Arrival Analized | How Language Constructs Reality
How much does language influence our experience of reality? This is the key question Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival tries to answer.
Art, as I see it, has a very special ability that philosophy alone does not. It has the power to convey and communicate ideas in multi-faceted form – not just on a conceptual level, but on a visual and emotional one. It brings them to life. It makes them real for the character, and if the artist is talented enough, for us.
And that’s exactly what Arrival is aiming at.
What is Arrival trying to do?
In a way that’s not completely obvious, the film attempts to shed light into different aspects of Reality we assume are just natural and inherent – one of them being Time. And it achieves this in a very unusual way.
When 12 alien spacecrafts arrive and hover over different locations around the Earth, Louis Banks, a linguist, and main protagonist is the one responsible for discovering the reason why the aliens came to our planet.
But interestingly enough, this is not how the movie starts.
The film begins with shots of the birth and young death of Louis Banks daughter, Hannah. Naturally, we assume that the story is told in chronological order:
Hannah’s death happening first, and the aliens’ arrival second.
- Hannah’s death
- The aliens’ arrival
But as the story unfolds and the pieces start to fit together, we discover this was not the case. And language plays a big role in this startling puzzle.
The Importance of Language
Louis main task is to communicate with the Octopods, and while this may appear easy, it ends up being daunting endeavor that forces her – and us alongside – to investigate the nature of language and many of our hidden assumptions surrounding it.
Language is defined as a system of communication, a set of symbols that points to and describe our shared, objective reality. We assume we perceive objects that are already there and just give them a name so we can communicate with others and ourselves.
But is that true?
Borges and Language
In 1940, Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges published Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. This short story focuses on the discovery of the imaginary city of Tlon, and specifically, on its peculiar languages.
One of them had a very impressive and strange characteristic: it lacked nouns. It was centered, instead, on impersonal verbs qualified by monosyllabic adverbial affixes. So instead of saying, for example: “The moon rose above the water”, they would say: “upward behind the onstreaming it mooned”.
“For them, the world is not a concurrence of objects in space, but a heterogeneous series of independent acts. (…) To put it another way—they do not conceive of the spatial as everlasting in time.”
In a world without nouns, and therefore no things, most of modern thought becomes impossible. Object permanence, the belief that objects last through time is just inconceivable in their language. There is no history, no teleology and even no science since there can be no such thing as observing the same object at different times.
We can imagine that the people speaking this unusual dialect would have a completely different experience of reality, very divergent from ours.
Borges story indicates us that language is not just “a set of symbols that describe objective reality”, it also constructs it and set the limits of what we are able to think, comprehend, and conceive.
And that’s exactly the premise Arrival is based upon.
The Overarching Role of Language
The movie was heavily influenced by the concept of linguistic relativity, also called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that was first published in 1940 by linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The hypothesis is the idea that language not only influences thought and perceptions but may also be responsible for what we are capable of thinking.
Our language is linear because we read it from left to right, and there are clear rules about when a word or sentence begins and ends.
The alien language of the heptapods, on the other hand, is nonlinear, written in circular puffs of smoke with no beginning or end. The entirety of the thought or sentiment is experienced and communicated at once, not in a progressive order. A logogram, therefore, is free of time.
If language determines what we can think, conceive and perceive as reality, we can see why we see objects – unlike Utlon’s ephimeral verbs – and experience time from past to future. But what would happen if someone learns a completely foreign language like the heptapods’?
Here’s where the movie takes a mind-bending shift, taking this concept to the extreme.
As Louis Banks learns their language, she starts to perceive and experience reality in a completely different way. Since the aliens’ language free of time, so is her mind and thinking. In some way inconceivable for us, she can perceive the future and her experience of time changes dramatically.
It stops being something linear that flows from past to future– like our language. Instead, it is perceived as cyclical and intimately interrelated.
It slowly dawns on her, as the protagonist, and we, as the audience, that her daughter’s memories were actually happening in the future, not in the past. We understand, similar to Louis, that our experience and interpretation of the events were inverted and therefore, not accurate.
Language, something we commonly think as insignificant, in an unexpected twist, ends up being the tool that unlocks the whole plot.
What Is Reality Made Of?
Tom Robbins once said that “Our world isn’t made of earth, air and water or even molecules and atoms; our world is made of language.”
Arrival is a movie that investigates the influence our language has in our perceived reality and takes it one step further. It doesn’t just challenge mundane aspects of our experience, but one of its basic building blocks – time.
Although, because of artistic reasons, this concept is taken to an extreme, the movie does a great job to put into question to which degree our reality is not just perceived but constructed. Perhaps there’s nothing really fixed or absolutely true, and everything is, at least partially, subject to interpretation.
This realization leaves us with a feeling of freedom and at the same time, a mild degree of uncertainty and not-knowing. Which is, in my opinion, a truer place to be.
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