In the new movie Arrival, gigantic spaceships touch down across the globe. To analyze the alien species that emerges from the spacecraft, a special team is assembled, which is headed by…a linguist! Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) successfully deciphers their complicated alien writing system.
The film explores a theoretical field known as xenolinguistics, in which linguists and experts from related fields speculate about possible kinds of alien communication, based on our knowledge of the differences across existing languages, the systems of communication used by non-human animals (e.g., smell and color), and even the theories posited in science fiction such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, and Star Trek (e.g., mental telepathy and music).
(BTW – I have a chapter about xenolinguistics in Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic.)
Arrival isn’t the only piece of pop culture in which the linguist is one of the main characters. The movies Iceman (1984), Stargate (1994), and Thor (2011) feature Indiana Jones-style linguists who proceed to decipher an unknown language and ultimately become the hero. Then, of course, there is Professor Henry Higgins, the phonetician who teaches Eliza Doolittle how to “speak properly” in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the musical and film versions of My Fair Lady.
These movies reinforce the misconception that linguists just speak lots of languages or teach elocution lessons, although it’s fun to see our profession being name dropped.
If you want to see a movie that highlights just one of the things that real linguists do, check out The Linguists (2008), a film that follows linguists Greg and David on their journey as they document languages on the verge of extinction in Siberia, India, and Bolivia.
And we can’t forget the scene in Friends where Ross explains why he won’t cancel his date to attend a wedding reception.
“She’s an Assistant Professor in the Linguistics Department, okay? They’re WILD!”