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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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Why Swaziland Was Just Renamed eSwatini
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With the arrival of a new African nation, mapmakers just got a little bit busier. The king of Swaziland surprised foreign powers and compatriots alike when he recently announced that the country’s official name would revert to eSwatini, the name it went by prior to British colonialism.

King Mswati III, one of the few remaining absolute monarchs in the world, announced the name-change decision during celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the country declaring independence from Britain.

"African countries on getting independence reverted to their ancient names before they were colonized. So from now on the country will be officially known as the Kingdom of eSwatini,” Mswati announced to a crowd in the city of Manzini, located about 23 miles from the capital Mbabane.

The king said there was another motivation for the name change: to avoid being regularly mistaken for Switzerland. "Whenever we go abroad, people refer to us as Switzerland," Mswati said.

While some consider the name change to be a patriotic move, others were critical of the decision, arguing that the small country in southern Africa has more pressing issues to tackle, including poverty, hunger, and the world's highest rate of HIV/AIDS.

The name eSwatini essentially means “land of the Swati” in siSwati, the local language. Editor and author James Hall took to twitter to break down the etymology of the name:

Several African nations have opted to shed the names given to them by colonial powers, including Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland), Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Djibouti (formerly French Somaliland), and others.

How hard is it for a country to change its name, though? According to eSwatini’s Ministry of Home Affairs, it “won’t happen overnight.” The country will also need to register its new name with international agencies like the UN and the Commonwealth of Nations.

Adopting a new internet domain could end up being one of the more time-consuming steps, according to the BBC. But fortunately, citizens of the country might not need to run out to get a new passport, as eSwatini is already included on the document in a smaller font.

[h/t CNN]

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15 Intriguing Facts About George Eliot
Image: London Stereoscopic Company, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss
Image: London Stereoscopic Company, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss

Born in England in 1819, novelist and poet George Eliot is best remembered for writing classic books like Middlemarch and Silas Marner. Despite the time period she wrote in, the author—whose real name was Mary Anne (or Marian) Evans—was no stuffy Victorian. She had a famously scandalous love life and, among other linguistic accomplishments, is responsible for the term pop music. Here are 15 things you might not know about the beloved British writer.

1. SHE WAS BORN ON THE ESTATE WHERE HER FATHER WORKED.

Eliot was born on the grounds of Arbury Hall and Estate, a sprawling mansion in Warwickshire, England with hundreds of acres of surrounding gardens and farmland. Her father, Robert Evans, worked for the estate's owners, the Newdigate family, as a manager and agent. His job entailed collecting rents from tenant farmers and overseeing the property's coal mine.

2. HER RURAL UPBRINGING INSPIRED HER LATER NOVELS.

Arbury Hall
Arbury Hall
Elliott Brown, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Eliot was just an infant when her family moved from Arbury Hall to a home in a nearby town. But Arbury and the Warwickshire countryside left their mark on her. In Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), Eliot's collection of three short stories, she wrote about the area and drew inspiration from real places and people. And some of her stories mirrored reality pretty closely. For instance, she turned Arbury Hall into Cheverel Manor, and Sir Roger Newdigate, Arbury's owner, into Sir Christopher Cheverel.

3. SHE EDITED A JOURNAL FOR PROGRESSIVE THINKERS.

In the early 1850s, Eliot wrote for The Westminster Review, a London-based periodical founded by philosophers Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, contributing essays and reviews using the name Marian Evans. She soon became the de facto editor of the progressive journal, though her role was anonymous. Years later, other writers reviewed Eliot's own pseudonymous works in the journal she once edited.

4. SHE WORKED AS A TRANSLATOR.

Throughout her life, Eliot put her language skills to work translating foreign works into English. She translated books like David Friedrich Strauss's Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus), a highly controversial German treatise that argued that Jesus Christ was a real person, but not divine. (Upon reading her translation, one English nobleman called it "the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.") Eliot also translated The Essence of Christianity by German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and the Latin Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, incorporating facets of these philosophical and religious ideas into her own writing.

5. SHE WASN'T A FAN OF MOST WOMEN WRITERS OF HER DAY.

Eliot was by no means a misogynist, but she did have some harsh words for fellow women writers. In an anonymous essay titled "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," Eliot lamented the frivolous characters and unrealistic plots that she argued were nearly ubiquitous features of novels written by women at the time. Published in The Westminster Review in 1856, Eliot's essay asserted that these books, full of cliches and improbable romantic endings, made educated women look foolish. She also criticized the writing style of other women of her time, saying they mistook "vagueness for depth, bombast for eloquence, and affectation for originality." However, she did allow that not every book written by a woman fell into this trap, praising writers like Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë) and Elizabeth Gaskell.

