“Arrival” Movie Review: Linguists Love It

Arrival excites linguists and cinephiles with sci-fi originality and a peek into academic linguistics.

Warning: Ardent moviegoers may consider some of the following descriptions of Arrival to be spoilers, but if you’re willing to watch the trailer, what follows shouldn’t give much away.

For weeks, word people have been raving on social media about Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. The film definitely lives up to the hype, earning 8.4/10 on IMDB and 93% on Rotten Tomatoes at time of writing.

Arrival is an original take on the first contact sub-genre. The film has all the high-concept, global consequences of most big budget alien movies, but its measured pace, and its focus on a single human character, are unique and refreshing. However, it’s the movie’s take on linguistics that interest us.

Arrival Linguistics

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a world-renowned linguist tasked with finding out what the aliens want. How do you learn a language that’s never been translated before? Louise does a pretty good job. Gestures help a lot. Also, when she thinks she’s learned a word, she remembers that she might be wrong. She doesn’t trust its meaning completely.

Louise also decides to use written language rather than spoken language. Written words are more concrete and easier to replicate. Human languages have hundreds of sounds, including many that are unique to a small family of languages. Our brains are wired to interpret the sounds we know, which can make it hard for language learners to even hear unfamiliar sounds in a new language. It would be extremely difficult for humans to interpret the aliens’ whale-song-like speech, let alone reproduce it, and Louise doesn’t even try.

In Short, It’s Good

Arrival’s approach to linguistics passes the movie realism test. Additionally, the cinematography is stunning and brutal. Exaggerated bokeh reflects Louise’s confusion while drawing audiences into the film’s sense of curiosity. Through it all, Amy Adams gives an authentic and emotional performance alongside costars Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker.

Arrival is a fantastic film that every word person ought to see.

Do you agree?

Let us know what you thought of Arrival using the hashtag #ArrivalLinguistics.


For more movie reviews, check out our analyses of the language of Star Wars.

Leave a Reply