Movie Review: Arrival

I took a trip to my local picture house recently to view one of the talkies. I’ve not reviewed a movie before but as this one touches on linguistics I felt like it wouldn’t be too out of place on this blog. 

There will be **spoilers** below. 

You have been warned. 

Arrival is a sci-fi flick in which Aliens come to Earth and humans try to communicate with them. The hero is a linguist. Predictably this has linguists very excited. Ben Zimmer, for instance has written that the film “does a remarkably good job of depicting how a linguist goes about her work” and Rob Drummond made a similar point on ‘Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review’. David Adger noted thatThe linguistics was very good“. 

I can understand the excitement at having a linguistics prof as a hero and I have to agree that it was a well made film. However, the contrarian in me wasn’t able to look past some of the linguistics and just enjoy the film. In fact, the whole central premise of the plot falls to pieces because it just isn’t backed up by what we know about languages.  Yes, I’m being a kill joy. Yes it’s just a movie. But here’s a list of the three things that bothered me in the film. The first two peeves are relatively minor, the last one was a clanger. 

The parts that rankled were the following (apologies if I’ve mis-remembered any parts). 

*peeve 1: linguist means linguist means linguist. 
Our hero was introduced as a linguist. If you’re not sure, in academia that means ‘someone who studies languages’. It doesn’t mean ‘someone who speaks a lot of languages’. Those people are usually called polyglots. Our hero is a linguist and a polyglot, speaking Mandarin, Farsi, Sanskrit and is shown giving a lecture on “romance languages”. 

OK, sure, some linguists do speak a lot of languages to varying degrees. But the film starts with the military thanking her for a Farsi translation. Translation is a hard job and linguistics is hard job and there isn’t that much overlap between them. Though, maybe she’s just insanely talented and that’s how she pays for her ridiculously expensive house? To her credit the linguist who assisted on the film fought this:

Coon unsuccessfully lobbied the filmmakers to change a line describing Louise, arguing that it misrepresents what linguists do: “You’re at the top of everyone’s list,” Forest Whitaker’s Army colonel says to Louise, “when it comes to translations.”

So well done and bad luck to Jessica Coon. By the by, The Guardian, rather densely asks why Chomsky wasn’t a consultant on the film:

Why, you ask, did they not approach Noam Chomsky, with his understanding of “deep structure” in language? Perhaps Prof Chomsky did not care to help America’s military-intelligence complex

Putting aside the fact that Chomsky’s work has, in fact been funded by “America’s military-intelligence complex” and that he famously dislikes the kind of field work linguistics that the hero of the film is involved in, it is not clear to me how knowledge of ‘deep structure‘ would have helped a linguistic dealing with a language they had no knowledge of. 

*peeve 2: The white board scene 
Our linguist hero is trying to convince the army that her method is the right way to go about things. She writes on a white board:

What is your purpose on Earth? 

She attempts to explain that in order to ask the aliens questions, she first needs to make sure they know what a question is. She goes on to make other points concerning things like vocabulary. This is all fine and quite sensible but there are a few clangers here. first she says (paraphrase) ‘we need to make sure they understand the difference between you singular and (crosses out the ‘r’ in ‘your’) you plural.’ In English there is no difference between singular and plural you (I -we, s/he -them, you you). 

She then says ‘we need to make sure they understand ‘why questions‘. Now I’ve heard of ‘wh’ questions, but ‘why questions’…? The sentence on the white board seemed to be lacking an essential item in what could be defined as a ‘why question’…that is, a ‘why’. Perhaps the script originally had the question as ‘why are you here?’ who knows. 

Next, (and this is really nit picky), if we’re talking to aliens, do we really need the words ‘on Earth’? I mean, are these aliens going to get confused by ‘what is your purpose’ and think we might be asking what their plans for Sunday afternoon are? 

