Language, Thought, and Arrival
Jungmin Bae, ‘19
In an archetypal ET moment in the film Arrival, linguist Louise Banks puts her hand to the glass separating the humans from the extraterrestrial heptapods. A moment later the heptapods do the same. This gesture conveys an instantaneous understanding, a psychological connection that allows the two remote species to understand each other.
Previously utterly foreign beings to the heptapods, the humans take another step and shed their bulky, form-concealing suits to present themselves as they are. Taking off the suit was an instinctive move, just like placing the hand on the glass; Louise, as someone who has studied languages extensively, knew that she had to meet these strange creatures face-to-face if she was going to decode their unorthodox language.
Deciphering the inky ring-like symbols the heptapods shot from the ends of their limbs was imperative in assuring humanity’s safety. The heptapods had arrived unannounced in black oblong vehicles that were thousands of feet tall, and situated themselves at various points all around the globe. Whether the heptapods came seeking war or peace would remain a mystery until Louise and her team grew well versed enough in their language to ask the heptapods their purpose in visiting Earth and to comprehend their reply.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the heptapods’ language is non-linear. In perfect synchronization with its ring-like shape, it has no beginning and no end. The wielder of the heptapods’ language would have to have a perfect idea of what s/he was going to say before s/he attempted to set it down in symbol. The unique structure of their language is closely related with the heptapods’ ability to look into the future and the past. For them, time is not an inexorable marching towards the future. They may not even be aware of concepts such as the past and the future. For them, time is possibly a never-ending ring, suspended moments occurring simultaneously in a ring accessible at any point.
Language and thought are commonly thought to share a palindromic relation-ship similar to the heptapods’ conception of time, as a linear cause-and-effect relationship between the two has not been confirmed. Both seem to affect the other in a circular manner. Although Arrival is centered on lives, languages, and names that have no beginning and have no end, it seems to be biased in this one aspect; in the perpetual circular argument connecting language and thought, it leans toward language as the cause that shapes thought. As Louise grows fluent in the heptapods’ language, the structure of her brain changes, allowing her to think as they do. Then she races towards a complete understanding of their motives on Earth—and, more frighteningly, an understanding of herself.