Just sci-fi or Sapir-Whorf?


Fancy seeing a film about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

I am assuming that you are reading this article from left to right across the page. The chances are you learnt to read in this way at quite a young age, beginning to make sounds and sense from a series of jumbled-up, strange shapes. And as you did so, you began unconsciously to learn basic things about logic and meaning that will stay with you for life and shape the way you think about the world.

You may be able to speak, read and write in multiple languages, some of which read from right to left or up and down across the page. But it is almost certain that whichever language you are using there will be a clear linear direction of some kind, and with it an ordered sequencing of component parts. With linearity come particular expressions of time and of cause and effect: ways of linking and associating both very specific things and complex abstract ideas into patterns.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a linguistic theory that comes and goes in academic popularity, suggests that all your knowledge and understanding of the world is reliant upon the way you read, speak and above all think in your native or preferred language.  And now, very ambitiously, Hollywood has made a big-budget science fiction film about it.

Watch the trailer above and you may simply see many of the clichés of a cinematic encounter between aliens and humans – huge rounded UFOs appearing in skies around the world, vast human military resources deployed in response, agitated, sceptical generals and devious intelligence agency officials arguing with bemused everyman-type civilian characters (who we know already will, against the odds, ultimately defuse all the tension). Why bother with yet another screening of this so-familiar scenario?

First, despite the sci-fi blockbuster formulae, ‘Arrival’ will stir your imagination and keep you thinking. Nor is it an easy film to watch; at its heart is a deeply personal human story of loss and grief.

The aliens, who are never fully revealed, are truly alien and strange, reaching out from their misty isolation behind a great clear screen into the human characters’ memories and dreams. For much of the film their motivations remain unknown. And then there’s Sapir-Whorf: the lead character, Louise Banks, a linguistics professor, has built her career on the hypothesis, and what she has written will turn out to have powerful and unforeseen consequences.

To describe the film beyond this point would be to introduce spoilers. But if, watching it, you find yourself a little frustrated by the underdevelopment of some of the characters (frequently the bugbear of science fiction), possibly unconvinced by the romantic part of the plot or wary of time travel, I suggest the following.

Study the repeated use of symbolic rectangular imagery throughout the human world in this film, especially in buildings, encampments, windows and screens, and contrast that with the aliens’ preference for circles. Marvel at the cinematic majesty of the visitors’ saucer-like ships, “the shells,” which, in a break with science-fiction convention, appear curiously up-ended for much of the time.

It’s a clear signal that many of your expectations are going to be up-ended too. Enjoy the cross-referencing and visual nods towards the classic films in this genre, from Close Encounters of The Third Kind and Contact to Tarkovsky’s original Russian version of Solaris. And one tip: I would suggest that you pay close attention to some seemingly trivial conversation early on in the film. Bite into your popcorn or slurp on your drink at that point and you might miss a subtle clue that later unlocks a key part of the premise of the film.

‘Arrival’ is being launched in the UK in November, co-incidentally the same month that The Oxford Dictionary has announced that the term “post-truth” is its international word of the year.

Hopefully,’ this new film will serve as a timely reminder of why we should be careful with how we use our language. For, as advocates of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis would say, your use of language internally and externally and the way you process messages from books, magazines and any other kind of media may well determine exactly the type of world you live in. And that is something worth thinking about!


‘Arrival’s director, Dennis Villeneuve, is currently working on the much-anticipated sequel to Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’.
The original film from 1984, with its remarkable pre-digital special effects and philosophical theme, is generally acknowledged to be one of the most important science fiction films ever made. ‘Blade Runner 2049’ should be ready for release in October 2017.

‘Arrival’ opens at the Rye Kino on Friday November 25, 2016

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