Getting It Right: Brook Danielle Lillehaugen on “Arrival”

Our assistant professor of linguistics, a field linguist who studies the Zapotec languages of Mexico, talks about what it’s like to see her profession portrayed on film.

Arrival, the intimate, humanistic science fiction film by Denis Villeneuve about a linguist learning to communicate with newly arrived aliens, is garnering praise from audiences and critics alike. It currently has a 94 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and, driven by Amy Adams’ brainy-yet-sorrowful performance as the linguist, has earned numerous critical accolades, including recent nominations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild.

The movie, which turns a story of first contact into not just a gripping escapist tale, but also a sensitive meditation on loss, love, and fate, is an excellent as a piece of filmmaking, but we wondered how it worked as a depiction of the field study of linguistics. Luckily, we knew just who to ask.

Brook Danielle Lillehaugen is an assistant professor in the Tri-Co Linguistics Department who conducts fieldwork on Mesoamerican languages, especially the endangered Zapotec languages of Mexico. With the help of students, colleagues, and collaborators, she has developed the Tlacolula Valley Zapotec Talking Dictionary, an online resource that allows users to see definitions and listen to the native-speaker pronunciation of this Zapotec language, one of an estimated 40 such regional varieties. And she is part of the team preserving the now extinct dialect of Colonial Valley Zapotec via manuscripts at the Ticha Project. So we asked her how the work of Adams’ Louise measured up to her own experiences.


HAVERFORD: In the film Louise communicates with the aliens—the “heptopods” as she comes to call them—via their written language. Are there actual real languages that are only written not spoken?

BROOK LILLEHAUGEN: I don’t know if we were supposed to understand that writing was their primary way of communicating. I think that was the way that she was able to find her way into their language [which she couldn’t pronounce]. From what I understood, maybe their spoken language and their written language did not correlate so that their written language did not represent their spoken language.

HAVERFORD: Is that a sci-fi construct or does that happen in linguistics in “real life?” 

BL: That’s actually uncommon. Most written forms of language represent the spoken language in some way, often very closely. But, similar to what we see in the film, there are some forms of writing that don’t represent much of the spoken language. If you think about ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, most of it is logographic—that means there’s a symbol representing a word. We see something similar in the Chinese Hànzì writing system, where most of the symbols don’t represent sounds direcly, but rather objects or ideas. But I understand that there are no pure logographic writing systems in the languages of this world—that all have at least some representation of sound.  It seems that the alien language that we saw in the film might have been a pure logographic system, where we weren’t getting any transcription of the spoken form.

HAVERFORD: I was fascinated by both the Rorschach test-looking language of the aliens and the way Louise marked up their writing to decipher it. Did that look correct or believable to you?

BL: Well, in fact they had a linguist do that. Even though it was a fake language, the filmmakers were like, “If you were trying to figure this out, how might you mark it up?” And this linguist from Magill University in Canada, Jessica Coon, did that for them. She has talked a lot about her experience with that. So yes, that’s totally what we do. So that’s the part of the film that I appreciated most.

HAVERFORD: Why did you appreciate that specifically? 

BL: There aren’t a lot of films that have linguists as heroes or even main characters, and if they do, the characters aren’t really linguists, or we don’t really see what a linguist does. [What pop culture often shows us] instead is someone who’s a polyglot—someone who knows lots of languages. While many linguists like learning languages, and many linguists are polyglots, that’s not really what a linguist does. The metaphor I use a lot in my intro. class is that I can drive my car, but I have no idea how the car works. I never need to look under the hood, just like how we can all speak our language, but we don’t need to understand how it works. But you can if you want to. And not only can you say, “How does my car work?” but also, “What are the ways that all types of cars can work?” Which is the same as understanding the different ways that languages can be. And there are different types of linguists, and what we saw Louise in the film do is something very similar to what I do, in which you’re trained in understanding all the possible ways that languages can be—what are the possible car engines—so that you can encounter a language that’s not described by Western science, let’s say, and then ask that question: “How does this language work?” And you’re not starting from scratch. You’ve seen languages that follow certain rules, or do x, y, or z, and so you’re looking for those certain things as you [decode a new language], and I like that that’s what they showed Louise doing. You saw her doubting a little bit, wondering, “Is this going to be a language like I understand language?” But I think she decided fairly early on that it was, and then she was determined to figure it out.

HAVERFORD: Did you relate to the different ways you saw her try to do that figuring out?

BL: [Early in the film] when she grabbed that whiteboard [to start trying to communicate via written language], I was like, “I would totally grab the whiteboard!” Because often if you’re a field linguist and you’re doing descriptive work, you have a common language that you work through. When I work with Zapotec speakers, we often use Spanish to mediate it. But imagine you’re working with a group of people with whom you do not share a common language. That was Louise’s situation, so she had to get one of the variables to stop moving. Because in some ways, figuring out the grammar of a language that you don’t know is like a big logic puzzle. So if you can get one thing pinned down, then you can start building off of that. And having something visual helps. For example, one thing I work on a lot is how you express where things are located in the world. And translation is particularly bad for that. So I use these figures [she takes out a small toy deer and toy car]—here we have a deer and a car. What if I was just asking you in your language, “How do you say the deer is on the car?” Do you mean the deer is standing up on top of the car or the deer is lying down on the hood or any other number of similar scenarios? So I use these [figurines] to make sure we’re on the same page. That’s what Louise was using that whiteboard for—setting up visual prompts that offer shared context for a language, so they could be clear. I really appreciated that because they showed her being really creative, and you saw her question, “Do we even think about things in the same way?” When you’re dealing with human languages, we have some basic similarities and starting points. We all live in a world where we all can sometimes see the sky, and we all can sometimes see the sun, and so there are things you expect languages to have words for—things about the human experience. Languages have words for being born, for dying, for crying, for walking because these are things about being human. We have culture-specific words, too—I wouldn’t go somewhere assuming there’s a word for Halloween. But I would expect there’s a core vocabulary about what it means to be human in this world that I do expect to find. And Louise didn’t even have that! So I loved how she took her knowledge of linguistics and just experimented to try and figure things out—with the whiteboard or by acting things out—and I could relate to that so much.

