On First Contact Communication in Arrival

The movie summer and early fall have been rather dry, as has the actual weather here. I’m eagerly awaiting November when Doctor Strange (six weeks to go!) and Arrival (seven weeks!) open a hopefully more thirst-quenching end of the year. And the more I hear about Arrival, the more intriguing it sounds.

Mark Liberman at Language Log was asked to provide a linguist’s perspective on first-encounter communication strategies. His post is both lengthy and enlightening.

RA Olea Flickr Sign Language Friend

Specifically, he answers the question “An alien is standing in front of you, apparently peaceably. What is the first thing you try, in an attempt to communicate with it?”

The meatiest bit is this:

“There’s no guarantee that their senses and their modes of action are going to be a good fit to ours. They might communicate via skin color changes like cuttlefish, except maybe theirs are only visible in the ultraviolet. Or maybe they can modulate and sense electric fields, like electric eels. They might use gestural and postural changes in a body that’s very different from ours, or rapid morse-code-like modulations of sound at a dozen different frequencies independently and simultaneously. Maybe pheremone-like chemical signals are a crucial part of the process.

“Whatever the modalities of communication, it’s quite likely that we won’t be able to imitate them without building some specialized apparatus. And it’s quite possible that it would be hard even to recognize the fact that they’re communicating with one another, before we even get to the point of trying to understand and imitate.

“More likely, the process would be:

(1) Persuade them not to kill us, and vice versa;
(2) Persuade (or coerce) them to let us observe their within-species interactions, or vice versa;
(3) Design and build systems for recording, analyzing, and synthesizing their communicative signals (or wait for them to do the same thing for ours);
(4) Use those systems to engage in a sort of “monolingual demonstration”, and hope that we can come to understand them and communicate with them to some extent.”

According to Liberman, Ted Chiang’s short story “Stories of Your Life” (that the movie is based on) also mentions “in a mild way” a few of these issues:

“[Protagonist, linguist Dr. Louise Banks] needs to use a ‘sound spectrograph’ to analyze the aliens’ utterances, which sound to her ears ‘vaguely like […] a wet dog shaking the water out of its fur’, and she needs recording and playback to communicate in the other direction, since they don’t recognize her attempts to imitate their speech.”

Visit Language Log for more.

On the basis of the Arrival trailers released so far it’s hard to say whether the movie will be focusing on linguistics specifically, or whether the intellectual mystery will be rounded up into a more generic academic exercise. It does look like the script at least attempts to stay with Chiang’s story. Like Liberman, I’m very interested to see how much of the linguistics makes it on screen.

Image: sign language : friend via Flickr (2008; colored pencil on charcoal paper; by R.A. Olea) CC BY 2.0

On, of, and about languages.

Impressions on Arrival Trailer #1

Have you heard of Arrival? It’s a forthcoming science fiction movie about a first contact situation on earth, and the more I read about it the more curious I get.

Twitter Arrival Movie Poster Aug 16 2016

The story is based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 novella “Story of Your Life,” adapted to screen by Eric Heisserer and directed by Denis Villeneuve. Chiang won both the Nebula and Sturgeon Awards with it.

The main interest for me is that Dr. Louise Banks, the character played by Amy Adams, is a linguist. Since we don’t generally get much screen time, it’s exciting, as is having languages / linguistics as a story focus. There’s also a little bit of Nordic involvement: the score is by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

The first official trailer is looking great:

Arrival Trailer #1 (2016) – Paramount Pictures by Paramount Pictures

I love the fact that for a change the UFO that lands in the U.S. touches down in Montana, not New Frigging York City. That horse is thoroughly, properly dead, ladies and gentlemen of Hollywood. Thank you for not going there.

Judging by the trailer, the movie also avoids one of my pet peeves. It looks like finding a way to communicate with the aliens is going to take a lot of effort and a good, long while. We get glimpses of various graphics on computer screens, but it’s clear that the bulk of the work consists of human effort assisted by computers. In other words, people are doing the actual analyzing while computers number-crunch. Compare it, for instance, with the mothership scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (a clip of the scene here). As fascinating as the tonal-color language is, I’m so disappointed with the perfunctory and hand-wavy treatment the linguistic mystery got. I do hope that the Arrival trailer is accurate in acknowledging the effort that not only communication but of all kinds of intellectual work require.

And it may indeed be: The USA Today sneak peek quotes the male lead Jeremy Renner: “It’s big and there are thriller elements and tension, but it’s going to lean much more into a thinking person’s film.” There are also hints that Adams’ character will begin dreaming in the aliens’ language, which is a phenomenon I find fascinating. (I sometimes dream in multiple languages. The highest count I can remember is four.)

I discovered one interesting factoid. In the U.S. trailer, Dr. Banks can be heard commenting on the emerging common language like this: “We need to make sure that they [aliens] understand the difference between a weapon and a tool. Language is messy, and sometimes one can be both.”

The international trailer suggests a different story angle, however. Have a look:

ARRIVAL – International Trailer (HD) via Sony Pictures Entertainment

In it, instead of “[w]e need to make sure that they understand,” Dr. Banks says: “We don’t know if they understand the difference between a weapon and a tool [my emphasis].”

I don’t know what to make of the decision, and I can’t wait to see which one the movie actually goes with. Fortunately I don’t have that long to wait: the U.S. release date is November 11, 2016.

Image via Arrival Movie on Twitter

On, of, and about languages.