*peeve 3: Eskimo’s and their many many words for snow. 
All of the other issues I could have happily put aside. However, when the words Sapir-Whorf were mentioned I tensed up. It’s hard to imagine something annoying me more than learning styles…but here it is. With this in mind, why have I never written about it before? It’s such an attractive and widely believed idea, that I really felt I needed quite a powerful response to it…and I’m really quite lazy. Linguist John McWhorter wrote an excellent book on the topic called ‘the Language Hoax’ and even he was reluctant to criticise the movie: 

If you’re not familiar with Sapir-Whorf I’ll present a very reductionist overview here. Basically it can be divided into two version. The first (which is the most attractive to click bait headlines) postulates that the language we speak allows us to think certain thoughts. It’s also known as linguistic determinism. The second is the idea that the language we speak influences the way we think. This is known as linguistic relativism

There’s a lot to say about this, but the TL:DR is that the strong form while being very attractive is patently false, whereas the weak form has some empirical support. The idea that the language you speak makes certain thoughts unthinkable (the strong version) is so seductive, it’s very hard to resist.  

Language can obviously influence though (like if I ask you to think about elephants and you do then my language influenced your thought) but it would be a brave soul who argued that the lack of a word for ‘he’ and ‘she’ in spoken Chinese means that Chinese people have no concept of whether they are talking about a man or a woman. One would have to wonder how we ever come up with concepts and then name them were this theory true. 

The most commonly known manifestation of this theory is the ever expanding number of words Eskimos are alleged to have for ‘snow‘. It started off as about 7 words in 1911 and reached 100 by 1984. All of this leading Geoff Pullum to pen his classic ‘The Great Eskimo vocabulary hoax‘. This even led to the creation of the term ‘snowclone‘ which describes “some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists” such as “If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.“. 

The Eskimo Snow theory is attractive because it posits that Eskimos are surrounded by so much snow that their language represents their increased sensitivity to it, while us dumb Westerners just see all the subtle variety and diversity as plain old ‘snow’. It’s an attractive theory and the original Sapir-Whorf hypothesis had good intentions. Back in the days when Latin was considered the pinnacle of language, Sapir introduced the idea that rather than other languages being ‘primitive’ these languages offered insights into the world we would never be able to even perceive:

“Human beings… are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society… The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.”(Sapir

 It was social justice of its day, but sadly it was not true. 

The film arrival takes the strong form of the theory to its logical conclusion. Learning the language of the heptopods, literally changes the protagonists outlook to an incredible degree. The Alien language is represented in circles and we are told the aliens have no concept of ordinal numbers. This, we later learn is because the aliens do not share our concept of time. In fact, the heptopods experience all time at once. Thus their sentence appear in circles. Once the protagonist learns their language she starts to be able to see into the future. The language she learns literally changes her perception of the world. 

How would circular sentences lead to a timeless world view? It’s hard to say anything about an alien language but as it is translatable, in the film into English sentences like ‘we bring a tool’ there are certain things we can say. Firstly, word order is essential in English. ‘We bring a tool’ is a lot different from ‘a tool brings us’ or ‘Bring us a tool’. If there was no case marking in the alien language (for instance ‘I’ is the subject in English but the same word is ‘me’ when it’s the object.) the there would have to be a lot of guessing as to the meaning of the sentences. If there were markers of case, then the circular nature of the sentence is really just an artistic flourish. 

Lastly, at what point would someone learning a new language obtain the ability to see into the future? After the first lesson? after a few months? Would it happen all at once, or gradually? People don’t tend to hit a point at which on Tuesday they were OK at French but on Wednesday they were fluent. So when does the new world view kick in? 

To its credit the film handles this point quite well. As Amy Adams eventually learns a language which makes the concept of ‘time’ disappear, so it follows she must have always possessed the ability to speak the language. The her in the past who couldn’t speak the language exists in the same time as the her who can speak the language. But presumably they also exist simultaneously with the her who couldn’t. Best not to think too much about this. 

In short the language can’t do what the film proposes it does and even if it could it wouldn’t lead to mind altering powers. But really….who cares? It’s a good film go and watch it! 

Live by the sword…

Ranting about the lack of precision in language is one thing and quite a popular thing too, but being able to weed out all the imprecision in your own speech is another. I love “the skeptics guide to the universe” and James Randi, with his million dollar prize. I’m trying to listen to their entire back catalogue of podcasts (over 8 years worth) and enjoying it greatly.

The only thing that bothers me is that at times they can be quite prescriptive about language use. This doesn’t seem fitting for sceptics, -but at the same time, its hardly surprising for me to see scientists muscle in on linguists’ territory.

