Tuesday 15 November 2016

Sapir-Whorf in Hollywood

It was slightly shocking to hear an off-hand reference to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in a mainstream Hollywood movie. Arrival, directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve, is a thoughtful and blissfully slow-paced movie. Villeneuve's script is adapted from Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. Tarkovsky for beginners.

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, aka Linguistic Relativity, holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers' cognition, or world view. The German linguists Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) suggested that grammatical differences reflect differences in the way that language users perceive the world.  Chomsky (never far from any serious discussion about language) was the most eminent of the academics and theorists who advanced the view that human language and human cognition is universal. It is, as I say, slightly shocking to discover that the hypothesis forms the basis for much of a mainstream film's plot.

Arrival stars Amy Adams (very good indeed) as an academic linguist and polyglot (Farsi, Mandarin) enlisted by the US military when a colossal spacecraft (one of 12 worldwide) fetches up in rural Montana. They need somebody to translate the weird creaking noises that appear to constitute their spoken language. This she does, and within a very short time has an implausible fluency in the written form (which looks like the rings left by coffee mugs on a tablecloth). I cannot imagine how, working alone, she achieves so much so soon but this ia a movie, not a documentary. The two seven-limbed aliens in the Montana vessel (officially 'Heptapods' but facetiously nicknamed Abbott and Costello) resemble expensive prosthetic versions of Kang and Kodos, the drooling tentacular creatures occasionally appearing in The Simpsons). The spacecraft are pretty good - towering basaltic slabs as mysterious and enigmatic as the monolith in 2001 - a Space Odyssey.

There are dud moments - especially the frequent and irritating cutaways to glossy talking head news presenters, invariably big-haired Americans, who bring us up to speed on global events as they emerge.  The film drags in the middle, though not catastrophically, and I paid close attention to the end.  One thing made me snort. On her  first encounter with these alien creatures our brilliant linguist deciders that the best way to communicate is by writing HUMAN in black board marker on a piece of white card (barely a step above 'Me Tarzan. You Jane'). As she has the marker pen and white card with her this is clearly premeditated, so why not prep the card in advance?  Writing in capitalised English is every bit as crude and dumb as shouting slowly at foreigners (a once-commonplace English trait). Why did she not assemble a series of pictograms? Why did her nerdy colleague, the brilliant maths guy, not have some universal equations to hand? Why not try music? Or Urdu? Or (to borrow Kurt Vonnegut's lovely idea) farting and tap-dancing? 

I haven't done justice to the beautifully modulated atmosphere of loss and yearning. Adams's character is the grieving mother of a daughter who has died from an unspecified and very rare medical condition. The actress is quite brilliant at registering the overwhelming pain of this loss, although all is not quite as it seems and there's a brilliant twist (no, not so crude a thing as a twist, but a gentle and subtle revelation) that is followed by a schmaltzy ending which prompted the couple to my right to leave before the credits. Recommended, nonetheless. And the soundtrack includes some Max Richter.

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