A big Hollywood release this week is Arrival with Amy Banks as a linguist seeking to establish peaceful contact with visiting aliens. It looks terrific, and made me think too of Tom Wolfe’s amusing sendup of Noam Chomsky and his “visiting Martian.” What’s the visiting Martian? From Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech:
There were six thousand or seven thousand languages in the world, which made people believe that language was a babbling Babel of biblical proportions.
That was where Chomsky’s son-to-be-ubiquitous Martian linguist came in. To a visiting Martian linguist’s ear, Chomsky said often, often, often, all earthlings spoke the same language…with merely minor local variations…since every language had the same biological template. And the Martian paid us a visit almost every time Chomsky gave a talk on language.
…Chomsky made it clear he was elevating linguistics to the altitude of Plato’s — and the Martian’s — transcendent eternal universals. They, not sacks full of facts and lots of little languages, were the ultimate reality, the only true objects of knowledge. Besides, he didn’t enjoy the outdoors, where “the field” was, and he know only one language, English.
Wolfe disputes Chomsky, of course, on the question of whether language is “biological” and therefore the product of Darwinian forces. Wolfe thinks not and argues persuasively.
I draw no conclusion from this, but only offer the observation that Arrival seems interestingly to want to test out the question, in fictional form. Science Magazine has an article with reactions from linguists, who are feeling pleased to see their field receiving heroic treatment:
The film follows linguistics professor Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, after a series of mysterious alien spacecraft suddenly appear in Earth’s skies.
While the world reacts with confusion and fear to the extraterrestrial visitors, Banks is recruited by the U.S. military to make contact with the aliens — large, seven-limbed “heptapods” — and make sense of their bizarre language, the written version of which constructs entire sentences as impossibly complex circles without a set word order. As it becomes increasingly clear just how different the heptapods are from humans, it’s up to Banks to understand what they’re trying to tell us — and to possibly save humanity in the process.
The film’s attention to linguistic detail, thanks in part to scientific advisers including linguist Jessica Coon of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, has had many in the field watching Arrival‘s arrival with a close eye. A popular linguistics blog has already taken an in-depth look at the contents of Banks’s on-set office, and linguists have started to share their thoughts after attending advanced screenings of the film. So far, the verdict has been mostly positive.
“The linguistics was very good,” says David Adger, a linguist at Queen Mary University of London who specializes in syntax, the rules that govern sentence structure. “The portrayal of trying different hypotheses about the language, coming up with generalizations, and testing them out was spot on. It gave a good sense of the excitement of fieldwork on a new language, as well as of some of the frustrations.”
The linguistics blog they mention has still photos from the film showing Louise’s office, with Chomsky books and a framed photo of Chomsky. A reader asks, “Will the movie reveal the answer we really all want to know? What will a Martian scientist think of human languages?” Also this:
Eric Heisserer, the screenwriter and co-producer of Arrival, chimes in to tell us that despite all the Chomskyana in Dr. Banks’s office, Dan Everett is her favorite!
Everett is the linguist who in Wolfe’s telling has blown up Chomsky’s theory of language and opened up the field to other, non-evolutionary understandings. I’m not going to take any position on the bitter feud between Everett and Chomsky’s followers. But if you haven’t read Wolfe’s delightful and brief book, you must. It’s a pleasure and drives Darwinists mad.
Source: Evolution News & Views