Arrival is a melancholy movie, very deliberately built out of paradoxes: fear commissions the operation of reason. Violence induces compassion. Visitors arrive without traveling. Hope exists in the sure knowledge of tragedy. Being a piece of art, it expresses these paradoxes with particular symbols, from the lexical to the musical to the visual idiom that we’re used to in the movies around us. And being a piece of science fiction, it’s concerned with the world of the creators far more than with the world of the fiction, which serves as an extended metaphor for the human experience.
The primary expression of paradox in the film is every sci fi nerd’s favorite idea about linguistics: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as Linguistic Relativism. The idea behind this hypothesis is that language is a set of filters to our perception on the one hand, and the tools with which we turn that perception into actuality. If we were, therefore, to change our language, the hypothesis asks, would our perception change to a degree that we would be differently able? Is there some form of enlightenment present right at the edges of perceptions that we could reach, if we just knew the right words or grammar to access it?
In our rapidly-evolving, quick-mutating IRL language, though, you might have heard someone say that something is “doubleplus good”. Because, fundamentally, language is a rapidly adapting cognitive ecosystem, they probably meant, connotatively, “This is something I hyperbolically approve of without reservation,” or even, “This is something an idiot would like.” It turns out, we’re really good at taking any given set of symbols and turning them to our purposes.
That idea has been used, explored, prodded, abused, and examined throughout the last century of science fiction. George Orwell’s 1984 posits that, by brutally reducing the dictionary, a controlling body (an “Ingsoc” government, in this case) can reduce the number of ideas that humans are capable of even entertaining. The Party’s conlang, Newspeak, abolishes all connotation and shades of meaning, for instance replacing, for instance, all ideas of goodness — pleasantness, enjoyability, morality — with “good”, then replacing “bad” with “ungood” and “better” with “plus good”. “Best” and “very good” are “doubleplus good”. Which is as good as it gets
Stranger in a Strange Land asks the opposite question: are we actually living with a Big Brother of the mind already? Is our language so constrained by the peculiarities of its (and our) evolution that we can’t even perceive the shackles our history places on us? In the book, Valentine Michael Smith, born to a lost mission to Mars is raised by (completely undescribed) Martians who, naturally, have a completely different language than any human language. When Smith returns to Earth, he brings with him none of the constraints of English (and other human languages), but all of the powers of the far-more-ancient Martian. The word grok comes from Stranger in a Strange Land, and it’s worked its way into the nerd dialect of the English-speaking world specifically because it denotes a phenomenon we don’t really have in English: to “understand to fullness”. Of course, we have the loanword, “Tao,” which denotes the same thing as “road,” “Halachah”, “Dharma”, and even the second half of “Kwisatz Haderach.” All those words have their own, very particular connotations, though, that stem from their cultural ancestry, right up to the moment you read it.
We use Linguistic Relativism in Orwell’s restrictive way when a story implies a limited or constrained perception. Philip K. Dick and the works that derive from his do this a lot with Important Euphemisms: In Blade Runner, killing replicants is called “retiring”, and in Minority Report, “arresting someone known to be not guilty” is called “precrime”. It can also apply when an alien doesn’t understand us, as in the Star Trek episode, Darmok, which shows the first ever species who can only communicate in metaphorical allusion (as though that’s not how all human language works), and is, of course, my favorite episode.
Strong Sapir-Whorf is a Shock, not an Issue. Arrival, like all good Science Fiction, doesn’t lose sight of its Issues just because its Shock is so shiny.
We also engage with Linguistic Relativism whenever we’re writing a story and we want to have an alien/time traveler/mystic say something that we can’t understand, but is somehow true within the fiction. Rudy Rucker and Paul DiFilippo talk about “flurbing” — “a bit like sex, and a bit like blending things together” — in their story, Elves of the Subdimensions. I get the idea that Jack Vance was thinking along these lines with his description of “spells” in the Dying Earth stories, and the deep assholishness of the society portrayed therein was due to the cocaineishness of the spells one could memorize. Lovecraft’s, of course, is full of writing that doesn’t adhere to the page and knowledge that don’t fit the human mind, as well.
The question implied by Orwell seems to be, “do cultures miss out on chunks of reality because they lack the language to construct the idea?” And, asks Heinlein, “Could we learn — or construct — a language that expands our consciousness and abilities?”
