ARRIVAL:Language and the Perception of Time




After a long time, a movie on the lines of  ‘Inception’ and ‘Cloud Atlas’  dealing with a mind boggling concept that is  dense and multilayered .

Arrival isn’t your average ‘alien encounter’ movie. It deals with deeper concepts of language, perception and time. Among other things it talks about the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, put forward by Edward Sapir in 1929 and later developed further by Benjamin Whorf, that that the structure of a language determines a native speaker’s perception and categorization of experience. In this movie Humans, more precisely, a Linguistics professor Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, in her interactions with an alien species visiting the Earth, is made to realize that the alien language is non-linear orthographic in nature which means that it has no forward or backward.  It would mean the same no matter how one reads it. And hence their perception of time is non-linear like their language. The Aliens communicate to her that if  humans were to really understand the alien language, they too would learn to perceive time the way the Aliens did. This was in fact the  purpose of their visit to Earth, to gift their unique language and through it their more philosophic perception of time and reality, to humans.

The film begins with the linguistics professor Louise Banks, who has recently lost her daughter to a rare desease. She is asked by the American government to  lead an elite team of investigators when gigantic spaceships touchdown in 12 locations around the world.  Unable to understand the alien’s language or the purpose of their visit to earth, the reactions of a lot of people and governments towards them is that of distrust and hostility, and the situation threatens to collapse into a global war. Banks and her crew, which includes a particle physicist Ian Donnelly played by Jeremy Renner, have to  race against time to find a way to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors.

Lisa ultimately ‘understands’ the alien language which transforms her perception of time and the film ends at the beginning !!



Ian Donnelly: [reading from a book by Louise Banks] “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”



Dr. Louise Banks: Kangaroo.

Col. Weber: What is that?

Dr. Louise Banks: In 1770, Captain James Cook‘s ship ran aground off the coast of Australia and led a party, where they found the aboriginal people. One of the sailors pointed to the animals that hop around and put their babies in their pouch, And he asked what they were. The Aborigines said “kangaroo”.

Col. Weber: And your point is?

Dr. Louise Banks: It wasn’t until later that they learned that “kangaroo” means “I don’t understand”. So…I need this so that we don’t misinterpret things in there, otherwise it is going to take 10 times as long.




Dr. Louise Banks: God… are they…? They are using a game to communicate with the Heptopods?

Col. Weber: Maybe… why?

Dr. Louise Banks: Let’s say I taught them chess instead of English. Every conversation would be a game, every idea expressed through opposition. Victory… defeat. You see the problem? If all I ever gave you was a hammer…

Col. Weber: Everything’s a nail. We need to ask the big question. Ready or not.



alien language


There is an insightful pointer, during the course of this movie for all those learning a a foreign language. At the beginning of the movie, Colonel Weber, played by Forest Whitakerm, goes to Louise to ask her to work with him on talking to the visitors. It isn’t happening, but on his way out of the door, she asks him if he’s going to Berkeley to get a linguist she knows who works there. He says yes, and she tells him “Ask him the Sanskrit word for war, and what its translation is.“. Then the Colonel leaves.

In the next scene, he shows up at her house in a helicopter. She asks him what the man from Berkeley said and he replies “He said it meant a disagreement. You?” and she replies “A desire for more cattle.“. That’s it, and she’s hired.

According a the book, ‘The Search of the Cradle of Civilization’ by Kak et al, gavesha in Sanskrit could variously mean ‘to look for cows’, ‘to fight’ or ‘to raid cattle’. In ancient times, among the Indo-Aryans, cattle was the symbol of wealth and worship, it is assumed that most conflicts that occurred were over their possession. Thus If you’re trying to interpret a new form of language, a shared context needs to be developed and understood before understanding can be shared.



Edward Sapir
Benjamin Lee Worf







Ian Donnelly: If you immerse yourself into a foreign language, then you can actually rewire your brain.

Dr. Louise Banks: Yeah, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It’s the theory that the language you speak determines how you think and…

Ian Donnelly: Yeah, it affects how you see everything.




arrival_ship arrival_hand arrival alien

Ian Donnelly: Unlike all human written language, their writing is symbolic. It conveys meaning, it does not represent sound. Perhaps they view our form of writing as a wasted opportunity, passing every second communications channel. We have our friends in Pakistan to thank for their study on how the heptopods write. Because unlike speech, a hologram is free of time. Like their ship or their bodies. Their written language has no form or no direction. Linguists call this nonlinear orthography. Which raises the question: “Is this how they think?” Imagine you wanted to write a sentence using two hands, starting from either side. You’d have to know each word you wanted to use, as well as how much space they will occupy. A heptopod can write a complex sentence in two seconds effortlessly. It took us a month to make the simplest vocabulary.



arrival poster

Dr. Louise Banks: The weapon is their language. They gave it all to us. Do you understand what that means?

Colonel Weber: So we can learn heptapod. If we survive.

Dr. Louise Banks: If you learn it, when you really learn it, you begin to perceive time the way that they do. So you can see what’s to come. But time, it isn’t the same for them. It’s non-linear.




Dr. Louise Banks: [narrating] We’re so bounded by time, by its order. But now I am not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings.

Dr. Louise Banks: [narrating] So, Hannah… This is where your story begins. The day they departed. Despite knowing the journey… and where it leads… I embrace it. And I welcome every moment of it.

Dr. Louise Banks: If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?





Dr. Louise Banks: [narrating] Memory is a strange thing.

Interpreter: In their final session, the alien said, “There is no time. Many become one.”








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