Jan Thijs - © 2016 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Jan Thijs - © 2016 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

4 Ideas From Linguistics to Help You Appreciate Arrival

Jan Thijs - © 2016 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Jan Thijs - © 2016 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Spoiler Warning: If you haven't seen Arrival and plan to soon, you might want to save this article for after.

The most exciting thing about Denis Villeneuve’s new sci-fi space-encounter movie isn’t the aliens or the spaceships or the worldwide panic they bring on. It’s the fact that the hero is a linguistics professor!

It’s nice to feel that your seemingly esoteric field is actually the key to saving humankind. Even better if a film about it can get more people interested in the science of language structure. The film’s linguist, Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is charged with figuring out the language of the aliens who have landed on earth. She needs to do this in order to find out what they want.

How would one go about decoding a language that nobody knows? Field linguists—those who go out into the world to analyze little-known languages—have developed techniques for doing this kind of thing. The filmmakers consulted with McGill University linguist Jessica Coon, who herself has worked in the field on native languages of Mexico and Canada.

The problem of interpreting an unfamiliar language becomes a lot harder when dealing with creatures that don’t share our human bodies or articulators, much less a common frame of reality or physical environment, but that’s no reason not to start with the basics of linguistic communication that we do have a handle on. Here are four important concepts from linguistics that help Dr. Banks do the job she needs to do in Arrival.

1. THE SWADESH LIST

At one point Colonel Weber (played by Forest Whitaker) asks Dr. Banks why she’s wasting time with a list of simple words like eat and walk when their priority is to find out what the purpose of the aliens’ visit is. A good field linguist knows you can’t just jump to abstract concepts like purpose without establishing the basics first. But what are the basics?

For decades, linguists have used variations on the Swadesh list, a list of basic concepts first put together in the 1950s by linguist Morris Swadesh. They include concepts like I and you, one and many, as well as objects and actions in the observable world like person, blood, fire, eat, sleep, and walk. They were chosen to be as universal as possible, and they can be indicated by pointing or pantomime or pictures, which makes it possible to ask for their words before proper linguistic question-asking has been figured out. Though the movie’s heptapods likely don’t share most of our universal, earth-bound concepts, it’s as good a place to start as any.

2. DISCRETENESS

It might seem that the most important question to focus on when trying to analyze an unknown language is "what does this mean?" For a linguist, however, the most important question is "what are the units?" This is not because meaning is not useful, but because, while you can have meaning without language, you cannot have language without units. A sigh is meaningful, but not linguistic. It is not composed of discrete units, but an overall feel.

The concept of discreteness is one of the basic design features of human language. Linguistic utterances are patterns of combinations of smaller, meaningless units (sounds, or in the movie’s case, parts of ink blots) that reoccur in other utterances in different combinations with different meanings. When Dr. Banks sits down to analyze the circular ink blots the heptapods have thrown out, she marks up specific parts of them. She is not viewing them as analog, holistic pictures of meaning, but as compositions of parts, and she expects those parts to occur in other ink blots.

3. MINIMAL PAIRS

The concept of the minimal pair is crucial for figuring out what the units of a specific language are. An English speaker will say that car, whether it's pronounced with a regular r or a rolled r, means the same thing (even if the rolled r sounds a bit strange). A Spanish speaker will say that caro means something different with a rolled r (caro "expensive" vs. carro "car"). The rolled r in English is just a different pronunciation of the same unit. In Spanish, it’s a different unit.

A minimal pair is a pair of words that differ in meaning because one sound has changed. The existence of a minimal pair shows that the differing sound is a crucial element of the language’s structure. In one scene in the movie, Dr. Banks notes that two ink blots are exactly the same except for a little hook on the end. That’s how she knows the hook does something important. With that knowledge, she can put it in the known inventory of units for heptapod, and look for it in other utterances.

4. THE SAPIR-WHORF HYPOTHESIS

The linguistic current running through the heart of the movie is a version of what’s come to be known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, most simply explained as the idea that the language you speak influences the way you think. This idea is controversial, since it has been demonstrated that languages do not restrict or constrain what people are able to perceive. However, a milder version of the theory holds that language can lay down default ways of categorizing experience that are easily shaken off if required.

