Perceiving the World: ‘Arrival’ and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: SCI-PHI—SCIENCE FICTION AS PHILOSOPHY

By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College

In the film Arrival, the protagonist, Dr. Louise Banks, sets about trying to communicate with aliens. The methods she uses appear to succeed, but there is a very unusual effect of learning the alien language. This is rooted in the idea that a language is not just a system of communication but also implies a certain frame of reference.

Image showing the motion blur in a busy street at night.
Language can influence not just how someone speaks but how they view the world. (Image: YIUCHEUNG/Shutterstock)

Wittgenstein and the Philosophy of Meaning

The German philosopher Wittgenstein suggested in his early works that the meaning of words must be the objects or relations to which they refer in the world. The meaning of the word ‘table’ is literally the physical object to which the word refers—the table.

But after he left philosophy, Wittgenstein tried his hand at many professions: gardener, architect—he even taught small children. And when he did, he observed how children learn language and came to the conclusion that he had been wrong about what constituted meaning.

Wittgenstein came to recognize two things: one, that words are arbitrary signs with no natural connection between a word and what it means; and two, that meaning is defined by use.

Learn more about Transcendence and the dangers of AI.

Children Learning Language

Wittgenstein observed that the children he taught learned language not by figuring out which words belong with which objects, but by trial and error. Roughly put, a child uses words and phrases and checks to see if he has done so correctly by observing the reactions of others.

If the child uses them like others, he will get a positive reaction and the child will continue to use the word in his way; if he does not, he will get a negative reaction and try a different use next time. In this way, he will come to understand the meaning of words and phrases.

So, a word like ‘congratulations’ can have meaning, even though it does not refer to an object or relation in the world; and someone can learn its meaning by discovering how it’s used.

A child might think it has a certain meaning when he hears it used at a wedding and a graduation to those he saw on stage, but learn he had the wrong meaning in mind when he is scolded for saying “congratulations” at a funeral to someone who just gave the eulogy.

To learn a language is, essentially, to learn the use rules of a community’s language game.

In one of his later works Wittgenstein said, “The common behavior of mankind is the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language.” About this passage, philosopher Hans-Johann Glock writes:

[According to Wittgenstein] [w]e can solve the problem of radical translation because we share with the natives certain basic forms of human behavior. This idea is linked to [Wittgenstein’s] claim that “the speaking of a language is part of a form of life”, i.e., a communal practice in which our language games are embedded.

Learn more about Arrival and radical translation.

Sharing a Form of Life

Multicultural people standing in a room and communicating with each other.
It is possible that no human language is truly alien because people share a particular form of life. (Image: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

In other words, because people all share a form of life, no human language is completely foreign to other humans. Perhaps people even share a form of life because they all share a universal grammar.

But this would not be true of non-humans. “If a lion could talk”, Wittgenstein says, “we could not understand him.”

It is likely that humans wouldn’t share a form of life with aliens either. Neither would they share an innate universal grammar. Because the aliens evolved on a different planet, under completely different conditions, it would seem very unlikely that they would conceptualize the world and utilize language in the same way as humans. Would aliens even have vocal chords? A written language? The concept of a question? A conditional, if/then statement? Subject, verbs, and predicates?

Unless evolution somehow guarantees a similar conceptual framework or universal grammar is somehow truly universal and aliens share it—or, as Wittgenstein might put it, unless we share a form of life with aliens—real radical translation might actually be impossible.

Now, in Arrival, things work both ways. A shared conceptual framework makes the acquisition of the alien’s language possible, but learning the alien’s language causes Dr. Banks to share their conceptual framework. She begins to see time as they do, no longer experiencing one moment at a time, but seeing it all, past, present and future ‘as a whole’, ‘all at once’, and ‘from above’. She adopts a four-dimensional point of view.

Before she marries Ian Donnelly, she sees the future of them having a child, the child dying of a terminal illness, and it tearing their marriage part—and yet she does it anyway.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Learning a Conceptual Framework

The linguistic theory directly referenced in the film is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as Whorfianism—which, unlike Lt. Worf’s forehead, comes in both a rigid and non-rigid form.

The stronger rigid form is expressed in Arrival. “The language you speak determines how you think … It affects how you see everything.” In its weaker form, Whorfianism merely suggests that linguistic concepts influence someone’s decisions and thinking.

According to linguist Panos Athanasopoulos, Professor of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster Universityeven people’s languages might affect how they view time.

For example, English speakers think of time in terms of length, whereas Swedish speakers think in terms of volume. This causes them, in experimental conditions, to say different things about how much time has elapsed, depending on whether they are watching something increase in length or volume.

So, the basic idea of the film Arrival is this: How someone sees the world is influenced by the conceptual framework of the language they speak. This is why Dr. Banks learning the alien language enables her to see the universe four-dimensionally.

Common Questions about Arrival and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Q. What two things did Wittgenstein realize about language?

Wittgenstein recognized two things: one, that words are arbitrary signs with no natural connection between a word and what it means; and two, that meaning is defined by use.

Q. What is the form of the Sapir-Whorf theory that Arrival espouses?

The stronger rigid form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is expressed in Arrival. “The language you speak determines how you think … It affects how you see everything.”

Q. In Arrival, how does learning the alien language change Dr. Banks?

Learning the alien language causes Dr. Banks to share their conceptual framework. She begins to see time as they do, no longer experiencing one moment at a time, but seeing it as a whole. She adopts a four-dimensional point of view.

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