6. SHE WAS NOT CONSIDERED CONVENTIONALLY ATTRACTIVE …

George Eliot, circa 1868.
George Eliot, circa 1868.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Eliot's appearance was a source of avid discussion during her lifetime, and her looks continue to fascinate readers today. Eliot herself joked about her ugliness in letters to friends, and the novelist Henry James once described her in a letter to his father as "magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous." He went on to say that the "horse-faced" writer had a "vast pendulous nose," a low forehead, and bad teeth, among other physical flaws.

7. … BUT MEN LOVED HER.

Despite her plain appearance, men were drawn to Eliot. In the same letter where he called her "deliciously hideous," James explained his counterintuitive attraction towards her like this: "Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her."

After various dalliances and a marriage proposal that she turned down, she spent more than two decades with the philosopher and critic George Lewes. But Lewes was already married, and as a result, many in Eliot's social circle (including her brother) shunned her. Though Lewes couldn't obtain an official divorce from his estranged wife, he and Eliot lived together as partners until his death in 1878, and she referred to herself as Mrs. Marian Lewes.

8. HER PEN NAME PAID HOMAGE TO HER LOVER.

In 1856, both to avoid the sexism of the publishing industry and distance her literary work from her scandalous romantic situation, she adopted the pen name George Eliot, a male nom de plume that paid homage to Lewes. In addition to adopting his first name, some historians have also suggested that "Eliot" derives from "To L(ewes), I owe it."

9. SHE MARRIED A MAN TWO DECADES HER JUNIOR …

After Lewes's death, Eliot channeled her grief by editing his writing and spending time with her lawyer and accountant, John Cross. Although Eliot was 60 and Cross was just 40, the two friends fell in love and married at London's St. George's Church in the spring of 1880.

10. … BUT THEIR HONEYMOON TOOK A DARK TURN.

After their wedding, the pair traveled to Venice, Italy for their honeymoon. Although Cross wrote a letter to his sister indicating that he was having a delightful time, Eliot knew something was wrong. Her new husband was depressed, agitated, and losing weight. She called a doctor to their hotel room and was speaking with him when Cross jumped off the balcony into the Grand Canal.

Cross was rescued by a hotel worker and the personal gondolier the couple had hired to take them around the waterways. The newlyweds eventually continued on their trip, and they remained married until Eliot's death later that year. Historians continue to speculate about the reason for his jump, and whether it was a suicide attempt—Cross may have had a personal and family history of mental illness—or some kind of heat-induced delirium. The mysterious incident was recently turned into a novel.

11. SHE INVENTED THE TERM POP

You probably don't associate George Eliot with Lady Gaga, but the Oxford English Dictionary credits the Victorian novelist with coining the term pop to refer to popular music. In November 1862, Eliot wrote in a birthday letter to a friend, "We have been to a Monday Pop. this week to hear Beethoven's Septet, and an amazing thing of Bach's played by the amazing Joachim. But there is too much 'Pop.' for the thorough enjoyment of the chamber music they give."

12. … AND A NEW MEANING OF THE WORD BROWSER.

George Eliot statue in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, UK
George Eliot statue in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, UK

Diamond Geezer, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Eliot coined a number of other now-common terms in her writing. For instance, she was the first to use the word browser in the modern sense of someone who is casually looking around (like a browser in a bookstore). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the 16th century, the word browser meant “a person who cuts the leaves and twigs of trees to use as food for animals in winter." Later, it came to mean an animal that searched for leaves and twigs to eat. Eliot's historical novel Romola marked the first recorded time the word was used to mean a person generally surveying something. In it, she describes several friends of Florentine politician Bartolomeo Scala as "amiable browsers in the Medicean park."

13. SHE WAS ALSO A POET.

Although Eliot was most famous for her novels, she also produced two volumes of poetry. Her first published piece of writing was a poem called "Knowing That Shortly I Must Put Off This Tabernacle." Published in The Christian Observer in 1840, the poem refers to the Bible and imagines a person who is about to die saying goodbye to Earth. In a later poem, "O May I Join the Choir Invisible," Eliot argues that improving the world during one's lifetime is the only way to achieve permanence.

14. VIRGINIA WOOLF ADMIRED HER WRITING.

Author Virginia Woolf praised Middlemarch's mature prose, referring to it as "the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." And modern readers seem to agree. In 2015, a BBC poll of 82 book critics from around the world named Middlemarch the greatest British novel of all time. Several authors, including Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, have also listed the book as one of the greatest English novels ever written.

15. HER FORMER HOME IS NOW A STEAKHOUSE.

Griff House, where Eliot lived as an infant until her early twenties, still exists, but it's now home to a steakhouse and hotel. Called the Griff House Beefeater & Nuneaton Premier Travel Inn, the spot also features a pond, gardens, and a play area for kids.

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