How Would You Start A Conversation With An Alien?

How would you start a conversation with an alien? Could you use Clean Language?

That’s just one of the thoughts that’s been buzzing round my brain since watching the provocative movie Arrival last night.

Here’s the set up. Aliens have landed… and they aren’t much like humans. The central character (played by Amy Adams) is a linguist who has the job of getting them talking, to find out what they’re here for.

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-16-02-25As she sets about her work, she provides a beautiful example of Clean modelling. While the military men around her bring in a great big assumption – that the aliens’ thinking will be all about war and conquest – she accepts she has no idea how they think.

So, she starts at the very beginning. To ask, for example, “What is your purpose?” and have a hope of a meaningful answer, she needs to know if they understand the concept of a question, and the idea of a collective “you”, before getting into the big stuff around “purpose”.

It reminded me very much of David Grove’s work with Clean Hieroglyphics and Pronoun-Scapes. And it was very Clean: minimise your own presuppositions and metaphors, and create space for the other person (or “person”) to speak.

Her Clean attitude gets results, and I don’t think it’s to much of a plot-spoiler to say that communication is established… with fascinating consequences.

(There’s an inspired plot theme I won’t reveal involving Sapir-Whorf. Is this the first Hollywood film centred on the theory? I know has a pedigree in sci-fi via the Trekkie version, Sapir-Wolf: “talk like a Klingon, think like a Klingon, act like a Klingon”.)

What Adams’ character doesn’t do, though, is ask any actual Clean Language questions. I wish she had! There were a few times when I was willing her to ask, “What kind of X?” to get the aliens straight to the point.

But that would have sliced through a great chunk of plot… and we wouldn’t have come anywhere near as close to World War 3. We might even have got through a whole sci-fi film without any kind of gun being fired… and that would never do 🙂

  • Have you seen the film? What do you make of it? How would you start a conversation with an alien? Please comment below.
  • Well done to the guys at Richmond Odeon for letting us see the film even though the cinema’s computer system prevented them from taking payment. Much appreciated!

3 thoughts on “How Would You Start A Conversation With An Alien?”

  1. I really enjoyed the movie. The stereotypical characters were there but they were not the focus too much, the story was a lovely twist on experiences shown through the film. Some I was not clear whether they were the aliens raising them or pure flashes of her own history.
    I didn’t question the physical time twist of meeting her husband some years after he left and their daughter had been ill. In her case I guess that she had the mindset and their language allowed time to be perceived/experienced differently.
    I wonder whether the alien line about needing help in 3000 years leeds into other movies, I do hope so if they are as good as this one. I will look at the film credits to remind me of the book it was based upon.
    The two times I considered communication were her explanation using that simple question of why she went back to basic language. The other was her discussing the approach using chess, that would create a winner/loser.

  2. Hi Judy, I cajoled my wife (also a linguist by training) into seeing this last night by citing Sapir-Whorf. We both came away chatting mainly around the final plot twist and what we would do with “knowledge that we weren’t prepared for” and the blessing of not knowing our destiny.

    In terms of clean questions, obvious ones would be regarding sequence- what happened before and after? But the cyclical nature of these aliens’ time scuppered us!

    Then we thought that describing something inevitably requires comparison to other shared experiences- movement and position, for example. Even up and down are problematic for these aliens so, we had to start again.

    Finally we agreed one thing that satient beings all share is a will and intent. So “What is your purpose?” and the follow up:”What difference does this make?” was genius!

  3. Pingback: Can Our Metaphors Change The Way We Meet Online? - Judy Rees

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