We see the extreme version of Sapir-Whorf played out in the way that the perceptive abilities of Dr. Banks are completely transformed by the act of her learning the heptapod language. Her conception of time is altered by language.

The origins of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis trace back to an analysis by Benjamin Whorf of the concept of time in the Native American language Hopi. He argued that where the linguistic devices of European languages express time as a continuum from past to present to future, with time units like days, weeks, and years conceived of as objects, the Hopi language distinguishes only between the experienced and the not experienced, and does not conceive of stretches of time as objects. There are no days in Hopi, only the return of the sun.

Whorf’s analysis has been challenged by later Hopi scholars, but it is clear that the language does handle the idea of linguistic tense in a way that is difficult to grasp for speakers of European languages. Assuming that that means we live in a different reality with respect to time is taking things way too far. But who ever said the world of fiction wasn’t allowed to take things too far?

If you find the real ideas behind the movie intriguing, or just want to get more familiar with the exciting world of linguist-heroes, check out this collection of real world resources listed by Gretchen McCulloch.

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Beyond Wanderlust: 30 Words Every Traveler Should Know
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For those who travel, wanderlust is a familiar feeling. It’s that nagging voice in your head that says, “Yes, you do need to book that flight,” even if your bank account says otherwise. Regardless of how many passport covers this word may adorn, it doesn’t begin to cover the spectrum of emotions and experiences that can be revealed through the act of travel. Here are 30 travel words from around the world to keep in your back pocket as you're exploring this summer.

1. VAGARY

From the Latin vagari, meaning “to wander,” this 16th-century word originally meant a wandering journey. Nowadays, "vagaries" refer to unpredictable or erratic situations, but that doesn’t mean the old sense of the word can’t be invoked from time to time.

2. SELCOUTH

An Old English word that refers to something that’s both strange and marvelous. It's a great way to sum up those seemingly indescribable moments spent in an unfamiliar land.

3. FERNWEH

Who hasn’t felt a strong desire to be somewhere—anywhere—other than where you currently are? That’s fernweh, or “farsickness," and this German word has been described as a cousin of wanderlust, another German loan word.

4. DÉPAYSEMENT

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Anyone who has traveled abroad will recognize this feeling. The French word refers to the sense of disorientation that often sets in when you step outside your comfort zone, such as when you leave your home country.

5. DÉRIVE

Another gift from the French, this word literally translates to “drift,” but thanks to some mid-20th century French philosophers, it can also refer to a spontaneous trip, completely free of plans, in which you let your surroundings guide you.

6. PEREGRINATE

To peregrinate is to travel from place to place, especially on foot. Its Latin root, peregrinus (meaning “foreign”), is also where the peregrine falcon (literally “pilgrim falcon”) gets its name.

7. PERAMBULATE

Similar to peregrinate, this word essentially means to travel over or through an area by foot. So instead of saying that you’ll be walking around London, you can say you’ll be perambulating the city’s streets—much more sophisticated.

8. NUMINOUS

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This English word could appropriately be used to describe the Grand Canyon or the Northern Lights. Something numinous is awe-inspiring and mysterious. It's difficult to understand from a rational perspective, which gives it a spiritual or unearthly quality.

9. PERIPATETIC

The young and the restless will want to incorporate this word into their lexicon. The adjective refers to those who are constantly moving from place to place—in other words, a nomadic existence. It stems from the Greek word peripatein (“to walk up and down”), which was originally associated with Aristotle and the shaded walkways near his school (or, according to legend, his habit of pacing back and forth during lectures).

10. WALDEINSAMKEIT

You’re alone in a forest. It’s peaceful. The sun is filtering through the trees and there’s a light breeze. That’s waldeinsamkeit. (Literally "forest solitude." And yes, Germans have all the best travel words.)

11. SHINRIN-YOKU

In a similar vein, this Japanese word means “forest bathing,” and it's considered a form of natural medicine and stress reliever. There are now forest bathing clubs around the world, but you can try it out for yourself on your next camping trip. Take deep breaths, close your eyes, and take in the smells and sounds of the forest. Simple.

