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Arrival Hits Theaters with Interesting Take on Alien Language

December 14, 2016

Science fiction fans everywhere have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of a new movie which takes the alien encounter storyline in an entirely new direction. We're speaking of course of Arrival, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. In the trailers for the film, ships from a distant planet arrive on Earth and one of the world's top linguists, played by Adams, is recruited to communicate with them.

While large-scale Hollywood films have employed a wide array of consultants over the years, this is one of the first times a professional linguist has been retained. Jessica Coon, a McGill University associate professor in syntax and indigenous languages, is an expert in syntax, morphology, ergativity, and nominalization. Each of these key components went into the main plotline of the film. Coon has spent several years in the field studying various Mayan languages as well as the First Nations language of Mi'gmaq in Quebec. “There was a lot in the script that has to do how we conduct field work to study a language,” Coon said in a phone interview. “But you’d be surprised by all the emails I’ve been getting — a lot of talk about aliens.”

The language used by the aliens resembles hollowed out ink blots in various patterns and complexities. About 100 symbols were created for the film as a language. However, it is not nearly as complex as the full languages developed for the Star Trek or Avatar universes. In these franchises, teams were hired to create complex grammatical structures, phrasing, and words.

While not as complex of a language, Coon worked diligently to ensure that Adams' character approached the decryption as a person actually would when learning a new form of communication. “One of the big ‎misconceptions about linguists is that we’re just people who know and speak and translate languages,” Coon said. “That’s not what field workers — which is what Amy’s character is — actually do. We’re interested in the structural properties; we’re interested in understanding what underlies them. There are between six- and seven-thousand languages in the world, and for most we’ve only begun to scratch the surface.”

If you love languages, or just a great story, you'll definitely want to check out Arrival while it's in theaters.

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