A Translator for E.T.

by Kate Sheridan, BA&Sc’14

If aliens ever landed on planet Earth, humans would have a whole lot of questions for them. Where did they come from? Why are they here? And—if there weren’t any translators in their crew—how can we communicate with them?

That scenario is the premise of a new film, Arrival, which premieres in theatres across North America on November 11. The movie revolves around a fictional linguistics expert, Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), who must work with the military when aliens actually do show up. Can she decipher the aliens’ language—and determine if they come in peace?

The movie was filmed in Montreal and when the filmmakers went looking for a linguistics scholar to consult on the screenplay and offer on-set advice, they turned to McGill.

Enter Jessica Coon, an associate professor in McGill’s Department of Linguistics. While initially wary, Coon was soon intrigued – especially when she realized what the movie’s source material was. She’d read the short story on which the film is based—“Story of Your Life”—while she was in high school.

As a consultant, Coon and another colleague in her department, Morgan Sonderegger, had a few jobs. They supplied feedback on the film’s script, and Coon worked with the set crew. “Working with the set crew was so fun. I had no idea how much work goes into movie sets,” Coon says.

Sequences that take place in the code-breaking tent where military cryptographers struggle to crack the aliens’ language, feature words that Coon wrote on whiteboards to lend that process a more authentic air. Words like “articulators.”

Associate professor of linguistics Jessica Coon with some graphic representations of the alien words that appear in Arrival.
The prints were created for the film by a graphic artist (Photo: Owen Egan)

The articulators that humans use to form speech include our tongue, teeth and lips. “[The aliens] don’t look human at all, their vocal tracts and their mouths or whatever they’re using to make language is nothing like ours,” says Coon. In a situation like that, the military experts would probably be thinking a lot about articulators.

Coon also annotated a sample of the aliens’ written language and even offered up her office as an example of what a linguist’s workspace might look like. Some of her books even wound up in the film; the crew rented the contents of her bookshelves to help fill the office of the Louise Banks character.

“[The Banks character] worked on ‘exotic’ languages, or languages that aren't commonly studied, and she's done that in the field in different faraway locations,” says Coon. “So [the filmmakers] wanted someone I think who'd had that experience, specifically.”

The McGill scholar fit the bill. Coon’s work has taken her to Latin America to study the structure of Mayan languages. As a syntactician, Coon’s goal is to identify basic parts of languages and how people use them to build words and sentences. To do her work, she goes into communities where she will listen to conversations or ask people who speak the language questions about how they use it.

“We might ask a speaker, ‘How would you say this,’ or we might try to construct examples and ask if it is also okay to say it another way—to sort of test how a construction works,” she explains.

Linguistics – the scientific study of human language – is mostly built on theories about the similarities and possible differences between all languages. Many of these theories were developed after studying languages like French, English or German, but linguists are interested in all languages – not just widely-spoken and –studied ones.

“As the field is progressing, more and more people are trying to bring in information from less-studied languages to make sure that our theories can account for them,” Coon explains.

Still, Coon reckons that linguistics has its limits. “Once aliens land, all bets are off,” she jokes. “We think we have some ideas about human cognition and how that works, but no one has ever had to learn an alien language before—as far as we know.”

Though an alien landing may be science fiction, some of the themes explored in the movie focus on what it means to be human. ”I think one thing the film does a good job of highlighting is how central human language is to identity,” says Coon.

“Thinking especially about under-documented and endangered languages, these are sort of especially critical to study because a lot of them are at pretty serious risk of no longer being spoken.”

Coon has experience in trying to help nurture such languages. In 2011, she received funding for a project to assist First Nations communities in their efforts to preserve Mi’gmaq, a language mostly spoken in eastern Quebec and the Maritimes. The project aims to develop digital tools to help people who want to learn the language.

While Coon’s days on a movie set are over, she jokes that the experience might open other doors some day.

“Maybe if aliens do show up now, I'll be the one they call.”

Top photo: Amy Adams as a linguistics expert attempting to communicate with aliens in a scene from Arrival.

published in October, 2016