Language in Circles – Analysis of its effect on thinking and the plausibility of Arrival

So, an English title? What’s happening, you might think. No worries. As you might know, I’m in Sydney right now, doing a language course, and since I am basically made up of “English” now, it only appears reasonable to write an article in English since I would consider everything else fake.
Why fake? I’ve been carrying around this idea about writing a text on “language” for a long time and I recently happened to realise that I had a dream in English and have become used to thinking in English as well, so I thought now would be the perfect time to bring this text to life!

Language has always played an important role in my life. Born an immigrant, I always had to find a compromise between my mother tongue, Albanian, and the language I heard every day, German/Swiss German to the extent to which I can’t really say any more what my “native language” is. That’s maybe why I’m so fascinated by it. But how come, that I have become a wannabe linguist now?
I often asked myself whether I behaved differently when I thought in Albanian or in German. Interestingly enough, I can’t remember any situation where I’d think in Albanian. Have I become so absorbed by the Swiss mentality that I neglected my roots completely or does my subconscious somehow deliberately try to suppress my Balkan origin? What does that say about me or my status of integration? I don’t know. What I know is that English, at least, has found its way into my head.

Lately, it has been a golden age for every sci-fi fan. Starting with Gravity, the Kubrick-esque science-fiction-movie has had a revival. I mean just look at the vast amount of really convincing sci-fi flicks that hit our theatres in the last years: Gravity (which rocked the Academy Awards due to its astounding cinematography and sound design), Interstellar ( a personal favourite of mine, everyone who knows me knows how much I value this particular Nolan movie), The Martian (Ridley Scott’s stepping stone for the upcoming Alien: Covenant after he had let us down with Prometheus), Arrival (which we will talk about in greater detail soon) and quite recently, Life (which is awesome, even though just being a spiritual Alien5, I liked it very much!). And this is not enough, I’m only focusing on the basic “space station, being stranded on a planet, maybe there’s aliens too” kind of sci-fi, but we had Cloud Atlas and many more too! And even my very rigid categorisation has Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner: 2049 (which technically doesn’t fit into my very random definition, but I want it to fit anyhow) in the pipeline.

However, one stands out for me: Arrival. It’s a strange movie, isn’t it? How would you pitch a movie that’s about language… and aliens?! Bundled with a rather complex understanding of time (kind of like the one in Looper) that must have been a hard sell. Nevertheless, there was a precedent: Ted Chiang’s “Story of your Life” is a fascinating short story, one of the most fascinating I’ve ever read in fact, which Denis Villeneuve then chose to adapt into a blockbuster movie. Perhaps the investors just trusted him because he had proven himself to be one of the best directors of our time, and maybe he was just very convincing. Anyway, we’re very lucky that he did manage to do that for we would have missed out on what is probably the most unique and thought-provoking science-fiction masterpiece of our time!

So, since you know how language and how it changes you and the way you perceive things has accompanied me throughout my life, what could the topic of this text be except for revolving around Arrival? I once read a criticism of Arrival and one of the negative aspects mentioned was that the suspension of disbelief wouldn’t work on such a far-fetched idea such as language changing the way you perceive “time”. Well, I must disagree to a certain extent, and I’ll show you why.

I happened to find myself dreaming in English the other day. It’s not that big a deal, you might think. Yeah, it isn’t. However, it resulted in me thinking that somehow my character changed when I thought in another language, the way I reason changed too, it just somehow shapes you. But is that only my mind playing games on me, is it something I want to believe for the sake of the argument, or does language really have that high an impact on human behaviour?
I once heard that Estonian has no future forms due to the country always having been in distress – there was no time to think about the future. I also once heard that in one particular Eskimo language there are no words for “right and left”. Instead, they rely on the four cardinal directions. I can’t produce any proof of this but I was told that it was shown that people who used that language were very good at orientating themselves, but only if they have a way of finding out where north is. In a tunnel, for example, they would even have difficulties distinguishing between their right and left hand.
Fascinating, isn’t it? I was reminded of how in Orwell’s 1984 the totalitarian government tried to suppress rebellious thoughts by implementing a new language, Newspeak, which would lack all the words necessary for forming ideas and plans about uprisings, uproars, mutiny, revolts and individualism. In a nutshell: Everything the government did not like could be prevented by just removing the respective word from the common vocabulary.

