Part 2: How Language can Save the World – Exploring the Limits and Potential of Language in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival 

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” –Wittgenstein 

“I think, therefore, I am” – Descartes

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival earns much of its critical acclaim because of the unique themes it explores, and furthermore, how it uses the medium of film to emphasize these profound ideas. It’s a film about the transcendental power of language, and uses the language of film quite appropriately, to demonstrate this power. But before we can truly appreciate these ideas and realize the importance that language and transcendence have in our day to day lives, we ought to tackle the linguistic theory that allows Dr. Louise Banks’ character to essentially “know the future” and experience the world in an atemporal or timeless way.

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At one point in the narrative while discussing the nature of human language, analyzing syntax, and highlighting its limits and shortcomings in comparison to the Heptapods’ language, expert linguist Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) mentions the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, also known as linguistic relativity. This theory—that language shapes thought—suggests that people cannot think until they learn a language and when language is learned, thoughts follow. What is language if not symbols, symbols that enable us to conceptualize and communicate our ideas. Without these symbols, our ideas would not merely remain abstract, they may never even exist. Thus, this theory suggests that the bedrock of thought, and therefore culture, is language. Though instinct and natural phenomena would enable life, without language, to what purpose would life exist? It is language that provides culture, while culture provides meaning, and thus, it is through a linguistic process that humanity evolves into a species distinct from mere animal.

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Before we pat our backs and high-five in celebration of our evolutionary excellence as a species, we must realize that this powerful tool, which has enabled all other tools, is limited, and thus limiting to our development as a species. As the aphorism goes, it is the limits of our language that are the limits of our world. And as George Orwell believed, the reduction of language is the reduction of thought.

In Arrival, Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguistic professor argues that language is the cornerstone of culture. After being asked to translate a correspondence between Chinese officials dealing with Heptapods in their country, Louise explains that by communicating with the aliens through the language of Mahjong, they are indirectly highlighting competitive traits within our human culture: winning and losing, dominance and submission. She explains that if they were to communicate with the Heptapod’s through chess, they would be suggesting to their visitors what the game of chess often implies–that of dominance over the other. The American characters are naturally left anxious at this, worrying that learning Chinese through Majong, may result in the Heptapods feeling threatened. The Americans begin to worry that perhaps the Chinese Government may be conspiring, a move that could threaten the peace established between the countries and the Aliens.

Through the immediate negative reactions of the American protagonists, Villeneuve does well to emphasize the human tendency to project one’s own insecurities and anxieties in others. Furthermore, he highlights the limited way in which Louise, her colleagues and even the audience, negatively perceive those around them, such as the Chinese officials, by allowing the audience and the protagonists to view these peripheral characters through a two dimensional monitor that is fed by a security camera. This limited perspective—the grainy and unclear view on the monitor—quickly paints the Chinese General as a possible villain, emphasizes the narrow view we have towards him, and parallels the narrow-mindedness fear creates when judging the unknown. Later on, motivated by fear mongering media and plagued by an even more irrational version of fear of the unknown than that of his colleagues, Captain Marks goes rogue and decides to try and destroy the alien ship, further punctuating this primitive, barbaric and common discriminatory human attitude.

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One of the most telling examples of humanity’s defensive and conflict based culture, however, is demonstrated through a misinterpretation of the Hepatpod’s words. The Heptapods have said that “there’s no time; use weapon.” The humans automatically see this statement as a threat, and fear for their lives. Throughout the film Louise discusses how language can be misinterpreted in translation. In the climax she corrects her initial interpretation of the word “weapon” and realizes it’s the same word for “gift.” It becomes clearer by the end of the film that the Heptapods were merely saying, “there is no such thing as time; use our gift of language (to achieve timelessness).”

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The conflict and anxiety within the human characters in Arrival demonstrate humanity’s tendency to assume and project aggression, act defensive, feel threatened by the prospect of dominance, and most of all, fear annihilation. Furthermore, these scenes demonstrate humanity’s limited understanding of reality.  Because of their limited perspective, the humans fear that the aliens may also feel intimidated or threatened, yet later learn that they are peaceful, sacrificial, and forgiving, with no intentions of hurting the humans. In fact, one Heptapod, whom Ian and Louise name Abbott, sacrifices his life to save them and ensure the eventual transfer of power from Alien to Human. This human tendency to allow fear to cause panic and irrational thinking is further emphasized through the contrast between the fearful humans and the peaceful Heptapods, always often depicted in a fog of uncertainty.

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Without a doubt, humanity is a culture of competition, aggression, and conflict.  We fear that which we do not know, and our fear can lead us to act irrationally and often violently. What’s most interesting, is that the idea that language shapes culture suggests that perhaps it is our limited ability to communicate effectively that leads us to peril.

