First off, I’d like any film that nudges viewers toward thinking about language and its effects on events, the environment, and relationships past, present, and future. Arrival’s got “events” and “relationships” covered, and, by extension, “environment”, so I like it. *SOAP BOX ALERT* Lackadaisical attitudes toward language are common. Many folks don’t think about language much at all, despite how, when threatened, they quickly move to weaponize it when they feel threatened. Moreover, since a meaningful percentage of the population gets its information from movies and other media rather than peer-reviewed scholarly articles on language and linguistics, I’m good with casting language in a leading role in a semi-popular film. *END SOAP BOX BLURB*
We also have funny ideas about language, including that it impedes real communication. Charles Taylor discusses one angle of such thinking in The Language Animal, the theory that, ideally, language should just name things in the world with constraints on usage to enable precise communication—no funny business like metaphor, symbol, etc., which some literalists believe renders discourse into Keystone Kops ineptness.
For a taste of Keystone Kops, go here.
Taylor makes a good case that this idea of language still influences beliefs about human powers of articulation (unduly, he says). Arrival may in fact put the “language as precision tool” concept to work, since very few nods to metaphor’s powers of transport occur in the movie. It would be nice if the black-and-white nature of instrumental language could have been expanded a little, but that’s probably asking too much. Many people know language mainly as a tool for getting done what they want, even as they complain about its exactness. In blame-the-messenger fashion (including in language Global Mall Facebook), laments abound over how language fails to live up to expectations then betrays us; ergo, it’s faulty.
But to the movie. Arrival is a cryptic thing on several levels, including its