12. SOLIVAGANT

In those moments when you just want to run away from your responsibilities, you may consider becoming a solivagant: a solo wanderer.

13. YOKO MESHI

This Japanese phrase literally translates to “a meal eaten sideways,” which is an apt way to describe the awkwardness of speaking in a foreign language that you haven’t quite mastered, especially over dinner.

14. RESFEBER

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You just booked your flight. Your heart starts racing. You’re a little nervous about your journey, but mostly you just can’t wait to get going. The anticipation, anxiety, and excitement you get before a big trip is all rolled into one word—resfeber—and you can thank the Swedes for it.

15. FLÂNEUR

Taken from the French flâner, meaning to stroll or saunter, this word describes someone who has no particular plans or place they need to be. They merely stroll around the city at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights and enjoying the day as it unfolds.

16. GADABOUT

This could be construed as the traditional English equivalent of flâneur. Likely stemming from the Middle English verb gadden, meaning “to wander without a specific aim or purpose,” a gadabout is one who frequently travels from place to place for the sheer fun of it. In other words: a modern-day backpacker.

17. HIRAETH

Sometimes, no matter how amazing your vacation may be, you just want to come home to your bed and cats. This Welsh word sums up the deep yearning for home that can strike without warning. As Gillian Thomas put it in an interview with the BBC, “Home sickness is too weak. You feel hiraeth, which is a longing of the soul to come home to be safe.”

18. YŪGEN

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This Japanese word can be taken to mean “graceful elegance” or “subtle mystery,” but it’s much more than that. It's when the beauty of the universe is felt most profoundly, awakening an emotional response that goes beyond words.

19. SCHWELLENANGST

Translating to “threshold anxiety,” this German word sums up the fears that are present before you enter somewhere new—like a theater or an intimidating cafe—and by extension going anywhere unfamiliar. The fear of crossing a threshold is normal, even among the most adventurous of travelers—but it often leads to the most unforgettable experiences.

20. COMMUOVERE

Have you ever seen something so beautiful it made you cry? That’s commuovere in action. The Italian word describes the feeling of being moved, touched, or stirred by something you witness or experience.

21. HYGGE

This Danish word refers to a warm feeling of contentedness and coziness, as well as the acknowledgement of that feeling. Although not explicitly related to this term, author Kurt Vonnegut summed up the idea behind this concept quite nicely when he said, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"

22. HANYAUKU

Here's one for those who have a beach trip coming up. Taken from Kwangali, a language spoken in Namibia, hanyauku is the act of tiptoeing across hot sand.

23. SMULTRONSTÄLLE

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This Swedish word translates to something along the lines of “place of wild strawberries,” but its metaphorical meaning is something along the lines of a "happy place." Whether it’s a hidden overlook of the city or your favorite vacation spot that hasn’t been “discovered” yet, smultronställe refers to those semi-secret places you return to time and time again because they’re special and personal to you.

24. DUSTSCEAWUNG

This Old English word describes what might happen when you visit a place like Pompeii or a ghost town. While reflecting on past civilizations, you realize that everything will eventually turn to dust. A cheery thought.

25. VACILANDO

In some Spanish dialects, the word vacilando describes someone who travels with a vague destination in mind but has no real incentive to get there. In other words, the journey is more important than the destination. As John Steinbeck described it in his travelogue Travels With Charley: “It does not mean vacillating at all. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere, but doesn't greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction. My friend Jack Wagner has often, in Mexico, assumed this state of being. Let us say we wanted to walk in the streets of Mexico city but not at random. We would choose some article almost certain not to exist there and then diligently try to find it.”

26. LEHITKALEV

Backpackers and budget travelers, this one is for you: The Hebrew word lehitkalev translates to “dog it” and means to deal with uncomfortable living or travel arrangements.

27. KOMOREBI

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This beautiful Japanese word is a good one to save for a sunny day spent in the woods. Komorebi translates to “sunshine filtering through the leaves.” Does it get any lovelier than that?

