Chartered Institute
of Linguists

The Linguistics of 'Arrival': aliens, fieldwork and universal grammar

Arrival, or the film that made linguists almost cool (according to this newspaper headline), has language at the heart of the plot, with Dr Louise Banks, a linguistics professor, recruited by the military to help decipher the language of the newly landed heptapods.

Dr Jessica Coon, a real-life linguistics professor, was the scientific consultant for the linguistics in the film, and during this amazing session organised by the CIOL’s Business, Professions and Government Division (BPG) on the 16th of April, she talked us through some of the most fascinating aspects of linguistics (such as ergativity), especially in terms of fieldwork. She also told us a bit about her role as a linguistics consultant for the film – how she helped Amy Adams develop her character, her role in what Dr Banks’ office looked like (the books you see in the film on the office shelves are Dr Coon’s), and more. She also discussed the distinction between linguists and translators (spoiler: the work they do is very different).

The presentation focused on how linguists go about analysing languages, what all (human) languages have in common, and Dr Coon made a very interesting point in debunking the myth that the language we speak shapes how we see the world, also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (while it does have an effect, it is very subtle). 

When talking about languages, it is important we choose and use the right words. One issue Dr Coon raised was the use of the word ‘ancient’ when talking about dying languages; if a language is in use, it is modern, not ancient. Another interesting discussion was around dialects – are we really talking about dialects or languages? Also, is a language ever extinct or is it rather dormant?

On that last point, a great question was asked during the QA session: how can linguists go about reviving a dormant language and do translators play a role in this?

It was an absolutely fascinating presentation for anyone who works with languages, whether as linguists, translators, or language practitioners supporting others in their fields of work.


In her 15 years as a translation professional, Alina Cincan has been wearing many hats: translator – member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, Chartered Linguist (Language Specialist), member of the Mediterranean Editors and Translators, project manager – member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (Language Services), international conference speaker, and author, with articles published in translation journals and magazines. Her latest project is an extensive research study on the freelance translation landscape.

If aliens arrived, could we communicate with them? How would we do it? What are the tools linguists use to decipher unknown languages? How different can human languages be from one another? Do these differences have bigger consequences for how we see the world?

The 2016 science-fiction film Arrival touches on these and other real questions in the field of linguistics. In Arrival, linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to translate the language of the newly-arrived Heptapods in order to answer the question everyone wants to know: why are they here? Language, it turns out, is a crucial piece of the answer.

Linguistics professor Jessica Coon, scientific consultant for the linguistics in the film Arrival, has never worked with an alien, but will discuss her own fieldwork on Mayan languages, and what these languages can tell us about linguistic diversity and Universal Grammar––and how much any of this will help us at first contact.

Join the Business Professions and Government Division on this online event and learn about:

  • the goals of the field of linguistics, with a focus on syntax (sentence structure), and cross-linguistic variation,
  • the importance of global language diversity and the role of linguistics and linguistic fieldwork in language documentation
  • the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in relation to the film Arrival.


April 16th, 2021 4:00 PM   to   5:30 PM
Online event
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BPG Division