I’m a few chapters into the recent film Arrival. (I intend to finish watching over the next two weeks so if you’ve seen it and are going to see me, please: no spoilers!)
The story begins with Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics college professor who’s in class the day that 12 giant pods from an extraterrestrial civilization touch down at random points around the world. The US military recruits Banks to interpret communications from the visitors, and so she joins technicians and scientists in the US and in other countries to engage the aliens, parse their responses,and figure out what they’re doing on Earth.
Early on in the story, Dr. Banks and her scientist colleague Ian Donnelly banter about Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, two linguists whose work is often collapsed into the phrase “the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.”
This so-called hypothesis is a network of 20th Century neurolinguistic theories codified and even strawmanned after Sapir’s and Whorf’s death. They didn’t formulate it together, and researchers disagree on whether they formulated at all, but the hypothesis named after them includes the ideas that language shapes or even determines cognition, and linguistic differences between groups (especially cultures) represent cognitive differences between them.
In the original researchers’ words:
We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.” —Benjamin Whorf
It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group.” —Edward Sapir
These ideas have attracted counterarguments and criticisms since the 1930s and 1940s when Sapir and Whorf published and the skeptics have ground to stand on.
It must not be entirely impossible for people to communicate across language groups or conceptual differences. Though we may struggle when we try, we do actually do it, and we do it every day.
None of us perceives colors in the same way, but we can still have transcendent moments with others about an vivid rainbow.
Twenty-eight Adventists describing the denomination’s 28 “fundamental beliefs” would offer as many distinct interpretations of these beliefs as people in the room. Despite these variations, we’d still share the category “Adventist,” as well as some common practices inspired by our tradition.
What Arrival does is represent language as a portal into thought. Inky circles with tails and flecks represent complex meanings and not a mere transcription of sound. Its characters interpret this graphic language and the creatures who use it, and suggest that my cultures’ language, symbols, and structure have sculpted me too.
These matters apply to much more than formal language group. They apply to culture, which is why multicultural communities are often so rich in both creativity and conflict. They also apply to professional and disciplinary communities: contemporary business and military writers now encourage workers to form cross-function teams and teams-of-teams to ensure that they don’t silo either information or organizational meanings.
It’s so easy to take much about the communication process for granted, including how our primary languages lock us into specific ways of thinking and articulating. What more I might learn about people, about life, or even about myself, from studying graphic languages and other symbol systems unlike my native tongue?