In general, real-world linguist feel that the weakest claims of Linguistic Relativity are obvious. You see it in action every time a subculture generates a unique word to describe a phenomenon that others can’t perceive without training, such as music (“microtone”), martial arts (“maai”), religion (“Tao”), and science (“quark”). Conversely, linguists feel that the strong claims don’t stand up. While, yes, one ethnic group in Australia uses the cardinal directions (“North of the house”) rather than egocentric directions (“On the left of the house”) and does have an unusually good sense of direction, there are other languages whose speakers only use cardinal directions, but don’t have unusually good senses of direction. That is, the words, I’m sad to report, don’t grow magnets in your head.
Like Stranger in a Strange Land, Arrival’s love affair with Linguistic Relativism is the Strong version. Strong enough to crack open our very understanding of the universe, relieving us of the necessity of cause to precede effect.
But, of course, the movie isn’t really about time traveling aliens. It’s about real humans and particular elements of the human condition, the description of which has spilled much ink: if we hope, we naturally and inevitably suffer; and yet, to exist is to hope. The knowledge of joy brings the suffering of the loss of joy; or the sensation that we are deprived, altogether, of even a hypothetical joy. Dr. Banks, providing us with a point of view, suffers simultaneously for an event that has occurred to her, and yet, has not yet taken place.
Buddha, speaking about 2500 years ago, left us a particularly spicy bit of knowledge to grok. We call it the Four Noble Truths, and Arrival seems to be hinting at them throughout, giving us beautiful symbols with which to reconfigure our minds, our experience, and the way we perceive, and therefore act upon, the universe.
I’ve simplified these substantially. The primary traditional function of enlightenment is to cease one’s generation of karma, and therefore the material with which to build new incarnations and perpetuate suffering. American Buddhism, with its earliest proponents being Jewish of the extremely modern variety, is less concerned with the mystical than the ethical. While traditional Judaism assumes that humans reincarnate until the end of the world, it’s not a central tenet of any branch of Judaism that I’m aware of, and the religion, even at its most mystical, is interested in the refinement of ethics.
In short, the Four Noble Truths are these:
- To exist is to suffer.
- The source of suffering is desire for permanence.
- To cease one’s desire for the illusion of permanence is to cease suffering.
- To meditate — to achieve compassion for all beings identically to that for yourself, and thereby to achieve enlightenment — is to cease suffering.
The purpose of this mnemonic is to reconfigure the mind in the way Heptapod B does, to prepare one for a process otherwise impossible — moral, ethical, even ritual— of releasing the illusion of the self as an enduring, static phenomenon, and thereby departing from the suffering brought by desire to change what is true.
In Arrival, Dr. Banks uses her experience in learning Heptapod B to gain compassion, linking her own suffering with that of her family. This seems to be the experience of anyone who can write the language, since the Heptapods attitude, from their introduction forward, foreshadows Dr. Banks’ accepting, yet driven, attitude at the end of the story. Her child’s death becomes a piece of her very being, as Abbott’s does Costello’s. The suffering she causes Ian, not because of her actions but because of the nature of their existence, gives her bittersweet peace because she understands its inevitability as a feature of her existence. And she knows that her suffering, and that of her daughter and husband (and, ultimately, all human- and Heptapod-kind), are so intertwined as to be a single experience.
In that way, the literary device of Heptapod B repeats a human idea to humans in human language: that our experience of existence presupposes both the questionable existence of “us” and “existence”. It is, of course, expressing something to us that humans can express in human language, because it’s made by humans and written in English. But it’s also expressing something that we need: an acknowledgment that our own suffering causes suffering in others, and that they cause it in us. And that our compassion can relieve us of the suffering we cause others, as it can relieve those around us of the suffering that we cause them.
So: yes. Language can give us tools that give us the ability to modify our minds. But tools are not experience. The sharpest chisel can’t make one a master cabinetmaker, and while we struggle to make language fit our experience, that struggle only polishes a tool with which to configure minds. To reach enlightenment, to grok the human condition, we first need to use language that allows us to pry open the cracks in our assumptions. But then, we need to look with our own eyes, feel our own suffering, and recognize the same struggle in others.