A linguist could save the world

“Language is the foundation of civilization. It is a glue that holds people together, and it is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”

The quote belongs to “Arrival”, the most recent alien invasion film by Denis Villeneuve, nominated by The Academy for best picture.

I finally got a chance to watch it last week, and I must say I was oddly surprised to say the least.


What’s the story about? Well, the movie starts when a dozen massive, eerie looking spaceships mysteriously land across the globe with no sort of warning or previous explanation as to what they are here to accomplish. As those colossal, menacing saucers hover over the greatest cities of the world, not a single human being on the entire face of the earth seems to have a clue what these “visitors” might want, or even the motives that brought them here in the first place. But in a world ruled by fear and marked by a history of endless conflict and war, tensions will quickly rise at the ever-growing shadow of misinterpretation, where fear fills the gap in the void. And it is in this particular scenario that our heroine, the female linguist Louise Banks, finds a way to shed some of her own light into the darkness.

Throughout the film we follow her journey to find the meaning of her own existence. But what seems at first  like a pointless military mission, ends up turning into an extraordinary spiritual journey that will not only succeed in revealing her fate, but also the core of human existence through language.

Chosen by the American government to lead a team of expert interpreters and linguists, Louise sets out to try and decipher the mysteriously elusive alien lingo that might hold the clue to understanding the invaders’ secret agenda and their intentions on our planet.

As days go by, the world’s population naturally grows uneasy, as their minds are slowly poisoned by the apocalyptic fears of annihilation divulged worldwide by the ever controlling reach of the media.

But it seems our silent visitors, though not fluent in any of our multiple languages, still desire to reach out to us and communicate, as they set periodical meeting sessions aboard their crafts, that quickly help Dr. Banks find the patterns that not only help her decode their complex language but also unlock a power that might save mankind from itself.

I won’t get into much further details as to avoid spoiling the fun of the experience for those of you who haven’t seen the film yet.

The most amazing thing about it, for an “alien invasion” genre flick, is that the actual enemy in the movie turns out to be the power of fear through misinterpretation itself, making mankind, in a way, its own potential exterminator.

Coming through clearly in terms of communication could be life-threatening in an endless array of scenarios and situations (the one in the movie probably being the most dramatic, of course), thus defining the responsibility of the linguist in charge of delivering meaning with utmost fidelity. This, my fellow linguists, is a duty and a burden that must not be carried lightly, and one that we will share amongst ourselves for life, given the path we have chosen.

The other linguistic revelation made by the film is the exciting notion that the structures of the languages we use alter the way we perceive reality itself. In this particular case, how we think and understand space and time as physical phenomenons. So, if our language is limited to a linear sequence of consecutive patterns that elaborate meaning in a “from A to B” structure, so to speak, the multidimensional complexities of the space-time continuum become lost to us entirely, rendering us unable to even begin to comprehend the very nature of our existence and place, in the “chaos” that is the universe we inhabit.

Chaos, as Saramago said, is order yet undeciphered.