Circular Narratives and Linguistic Relativism in Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’

When twelve alien vessels arrive on Earth, the world reacts with confusion, violence, and fear. The US military recruits linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to help comprehend the aliens’ language, and attempt to ask the question: “What is your purpose on Earth?”

I am so blown away by this film that I barely know what to say. Every aspect of it has been exquisitely crafted. The otherworldly score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is bookended by Max Richter’s gut-wrenching ‘On the Nature of Daylight’. The visual effects are stunning, with everything taking on a surreal beauty, including the Heptapod aliens themselves and the vessels they arrive in. While the depiction of the world-wide chaos prompted by the arrival of the “shells” is entirely believable, the focus is instead on a group of linguists and scientists attempting to decrypt the alien language of one of the twelve vessels. Amy Adams is outstanding as linguist Dr Louise Banks whose understanding of the world is being literally rewritten as the film progresses. And this leads me to probably the most interesting thing about the film. Essential to its narrative is the concept of linguistic relativism, a theory evolved from the work of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. It states that the structure of a language affects the speaker’s cognition (rather than a person’s cognition dictating the structure of the language). The most famous example of this comes from anthropologist Franz Boas, who suggested that because the Inuit language has so many different words for snow, Eskimos may see snow, even think about snow, differently to the rest of the world.

Linguistic relativism also forms the backbone of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.” (from ‘The Principles of Newspeak’, Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four)


Amy Adams in Arrival. Image © 2016 Paramount Pictures

As Dr Louise Banks learns the written language of the Heptapods, as she begins to dream in it, think in it, communicate using it, her conscious and subconscious begin to resemble those of the Heptapods. The written language itself, known as “Heptapod B” (the spoken language is “Heptapod A”), is created from something resembling squid ink that takes on a 3-dimensional form suspended in space. (Visually, the designers were inspired by Tolkien’s Elvish.) The original story on which the film is based calls it, “fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice.” Its circular form reflects the fact that Heptapod B is non-linear; the Heptapods do not view beginnings and endings in the same way an English-speaker would (in this way it is visually and thematically reminiscent of Ouroboros, the tail-eating snake). When using Heptapod B, the writer knows how the sentence will end. A single symbol cannot be changed without changing the meaning of the entire sentence. The circular writing is reflected in the narrative of the film, both thematically and practically. The first shot of the opening sequence and the first shot of the closing sequence are nearly identical, and Max Richter’s ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ begins and ends the film.

The film goes to great lengths to be scientifically accurate, and the production consulted scientists Stephen and Christopher Wolfram and linguist Jessica Coon to ensure all terminology and references were sound. But while it is intellectually stimulating, and informative without being patronising, it is also profoundly moving. It manages to combine far-reaching concepts about extra-terrestrial life, the nature of time and consciousness, with a deep understanding of love, family, and human nature.