28. RAMÉ

This Balinese word refers to something that is simultaneously chaotic and joyful. It isn’t specifically a travel word, but it does seem to fit the feelings that are often awakened by travel.

29. TROUVAILLE

Translating to a “lucky find,” this French word can be applied to that cool cafe, flower-lined street, or quirky craft store that you stumbled upon by chance. Indeed, these are the moments that make travel worthwhile.

30. ULLASSA

Just in case you needed another reason to plan that trip to Yosemite, here's one last word for nature lovers. The Sanskrit word ullassa refers to the feelings of pleasantness that come from observing natural beauty in all its glory.

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25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites
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Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, "Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression," or does it mean, "Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default"? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of contronyms—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean "give official permission or approval for (an action)" or conversely, "impose a penalty on."

2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” Oversee, from Old English ofersēon ("look at from above") means "supervise" (medieval Latin for the same thing: super-, "over" plus videre, "to see.") Overlook usually means the opposite: "to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore."

3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)

4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.

5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.

6. Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says he likes to get stoned).

7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning "to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange," trim came to mean "to prepare, make ready." Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: "to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance" or "to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of." And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chain saw?

8. Cleave can be cleaved into two homographs, words with different origins that end up spelled the same. Cleave, meaning "to cling to or adhere," comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. Cleave, with the contrary meaning "to split or sever (something)"—as you might do with a cleaver—comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: cloven, which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”

9. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. Resign, meaning "to quit," is spelled the same as resign, meaning "to sign up again," but it’s pronounced differently.

10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in running fast, or "fixed, unmoving," as in holding fast. If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning "firm, steadfast" came first; the adverb took on the sense "strongly, vigorously," which evolved into "quickly," a meaning that spread to the adjective.

11. Off means "deactivated," as in to turn off, but also "activated," as in the alarm went off.

12. Weather can mean "to withstand or come safely through" (as in the company weathered the recession) or it can mean "to be worn away" (the rock was weathered).

13. Screen can mean to show (a movie) or to hide (an unsightly view).

14. Help means "assist," unless you can’t help doing something, when it means "prevent."

15. Clip can mean "to bind together" or "to separate." You clip sheets of paper to together or separate part of a page by clipping something out. Clip is a pair of homographs, words with different origins spelled the same. Old English clyppan, which means "to clasp with the arms, embrace, hug," led to our current meaning, "to hold together with a clasp." The other clip, "to cut or snip (a part) away," is from Old Norse klippa, which may come from the sound of a shears.

16. Continue usually means to persist in doing something, but as a legal term it means stop a proceeding temporarily.

17. Fight with can be interpreted three ways. “He fought with his mother-in-law” could mean "They argued," "They served together in the war," or "He used the old battle-ax as a weapon." (Thanks to linguistics professor Robert Hertz for this idea.)

18. Flog, meaning "to punish by caning or whipping," shows up in school slang of the 17th century, but now it can have the contrary meaning, "to promote persistently," as in “flogging a new book.” Perhaps that meaning arose from the sense "to urge (a horse, etc.) forward by whipping," which grew out of the earliest meaning.

19. Go means "to proceed," but also "give out or fail," i.e., “This car could really go until it started to go.”

20. Hold up can mean "to support" or "to hinder": “What a friend! When I’m struggling to get on my feet, he’s always there to hold me up.”

21. Out can mean "visible" or "invisible." For example, “It’s a good thing the full moon was out when the lights went out.”

22. Out of means "outside" or "inside": “I hardly get out of the house because I work out of my home.”

23. B**ch can derisively refer to a woman who is considered overly aggressive or domineering, or it can refer to someone passive or submissive.

24. Peer is a person of equal status (as in a jury of one’s peers), but some peers are more equal than others, like the members of the peerage, the British or Irish nobility.

25. Toss out could be either "to suggest" or "to discard": “I decided to toss out the idea.”

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including auto-antonym, antagonym, enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy and Janus word (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). Can’t get enough of them? The folks at Daily Writing Tips have rounded up even more.

This piece originally ran in 2015.

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