I’m a translator, and all translators are wannabe linguists (except for the exalted few of us who actually are linguists). I dream of diving deep into the study of language and mastering the tool I use in my profession. This means that “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, which was made into the movie Arrival, recounts the adventure I want to have:
Aliens arrive at Earth. Someone has to learn to talk to them. Let me do it! Me! Me, me!
Ted Chiang often writes stories that dramatize a concept. “Liking What You See: A Documentary” examines beauty, and “Exhalation” examines artificial life. “Story of Your Life” examines the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also called linguistic relativity. It contends that the structure of a language influences and possibly determines thought and decisions.
Since ancient times, the idea that language affects our understanding of the physical world has been contentious. Plato argued against the idea, claiming that perfect universal forms existed and we could only try to grasp them, thus all language pointed at the same things.
But people who speak more than one language often believe that language affects their thinking in various ways. In Spanish, I can create more complex relationships among ideas and things within a single sentence than in English due to the way Spanish grammar lets me associate the elements within it. My brother-in-law has different personalities in English, Spanish, and French — I’ve seen it, and it’s not exceptional behavior. (He’s the most polite in French.) My sister-in-law says she feels four years old when she speaks Korean, the language she learned from her mother, and she feels drunk when she speaks German, reflecting her youth in Germany.
Scientific studies find a variety of effects from being bilingual or multilingual. I wholeheartedly believe language has an effect on its speaker of some sort, including their perceptions. (Sorry, Plato.) It’s easier to notice when you speak more than one language, but monolinguals are not exempt.
Any attempt to change a language, I’ve observed, provokes a backlash, whether the change comes as government censorship, “politically correct” speech, or new grammar rules. If we accept split infinitives, our thoughts will be altered infinitely, and who dares to submit to that sort of transmutation?
Ted Chiang’s story suggests a specific effect with a specific language. (Spoiler alert!) The narrator, Louise, loses her daughter to an accident, which any mother would find hard to accept. She also gets the job of helping to communicate with space aliens who suddenly arrive at Earth, and she learns that the way they express themselves through language reflects their understanding of time and the physical universe. “They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all … a simultaneous mode of consciousness,” the story says.
We humans think of things as cause and effect, one thing after another. The aliens think of things in terms of what they know is going to happen in the future. “They act to create the future, to enact chronology.”
As Louise acquires a fluency in the aliens’ language, she begins to think like them, and this changes how she remembers things, including her daughter’s life from conception to death. She cannot know if it leads to an extreme of joy or pain; she only knows it will change her own life, and that her life must be changed in that way.
(In the movie based on this story, Arrival, Louise has a very specific premonition. It makes for an exciting movie, but takes us beyond the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis by a quantum leap. Otherwise, linguists say the movie was pretty accurate about how they do their job.)
I’m sorry for Louise’s loss and pain, but I’m envious of her, too. She got to learn a language with that kind of power! I want to have my own linguist story. I want to meet aliens and talk to them. How different from us can they be?
Among our own species, for example, not all languages recognize the same colors. Homer never mentioned “blue”in The Odyssey. Some languages have pronouns or tenses that don’t occur in other languages, or they have remarkable forms of politeness.
Yet, we translators insist that you can say anything in any language — you just might need a lot more words to say it in one language compared to another. The real way languages differ is in what you must say. For example, Spanish has two forms of “you,” one familiar, tú, and one polite, usted. I must use one or the other, and when I think in Spanish, I categorize people by the form of address I would use, among other things. For example, I might think of a given woman as lively, brown-haired, and an usted — Sapir-Whorf at work!
What might be required in an alien language? Perhaps an entity with a distributed or inherited intelligence would need to specify the internal origin of the utterance. A creature that communicates with light might have a grammar that branches like a decision tree in infinite paths, each step specifying a choice made and not made. The language of far-ranging diplomatic robots might have been designed to be easily understood by incorporating mathematics into language to represent relationships among concepts.
When the aliens come, someone is going to have to figure this out. (Me? Me!) But I wouldn’t hope to discover something that changes my life the way the heptapod’s language changed Louise’s. I’d hope to change the entire world. And I would, guaranteed.
Chiang’s story mentions “performative language,” in which the language itself is an action, like saying “I do” at a wedding. As soon as space aliens came and addressed us in any way, whether or not we parsed much of the meaning, something would happen.
When Apollo 17 took a photo of Earth on December 7, 1972, the “Big Blue Marble,” we understood that we were looking at, in the words of astronaut Eugene Cernan, “the most beautiful star in the heavens — the most beautiful because it’s the one we understand and we know, it’s home, it’s people, family, love, life — and besides that it is beautiful.” That photo changed the way we think about Earth.
If anyone or anything from any other star expressed something we could approximately discern, even just “hello,” something would happen: we would have learned we’re not alone. That would change the way we think about the universe. Forever.
(Originally posted at Tor.com.)