HAVERFORD: Is there something they got really wrong about linguistics in the film? 

BL: There’s the moment when the senior military officer played by Forest Whitaker first comes to her to ask her for her help and he plays her a recording of the aliens’ spoken language and asks, “What are they saying?’ Well, no linguist could tell what they are saying from something like that, so that was absurd, clearly. But in reality maybe that could happen, because people don’t understand what linguists can do. I’ve seen some blogs by linguists that had other complaints—not all linguists like the film—but to me I was willing to just let some things be a little blurry in terms of methodology. I think the part of the film that’s most controversial to linguists has to do with this Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that’s the backbone of the film’s final twist. This hypothesis, which is also sometimes called linguistic determinism or linguistic relativism, exists on a continuum. One of the strongest statements of this hypothesis is that the language that you speak constrains how you view the world—like your language is a pair of glasses and you’re seeing the world through the grammatical constraints of that language. Other people feel that that’s probably not very realistic. Those people think that language does not constrain how we view the world, but instead language reflects certain cultural components, and while language can mark certain things, it doesn’t mean we can’t observe other things that our language doesn’t mark. And I would say that most linguists probably are on that end of the spectrum. For example, most humans, at least if you have typical eyesight, have eyes that work the same as someone who speaks another language, if they have typical eyesight. But languages don’t mark up the color spectrum in the same way. Does that mean I can’t tell the difference between blue and green? No, of course I can tell the difference between blue and green, even if my language does not mark that.

HAVERFORD: When you saw the movie did you have thoughts about what you would do if these filmmakers had come to you? Where would you start inventing an “alien” language from scratch?

BL: I’m not the right person to ask. Some linguists actually do this—make up languages—just for fun. This is not something I do for fun. There’s a linguist here on campus right now, Nathan Sanders, who is visiting in our department, and he teaches a class on constructed languages. First they study typology—looking at the ways natural languages can be and how they can vary. It turns out that there’s not that many ways of being a language, there’s only so many different things that you can do. And then students build their own languages, and either follow these ways of being a language or intentionally violate them. And you can see in Hollywood there’s quite a few constructed languages, like Dothraki and Klingon, and sometimes these constructed languages have fully worked out grammars.

HAVERFORD: Louise in Arrival was hired by the government. Do linguists work with the government like that?

BL: Yep. Of course there’s the academic path, but there are other paths too. One path is into technology. A lot of linguists work at places like Google or Apple. They can help make Siri or Google searches work. And then another area that linguists go into is intelligence. There are a lot of ways that linguistics can be involved in that. There’s the polyglot part, but that’s not really linguistics. But [the government might go to a linguist], for example, if they have a recording of a conversation, and ask, “Can you tell who is the leader of the group?” You might think, “Oh, the person who talks most or the person that talks first is the leader.” But I know a linguist who worked on something like this for a while, and his hypothesis was that the person who sets the reference for the pronouns is the leader.

HAVERFORD: How do you think this movie will influence your teaching?

BL: I’m teaching “Intro to Linguistics” in the spring. I teach it every year, and I decided to change the syllabus a bit in light of this film. I don’t know if the film will still be out so we can go see it or if we’ll just read the short story it is based on, but one way or another, we’ll explore the text. We’ll spend some time looking at the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, studying it in a way that doesn’t force the students to come to one conclusion or another. We’ll look at what types of things led to this hypothesis, why does it linger, why do we see it in films? It actually comes up in pop culture all the time—even if you don’t know the name of it. This is the same hypothesis that leads people to say, “Eskimos have 100 words for snow.” One thing I like to do in in the intro. class, because not everyone’s going to be a linguist of course—people are going to be doctors and lawyers and judges and your child’s second-grade teacher—is to think about what I want other humans to know about the field of linguistics? And this aspect of linguistics—this idea that your language may constrain or influence how you think about something—obviously comes up over and over again, so let’s take advantage of this film coming out to spend a little more time thinking about those things next semester.

HAVERFORD: What would you want someone who knows nothing about linguistics to take away from this film?

BL: As a field linguist, the part that’s most interesting to me is how it demonstrated her coming to understand the [alien] language, and I would love people to see is that [such an understanding] is a scientific undertaking. There’s some sort of structure that she needs to decode, and there is a process to do so, but it takes creativity. She had to think about how to do this in a circumstance where there’s no shared language, and she was willing to utilize any resource available to her. Secondly, I’d want viewers to realize that, ultimately, it’s really a human connection. Louise succeeded, in part, because she was herself and she wanted to get to know [the aliens], even to the point of naming them and caring about them. I think that really sums up a lot of what field linguists do. It’s not just the science. There’s nowhere you can look up the answers, so you have to be creative. And ultimately it’s you and other humans together in a room, and I like how that was portrayed.


Photo: © Jan Thijs/Paramount Pictures