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4 Ideas From Linguistics to Help You Appreciate Arrival

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.


With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.


In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.


Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.


Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.


Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)


Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.


The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."


    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."


      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”


      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]


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