What would you expect from an alien?

img_1312Reviewing Olgierd Wolczek’s Man and Others Out There (1983), Wisława Szymborska relishes cosmic solitude. In her Nonrequired Reading (2002), she welcomes the idea of our being alone in the universe, while granting that it is also highly likely.  She writes,

“I like being a freak of nature on our one and only, extraordinary Earth.  Furthermore, I ‘m not waiting for any UFOs, and I’ll believe in them only when one comes up and pokes me in the ribs.  Besides, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to expect from them. They may just be planning an inspection of bristletails, caddie flies, and trematodes. The conviction that if they were so inclined they would lend a hand with everything strikes me as hopelessly banal.”

I wonder when we will stop having to watch alien films in which the alien invaders are just slightly deformed versions of ourselves, playing out scenarios of how we would approach an alien that behaves like us and looks like us. (Science writer Philip Ball’s short video from The Atlantic is a good place to clarify and gestate this idea). The new Denis Villeneuve film “Arrival,” derived from Ted Chiang’s “The Stories of Your Life,” at least approaches the subject in an interesting way that makes sense from our sentient point of view and with realistic expectations of both the limitations and unimaginable variations of the evolutionary processes of life. It allows the possibility that we may not know at all what to expect.

img_1206Language, it has been proposed, wires that way that the mind works.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis so far has only been tested with different languages here on earth, but in Chiang’s story, an alien spaceship arrives suddenly and a linguist must figure out how to communicate with them. Szymborska’s banality of an alien coming to help us out (or perform other human-like endeavors such as genocide or experimentation) in our proto-human naïveté is the bread and butter of Hollywood science fiction, and it begins to raise its intellect-numbing head in “Arrival.”  But Chiang’s linguistic approach saves it.

Amy Adams’s protagonist Louise Banks walks the fine line between too much expository dialogue and not enough. But it works, partly because of the irony of a linguist having to explain to a physicist (her impromptu colleague Ian Donnelly) the stuff of realities that one would think he’d already have known.

The aliens’ written language has little or nothing to do with their spoken language.  The aliens produce sounds that are impossible for humans to imitate. They are more advanced that we are, but in other ways, perhaps not.  Their communication is non-linear, whole paragraphs and phrases can be written and read instantaneously, which leads Banks, who begins to learn their language, to realize that they perceive time in a different way than we do, which in turn leads to her own significance in the film and a profoundly satisfying twist. As Chiang writes in “Stories of Your Life,” the aliens can perceive future and past in the same way, but participate in the conversation anyway, as if to actualize their ideas.  In the same way we say “You’re under arrest,” or “I christen this vessel,” the words put the ideas into action.

“For the [the aliens], all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, [the aliens] already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.”


Chiang’s short story is chock-full of interesting parallels from theoretical physics and linguistics, the kind of parallels that make the audience think.  Contrary to its intentions, with its lack of ideas and phobia of meaningful contemplation, Hollywood usually just reinforces the suspicion that we are in fact alone in the universe.  The book and film do play a bit with our ignorance in contrast to the superiority of an alien species, but they reject the banality of the anthropoid “take me to your leader” kind of alien. Instead, opening the minds of the layman to the fundamentals of communication and language, as well as to the laws of physical reality itself (physics), we once again feel that maybe we are on to something.

The Slow Making of a Language

imageOtto Jespersen (1860-1943) was a Danish linguist, and one of the strongest authorities on the English language.  His Growth and Structure of the English Language is a little volume packed full of practical findings about the history of English, yet one gets the feeling that it only scratches the surface of the study, at times even summary and terse.

He demonstrates in some detail the obvious influence of the Normans and the French language on English, so blatant an influence that the reader is left with the impression that our language would be unrecognizable without it.  The obvious contrast between the vernacular of the higher classes (the Normans) and the everyday language of the humbler rural worker (those occupied by the conquest) is interesting enough, but what is striking is the mystery of how the language of the French was spread to those who undoubtedly found it irrelevant to their lives, and how it influences how we speak today.  Vocabulary, verbs and official names not only relating to but directly describing the law, fashion, cuisine, war and military, skilled labor, art and descriptions of leisure activities come from the French in vast quantities. And it was not a matter of one culture merely borrowing terms from another, the Normans introduced these aspects of culture into a native population that lacked them, whatever the level of intention.

The Danes also gave English some of its most important function words, and they influenced modern day English in a different way that is no less fascinating.  English owes less to the Norse tongues than to French in quantity, but possibly more in functionality.  For example, we received the words get, they, them, the, that, this, as well as the suffixes -by, -thorp, -beck, -dale, and -thwaite.  And they really were received, received from an invading force who introduced both a concepts and the words to describe them.

From p. 123:

“It should be noted…that when once a certian pronunciation or signification has been firmly established in a language, the word fulfills its purpose in spite of ever so many might-have-beens, and that, at any rate, correctness in one language should not be measured by the yard of another language.”  

An essential reference for any English speaker with an interest in why we say the words we say.

And I haven’t even finished the Latin and Greek chapters yet…