Gretchen McCulloch
Nov 22, 2016 · 3 min read
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Arrival is a movie starring Amy Adams as a linguistics professor who’s called on to figure out how to talk to aliens. Far from a hand-wave-y universal translator like we often get in science fiction, the process of figuring out the alien language in Arrival is a vital part of the plot.

The seven-tentacled heptapods of Arrival are fictional. But linguistics is real and real linguists do approach language “like a mathematician.” So if you’re walking out of that theatre wondering how to get more of it, I have some recommendations for you:

Read the short story

The Story of Your Life, the original short story by Ted Chiang that Arrival was based on, has even more linguistic detail, and as a short story, it’s a pretty fast read.

Read about the linguist who consulted for Arrival

Jessica Coon is a real-life field linguist at McGill University who consulted on the linguistics aspects of Arrival. She’s done a lot of interviews about the real linguistics behind the film, what she did on set, and how we’d actually talk to aliens if they arrived — check out her full list of Arrival linguistics media here.


Want to actually do some of the linguistically-oriented problem-solving that Amy Adams’s character does in Arrival? Here’s a couple options:

Try the puzzles of the International Linguistics Olympiad

The puzzles of the linguistics olympiad are kind of like linguistic sudoku: you might have to match words and their translations, decipher unfamiliar writing systems, or figure out how to say a new phrase based on a couple examples. They’re logic puzzles as applied to language and don’t assume any background knowledge of linguistics.

If you’re currently a high school student, you can actually compete in your national linguistics olympiad and potentially qualify for the international one. Regardless, there are a bunch of puzzles and solutions from previous olympiads free for the solving on the website of the International, North American, UK, Australian, and other national linguistics olympiads.

Take an intro linguistics course

Want to meet or become a linguist like Louise Banks? I can’t guarantee that you’ll get to meet aliens, but taking an intro linguistics course or two is a great first step. As a bonus, intro linguistics course are generally very hands-on, so you’ll probably get to do some assignments where you figure out something to do with an unfamiliar language.

If you’re not at a university with a linguistics program, free online intro linguistics courses run periodically, such as this one on Coursera, or there are perennial resources such as MIT OpenCourseware and The Ling Space.

Check out conlanging

Intrigued by the heptapod inkblots? Making or learning a constructed language (conlang) is a fun way to think more about how language could possibly work.

There’s a whole society for conlangers which has an extensive list of resources, try searching for “conlang” on your favourite social network, or check out the books The Art of Language Invention by David J. Peterson (@dedalvs on tumblr) and In The Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent.


Want more linguistics media to consume beyond Arrival? You have many options:

Read other linguistically interesting fiction

It doesn’t have to end at Story of Your Life! One similar story involving linguistic relativity and aliens is Embassytown by China Mieville.

For more, check out this list of fiction with a linguistics element, some of it sci fi, some of it not. And do make sure to read the comments for further ideas.

Check out pop linguistics

Like pop science, there’s a whole field of linguistics explanations for a general audience. Pick your preferred medium, and each of these links will take you to a roundup post or tag page with lots of options to get you started:

Cross-posted from All Things Linguistic, a daily linguistics blog that’s another great way to get more linguistics in your life.

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