Read More: Popular Science
In the sci-fi film Arrival, alien spaceships suddenly appear above twelve locations on Earth. The aliens—seven-limbed creatures called heptapods—are willing to let a few humans come aboard for quick chats, but there's no universal translator gizmo to help the two species parley. Instead, each country calls upon its top linguists, including Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams. Banks is whisked away to the nearest spaceship in Montana, tasked with untangling the heptapods’ languages and figuring out why they have come to Earth. To find out how linguists might react when faced with an extraterrestrial language, the filmmakers consulted Jessica Coon, a professor of linguistics at McGill University in Montreal. “These aren’t your typical Star Trek aliens that have two arms and two legs and a vocal system just like ours, but happen to be a different color or have strange bumps on their heads,” Coon says. “They’re really not human looking at all and the sounds that they make are completely nonhuman sounds, and that’s probably more likely what we would expect to find.” We asked Coon about what the film gets right about field linguistics, why alien languages will be difficult to decipher, and how linguists might go about doing so.