Anyway, episode 181 features a section with James Randi complaining about imprecision in language use; redundant’ phrases like “unfortunate tragedy”, “rich millionaires” and a “deadly fatality”. Fine, go ahead and complain about this stuff, but if you are going to complain Randi, then in the very next breath, don’t say something like this:

[interviewees] begin every single response with the phrase “well…”

Hold on, every single? As a oppose to what? Surely if you want to remove redundancy this should be “every response”. Randi has shown here that it’s a lot easier to pick at things you don’t like than to actually remove all of the supposed imperfections from your speech. If you’re going to criticize language use you’d better make sure yours is perfect. Five seconds before he makes this ‘blunder’ Randi says:

I understand that this is only an expression but it’s a careless one.

And here’s another expression “live by the sword, die by the sword.”


I used to hear people say “don’t believe everything you read in the papers”. Now I think a better phrase might be “believe nothing at all, you read in the papers”. From completely fictional accounts of events which didn’t happen to wholly dangerous medical advice.  

The list is endless and I won’t bore you, but I do want to share a story that tickled me. This is the story of Alun Morgan who woke up from a coma suddenly able to speak a foreign language. I like this story because it’s so absolutely ridiculous I can’t get angry, I just found it almost charming. At first glance it’s an incredible story:

Alun Morgan, 81, was evacuated to Wales in World War II as a child and had never learned the language.But when he regained consciousness after the serious stroke, he was FLUENT in it.(the sun)

Wow! The guy became fluent just by having a stroke?! amazing! 

An English man woke from a stroke to discover that the only language he could speak was Welsh. Alun Morgan, 81, was forced to re-learn his native tongue, despite the fact that he had never been able to speak fluent Welsh. (Daily Mail)

OMG!  That’s incredible but didn’t you say he used to live in Wales as a child?

During his time there he was surrounded by Welsh speakers but never learned the language himself (Telegraph)

Astounding, so what you’re saying is he basically knew no Welsh,but just started speaking it! Tell me more!

An 81-year-old Englishman woke after a serious stroke to discover he could speak Welsh – despite spending only a few months there as an evacuee during the Second World War. Morgan grew up speaking English, but after his stroke, lost the ability to communicate in any language but Welsh, even though he was last there 70 years ago. (independant)

Ah so he only there for a few months and he never learnt the language but he became fluent…well in that case this really is incredible news. Unless there are some other details that you’re perhaps not telling us?

Apart from the single, short spell, the retiree has spent his life in England,

ok Go on…

although his grandmother – with whom he lived during the war – was a Welsh speaker, as is his wife.

Oh you just thought you’d drop that in there did you? So his wife is a a Welsh speaker as was his grandmother. hmmm well, still he only lived there for a few months right? So not really enough time to become fluent.

He lived in Aberaeron, in mid Wales, for four years from the age of nine (BBC)

 Huh!? So now a few months is a few years!??! And while he was a child, -y’know that time in our lives when language learning tends to be a bit less troublesome?!

Both Mr Morgan’s parents also spoke Welsh (Mail)

Srsly? are you kidding me?

 “We were London Welsh and I learned a bit of Welsh when I was in London. Then, when I was evacuated to Wales during the war, we spoke it virtually all the time because my aunt didn’t speak much English, so I had to pick it up very quickly.”(BBC)

So what you’re saying is, he was basically a Welsh speaker from a Welsh family who went to live in Wales for about four years  as a kid and became fluent and who lives with a Welsh speaking woman. For some reasons newspapers think it is somehow incredible that this person might be able to speak Welsh.  basically these stories should have been titled “Fluent Welsh speaker, from Welsh family who used to lived in Wales and is married to a Welsh woman, finds he can speak fluent Welsh.” Yeah, sure, it’s interesting that the guy seemingly couldn’t use English for a few days but he had a stroke and the brain is a complex organ as far as I can tell nothing miraculous happened here. The excellent Steve Novella of Skeptics Guide to the Universe who is a neurologist notes of a similar story of a young Croatian girl becoming magically fluent in German:

Now the interesting part is that after she woke up from the coma she could speak German a lot more fluently than before and not a word in Croatian. My guess is that Sepsis caused a brain damage in left temporal lobe. Probably mostly in Broca’s Area, thus disabling her in speaking Croatian but not damaging her knowledge of German language. At that point her brain probably switched to best alternative and her passive knowledge of German sprang to life. Without possibility to fall back to Croatian vocabulary there is no dilemma in which words to choose and how to use them so her German must have sounded a lot better to doctors and her parents. (neurologica blog)

This story like so many others is reproduced almost word for word on many thousands of websites. Who cares about the truth right? It makes a good story, and that’s all that matters.

exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis

If you follow my blog, and you’re a bit of a stickler for language use then you probably think something like “hey, this guy is way too lenient about language!” or “everything I think is wrong, he says is OK!” or something like that. 

