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Linguistics in the Field

ARRIVAL

Amy Adams as Louise Banks in Arrival by Paramount Pictures. © 2016 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

You can describe Jessica Coon, the lead linguistics consultant for new film Arrival, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, as down to earth. Coon shared a wealth of knowledge about the story and linguistic concepts involved in the film directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Arrival follows the quest of sought out linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) who joins an elite team of mathmaticians soldiers and astronauts to investigate a mysterious spacecraft. The basics of the language in Arrival is expressed in the short story that the film is based on called, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. “This is not the next Klingon,” said Coon. The idea of the language being circular and having no end is more of an integral element to the narrative of the film.

Coon shared that she was consulted by Adams and the rest of the crew for more specific details when it comes to being a field work linguist. Coon’s background in field linguistics focuses on the Mayan language and how it fits into the rest of the core principles of language universally. “That’s what Amy Adams’s character in the film … does. She is a field worker. She’s interested in theoretical linguistics and wants to know the bigger questions of language: What is it that all human languages have in common? How do they differ?” explained Coon, in regard to why she was approached as a consultant for the film. 

Coon shared that she was sent a few drafts of the script written by Eric Heisserer. She read it over to make notes with respect to accuracies and ways in which the story could be tweaked so as to come across not only more precise, but to also provide the audience with more information.

“[Production] came to my office at McGill in Montreal. They took pictures of everything,” said Coon. “They borrowed all of the books off of my shelves. They wanted to see what kind of a bag a linguist carr[ies],” as well as what was written on her chalkboard. 

In return, Coon was able to visit the set and assist the set designers to make sure all aspects of the set and visuals were spot on. The set designers inquired about what the environment was like, and Coon provided them with answers down to how the white boards and computer screens would be set up in that situation.

Additionally, Coon had lunch with Adams, who picked her brain about what it’s like to be a linguist, a woman in the field, a university professor, as well as an academic. “They did at one point send me some of the logograms and basically said,  ‘Okay, if this [was] your job, how would you decipher them?’ Or ‘What would you write on them?’”

One pivotal moment that Coon found to be true to how a linguist would think is during a scene where scene Adams’s character, Dr. Banks, visits the alien ship and is attempting to write back and forth with the aliens. She becomes a bit frustrated because she is wearing all of the astronaut protocol gear, so she takes it off. Coon stressed that it is completely natural when trying to communicate through any language barrier that they might need to be able to read body language and physiological reactions more so than just words.

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 “I think this is an important thing that you take from doing field work,” explained Coon. “As linguists, we’re interested in the abstract system of language, but you have to get that by working with native speakers, so it’s crucial to develop a positive working relationship. I think that comes out well in the film.”

Coon found the scene when Colonel Weber (Whitaker) abruptly arrives at Dr. Banks’ office and asks her to take on the project to be one of the more “Hollywood-ized” moments, especially with lines like, “You’re on the top of everyone’s list.” Coon said that it depicts linguists as “glorified translators,” who know multiple languages, when really their concentrations are much more specific. She shared that she is often asked, “How many languages do you speak?” as if that is a common trait of linguists. 

All-in-all, Coon found Arrival to be “thought provoking,” seeing as it focuses on the logistics of learning to communicate with a foreign civilization, and the communication breakdown that can sometimes happen. She hopes that audiences enjoy the film and that it might even incite a whole new generation of future linguists.

 

Arrival is now playing in theaters.