Human language is limited due to its linear and finite quality. Our words, phrases, and sentences create syntax that require a beginning, middle and end. Consequently, the concept of an end implies death, a concept which induces fear, as humans are afraid to cease existing. What’s most interesting is that that like any of our emotions and ideas, the fear of death is also created by our linear language. One can argue that our linear language–which shapes our thoughts–suggests that like a sentence, we too will eventually have to end. Perhaps this fear comes from not knowing what extinction is like, or perhaps it’s because humans have an innate desire to live forever; or to use the analogy… to keep on writing. In other words, our linear human language limits what our soul desires—to live forever—which results in fear. And as we have seen time and time again, it is fear that often causes conflict.

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If language shapes and limits our thoughts, we as a people have only ever been able to express our thoughts through linear language and thus have only created limiting ideas for ourselves. It is mind-blowing when one contemplates the fact that the entirety of human history and culture has been limited by linear human language and that these limits have no doubt caused our shortcomings and failures as a species.

The discussion becomes even more interesting, however, once we ask the question, what if we could learn a language that is not linear and thus could transcend our human limits? This is the question that the film seeks to answer. More importantly, Villeneuve posits that if we do in fact learn a non-linear language, then perhaps our thoughts would also be non-linear. And if this was the case, he asks how our culture—shaped by this new language—would be different?

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In the study of mysticism–the philosophy that one can transcend the limits and boundaries of human consciousness and existence–timelessness is a key component of transcendence. In Arrival, Villeneuve posits that language is the key to timelessness and transcendence. He imagines the advent of extra-terrestrial beings–representative of a higher power–as the source of this language and thus the source of our freedom from the constraints of our humanity. While human language is linear, the Heptapods’ language is non-linear, represented by the circular symbols or logograms they create and Louise eventually learns.

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While our thinking is linear, the Aliens’ thinking is non-linear, thus allowing for their ability (or anyone who understands their language), to see every moment in their existence, including “3000 years” into the future. In short, because their language is non-linear, their thoughts are non-linear, their culture is non-linear, and their perception and experience of life is also non-linear. Consequently, since language equals thought, Villeneuve suggests learning this Alien, non-linear language would provide the human learner with the power to transcend time as we know it and achieve a sort of omniscience, similar to that described in the study of mysticism. In short, Louise Banks transcends the limits of time, goes into “the future” and paradoxically “remembers” what she was told by the General Shang, thus knowing what to tell him when she calls him and stops the attack during the climax of the film.

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To experience life non-linearly, in a manner that transcends the boundaries of time, in a manner immune to a beginning, middle and end, is by definition, omniscience and perhaps similar to how God experiences time. God can see the past, present, and future; in fact, some believe that for God there is no past, present and future and that he is present and knowledgeable of every moment. For Him, there is no beginning, middle nor end, and thus, no concept of finite time, and thus no death, nor fear of it. Consequently, God values all life as no one can hold more value than another based on length of years on Earth. Ergo, one could infer that God would value a 2-year olds life as much as a 90-year old’s life, simply because the concept of finite time does not exist for Him.

Thus, one can argue that inspired by her new “god-like” perception of time,  which is vastly different from limited human understanding, Louise’s decision to have her baby, regardless of knowing Hannah would eventually die at a young age of cancer demonstrates a sort of unconditional love that is difficult for a linear-minded human to understand. Consequently, it can be inferred that thinking non-linearly allows the thinker to think beyond the limits of time, and thus see every life, and every moment, no matter its length, a moment to embrace with love: “despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it, and I welcome every moment of it.”

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In the film, the Heptapods give humans the gift of their language which allows humanity to both unite and to transcend their limits. It is this language that empowers them to celebrate their lives embracing every moment with love, valuing life no matter the circumstances, no matter the length of time that life might exist; for the universal language humans are trying to learn at the end of the film suggests that perhaps peace, transcendence, and salvation can in fact be achieved through language. And this is the film’s central theme, the transcendental power of language.

While the film’s call for a universal language as a way towards peace may be idealistic and even unrealistic for many who might question the idea that the source of conflict between people is their vastly different perspectives and world views, as shaped by their different languages, at the very least the metaphor challenges us to reassess the potential of discourse; it is clear that language can be interpreted as both a gift and a weapon, a tool for both good and evil as evidenced in the film as well as the real world.

In the final post of this series, I discuss the allegorical possibilities of Arrival, Villeneuve’s mastery of the medium of film, and why his latest offering is one of the most important films of the century.

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