aim of the film is to highlight that the difficulty lies not in language learning, but the intricacies between culture, language and human nature.

The good:

  • Strong, smart, natural (pretty, but normal looking) woman lead
  • The film raises important issues of miscommunication across cultures and languages
  • I liked the elephantine symbolism (at least I saw it that way, feel free to disagree) in the aliens, they were wise, with elephant-like skin, and references to memories.

The bad:

  • Anthropocentric – The lead character sits on a hill overlooking the alien vessel and says ‘beautiful view’. Nature is relegated to circumstance (a term in SFL where an adverb of place, preposition of place is termed circumstance), it is a background drop for human activity, not seen as central and vital for sustaining all life.
  • Bird in a cage. This whole film is about trying to understand each other and an alien language and we can’t even see that the animals around us are also trying to tell us something? Complete and utter missed opportunity.
  • Predictable, binary gender and family roles (man loves woman, baby)
  • The woman is ‘close to nature‘, the film suggests she understands more because she’s a woman, reinforces gender stereotypes.(Women are sensitive, etc)
  • Reinforces hegemonic power of the white western man vs. ‘evil’ Russia and China.

The ugly (reality):

  • Why is this just a film? Can we not make it a reality? What is it that stops us humans from living peacefully with nature, non-human animals and our kind? Going back to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Saussure/Kress views on reality and language user agency, the film aligns with Kress in saying that speakers have choice and power in how they use language: as a weapon or a tool for crafting peace.


Have you seen Arrival? What did you think? Leave me a comment!

Do you agree with the theory of linguistic relativity? Do you agree with the strong form of the theory of linguistic determinism or would you modify it?



Davies, J. (2011). Discourse and computer-mediated communication. In Hyland and Paltridge (2011), pages 228–243.

Chapters 2 (Kress) ‘From Saussure to Critical Sociolinguistics..’ in Wetherell et al (eds.) (2001) Discourse Theory and Practice.

Sapir, E. (1929): ‘The Status of Linguistics as a Science’. In E. Sapir (1958):Culture, Language and Personality (ed. D. G. Mandelbaum). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

Whorf, B. L. (1940): ‘Science and Linguistics’, Technology Review 42(6):229-31, 247-8. Also in B. L. Whorf (1956): Language, Thought and Reality (ed. J. B. Carroll). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

The author is willing to remove any content that may infringe on copyrights

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