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The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
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Arrival and the Language of Film
If you haven't seen the movie Arrival yet, and you like xenolinguistics or first contact flix, go do that first.

This article discusses the use of filmmaking grammar to show, rather than tell, the effects of studying xenolinguistics. It contains spoilers, and my comments below are somewhat spoilery too.


This is, to date, one of the better xenolinguistic movies I have seen. It makes a solid attempt to set up first contact and xenolinguistic exchanges between humans and aliens. Bonus points for a military character who asks for, receives, understands, and then backs basic explanations of why it is necessary to do certain things such as introduce the written word. Yay Swadesh list!

Also, that bit about language being a weapon? It's right, but nobody ever seems to believe linguists who say it. Suzette Haden Elgin had the same problem. So I'll just join the chorus: language is the first weapon drawn in a fight, and if you can win that round, you can prevent the conflict from going any farther. People don't just start randomly punching or shooting; the only time a physical fight happens without warning is if the language part has been dislocated from it, but it's always there somewhere in the background. Here is your weapon. Like a knife, it can cut your food or your enemies or yourself. Use it wisely.

Arrival is also one of the best nonlinear narratives I've seen in any format. This is extremely difficult to do well, because humans tend to think in linear time. If you're trying to understand farmemory, or globular-time memory, this is the best example I can point you to, precisely because it shows rather than telling. That's exactly what flashforwards are like: momentary blinks that give you valuable insights, or more rarely, waves of emotion that can knock you on your ass. Much the same is true of sidelines where you're aware of things that have or are or could be happening in alternate timelines. A similar effect also works for writers who are fluent enough to have conversations with characters from other worlds.

This type of perception is one of the most fundamental things that makes me different from other people, and boy howdy did I ever sympathize with the hera of this film. It's a tremendous advantage, but it can break your heart and it is something most people will never understand. They can and will dump you over this. One of the more fascinating tricks it can do -- and I have no idea who it is but someone behind this film obviously can do it or knows someone who can, because I don't think it's been written out before -- is spread out the impact of loss. You get ripples, long before something happens, waves of grief or joy. That means you may grieve someone's passing before they die, or in this case, before they're even born; but it also means that the actual event is more familiar and less shattering. It's also less complete. When you are aware of time as a mass, rather than a line, you can remember and perceive that connection in ways which are comforting, even though you are not with the person at the present moment. That changes the way people move through the world, our choices and priorities and problem-solving approach. It's how we can see around corners sometimes. It is what enables acceptance and nonattachment, at least for some folks. I'm not so good at those, but can manage the related skill of unwanting moderately well. It's behind the radical compassion that drives lamas and bodhisattvas, or in this case, aliens asking for help from humans they know perfectly well are going to shoot at them. When you routinely perceive in more dimensions than other people, it changes everything. But it's worth it.

Time is an ocean, not a river. And love transcends even time. Entropy only looks powerful from the bottom of a temporal gravity well. Learn to swim, and it loses its grip.

Arrival is a great way to dip your toes in the surf.

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