Rebellion, savagery and individualism are hard-wired into our brains, you might say, there is no way that could be inhibited for ever. You might be right for we have no way of examining this, but is this not worth thinking about? Discussing this in school, I’ve always been the one claiming that the creativity and determination of humankind be stronger than any restriction laid upon it. I understood why it was worth talking about but, to be honest, I did not really take it seriously. This was until I read A Clockwork Orange.

While, especially nowadays, everyone knows 1984 it might be worth summarising the key points of A Clockwork Orange since not everyone knows Kubrick’s adaptation and even fewer have actually read the fantastic novel. Briefly: In A Clockwork Orange the author asks the question, whether “being good without a choice to be bad” is better than “being bad based on one’s own decision”. What good is it to be good, when firstly, one has not chosen it oneself and secondly, one had no other choice anyway. “But this has nothing to do with language!” No, it doesn’t. However, what makes Burgess’ novel so good and the reason why the movie will, in my opinion, never surpass the original is that the criminal protagonist speaks in his own slang: “Nadsat”. Burgess developed his own jargon especially for this book! This “language” consists of a wild mixture of mostly Russian words with some English and German terms.

Although this makes it hard to read in the beginning, the novel excels through sucking the reader in its world once he has adapted to this new language. When I read it, I started to think in Nadsat, I started to think like Alex and his terrible “droogs” who committed unpronounceable cruelties and I started not really being shocked by what they did any more… There is this one particular scene where Alex invites two little girls to his apartment to show them his music collection and rapes them afterwards. Cruel as this scene is, I read over it. They raped and mistreated women on every single page of this book until then, why would I care?

It might just be general deadening but I believe that Nadsat was key to this phenomenon as well. Through getting familiar with Alex’ language I started to think like him. Now that I think of it, his crimes are so ridiculously severe, I can only laugh now. And at the time then… I just reread the scene to fully grasp why I had skimmed over it. Burgess’ artificial language somehow legitimised Alex’ crimes.

So, is it really so far-fetched to say that through learning a new language you can even change the way you perceive time? Generally, we perceive time as a line – hence the word “timeline”. We are in the present: moving forward you get to the future and moving backward you’ll explore the past. Time has a direction. Everyone gets this. The same principle is applicable to language: Every sentence has a flow. The last one was in the present. The last one used the past to describe which tense the prior sentence had and still has. Sometimes you can even see a flow – the timeline – in all its variations in one sentence only, if you look hard enough and focus on that.

However, Heptapod, the language, mainly in its written form, which Ted Chiang “invented” and Arrival reused, tries to express every aspect and every thought put into a sentence at once. There is no direction. Theoretically, you should be able to read a sentence backwards, upside down, fragmented… but wait – maybe “to read” is the wrong word: You see one sign – representing the whole sentence, meaning, thought – and you get it. There is no reading since reading implies that there is a process; a process of moving forward letter by letter. You just get it, you understand it by just seeing it. Take Chinese for example: Chinese signs are not letters, they are words. Now expand this: Signs are not words, they are sentences. And one step further: Sentences become intentions.

This way everything about language changes! Our alphabet consisting of 26 letters is able to express every thought possible. We just rearrange the letters every time. Heptapod on the other hand, has no letters. Every time you want to say something, you basically invent a new sign for it. It might even be plausible for everyone to have a unique sign for “I love you”, with all your feelings, your intonation and personal background put into that one sign. Isn’t that fascinating?

So, if you can say everything you ever wanted at once, in one single sign, why shouldn’t you also be capable of seeing time, the past, present and future at once? Maybe we need to change our word for time. Since the one thing that never stops is time, it inexorably keeps moving forward, it doesn’t really fit a concept of simultaneity. If time goes forward, then something must go backward too: Let’s call that “anti-time”. And if you move forward along the “timeline” you move in the direction of time, and backward in the direction of anti-time, what is it called to oversee the whole thing? What is the line itself called? Duration.
Alright, so if you can overcome our innate understanding of language being straightforward, letter by letter, sentence by sentence until you get the whole “thing”, this will open up your mind to understand all things simultaneously and vice versa.

Since what we see shapes our language, and our language shapes the way we see, I hope you see Arrival in a different light now.
What does this all mean for me now? My scepticism of Orwell’s approach with Newspeak was influenced by my experience with Burgess’ Nadsat which then enabled me to enjoy Arrival even more than I would have in the first place. And I use this as a means of explaining rationally why I think even I myself, my character, changed when I started talking, thinking and even dreaming in English 24/7.

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