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Arrival: A nice linguistic fiction


Arrival was an amazing experience. Firstly, it is the first alien film I have seen, in which they are not here to kill us.  That itself is a breath of fresh air.  Given that it is not about killing each other, we need to communicate. This leads to several interesting ideas.  Would we be able to communicate with an alien species?  Many linguists believe that communication between people speaking different languages on earth was possible because there are a lot of basic similarities between any two languages.  Some also believe that this "Universal grammar" is wired in the brain.  Now a sentient species from another planet might have a very different brain.  So, it does not seem obvious that we might be able to communicate with each other.  In the movie, however, different the language might have looked, followed a "Universal grammar" similar to languages on earth.  Notice that the book written by Louise (the protagonist) had "Univeral grammar" in its title.  We are already into the territory of what I would call a linguistic fiction.

I also found it interesting that, though in passing, they expressed some of the questions in the mind of many mathematicians and philosopher.  Will an alien race be able to appreciate our Mathematics?  Being a mathematician, I know several people who believe any sentient being would be able to appreciate our mathematics.  So, in some sense, they view mathematics as the ultimate form of art.  Other art forms obviously will not be appreciable to a being which does not share similar sense organs.  For example, we cannot expect an organism which has no auditory capacity to appreciate music.  The makers of this film do not share this idea. In fact, there was a passing mention that the aliens are able to follow some of the ideas in mathematics but not others.  I would also like to believe that Mathematics is not holier than other domains.
The climax takes the linguistic-fiction to a whole new level.  There is this notion in cognitive linguistics that, our language can influence the way we think.  For example, we cannot think about ideas for which we have no words.  So adding vocabulary can help us think better.  They stretch this idea.  Learning the alien language, which is a non-linear language, helps Louise to see time non-linearly.  This enables her to see the future, for example.  I agree it is stretching it a bit too far.  And this might put some people off.  But, I enjoyed it.  It is an amazing thought, even more so because it is so bizarre.  This also gives a brand new explanation to prophecies.  In a more scientific world, this gives a theory for the time travel of information -  the theme for many science fiction stories like "Stein's Gate".  Of course, there is less of science and more of fantasy in this.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting idea.

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  1. If you liked this movie, then you should definitely read the short story which this is based on _ Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. The movie is better in terms of the visual concepts and the storyline at the end but the novella has way more scientific elements explained to it.

    Spoiler: Also this Novella is written in two timelines which is the most amazing part, which gets connected at the end.

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