With that in mind, today I’m going to talk about a piece of language I unapologetically loathe. I hate it so much that I don’t believe it has any place in the English language (as it is presently used) and should be banned.  The phrase in question is the hideously non-sensical “the exception that proves the rule“.

Whenever I see this phrase it confirms my suspicions that the world is largely insane made even more insane by the fact that people seem satisfied by this a response:

A: Have you noticed how all TEFL teachers are massive lefties?
B: Well, Neil’s a life long member of the Conservative party.
A: well the exception proves the rule.
B: Hmm I suppose you’re right.

We have pedants running around screaming about less/fewer or who/whom (all of which are perfectly reasonable and defensible) and yet when someone utters this illogical bumf -everyone around just sits there nodding.


It is to my mind quite spectacular that this phrase, having no meaning and being so obviously contradictory to all facets of common sense, continues to exist. How would science even operate if this were true? Image the scenario, a scientist discovers a new law of nature, another scientist points out that said law has an exception, the first scientist with tears in her eyes exclaims “well then, it must be true!”

Are we supposed to believe that rules without exceptions, are unproven? A few seconds of thought will confirm to anyone that exceptions do very little to strengthen rules. What has happen here is that the original Latin phrase (see title) has been misunderstood and is now being used in a totally nonsensical way. The original meaning is a (not very useful) phrase indicating that exceptions to rules, show that rules must exist. So if you said to your students “OK, you can speak (native language) in class today”, then what you’re also saying is that usually, the class is English only. The exception to this rule shows that there must be a rule.
Does this make any sense?

There are some folk (me at one time) who have latched onto a faulty etymology, in which it was claimed that “prove” means “test“. So exceptions test rules. This makes more sense but it  unfortunately has two problems. The first problem is that it probably isn’t true, -or at least I’ve seen no evidence it is correct. More importantly, even if it were true, that certainly isn’t how people are using it now. Nowadays it is almost certainly meant to mean “confirm”.
Semantic shift is natural and it’s not at all odd to see a word change meaning, for example uninterested and disinterested, swapped meanings, peruse now means the opposite of what it meant and the word decimate has almost entirely lost its original meaning. The difference here is however, all these words are no fulfilling a useful function in language or at least express something meaningful. “TETPTR” means absolutely nothing. It’s like saying “well, you can prove anything with facts“.
what on earth does this mean?

It is interesting to wonder why people so frequently use a meaningless phrase. One blogger suggests it may come from the deep human desire not to be wrong, -which is certainly possible. It kind of acts as a rebuff when inconstancy has been pointed out. You get to have the last word. describe it neatly as “ignore that thing that disproves my theory; it only proves my theory”.

It reminds me of the similarly silly conversation stopper “I’m entitled to my opinion.”  which seems to mean “I’m not interested in the facts, stop arguing with me dammit.”


I couldn’t care fewer*

I got told off by a guy at work once for saying “We have less students this year”.

“for god’s sake” he said “fewer!”

Especially shameful, supposedly because I’m an English teacher and so should know better. But doesn’t the fact I had lived a good thirty years without knowing better, not perhaps tell us something about this word?  In fact, it’s completely possible that  large numbers of people will live and die in English without knowing that they are getting it ‘wrong’. And the people they are talking to  often don’t know that they are also getting it ‘wrong’. In fact the only people who are bothered seem to be the ones getting it right.
Yeah Jane Moore!  You idiot!

And my god are they bothered. People actually get very worked up about this (check the tweets, right). You can read blogs about just how bothered here, here, here and here. Or here, here, or here. And some more here and here. People really hate this.

So what are the rules?

GrammarGirl, (who I talked about here) gives us this handy guide and it’s actually fairly straightforward. Countable nouns use “fewer” and uncountable nouns use “less”. If that isn’t clear then look at this table:

Time, money, bread
Students, problems potatoes

Simply put, things that you can count, (1 monkey, 2 squirrels, 3 turnips, etc) should be used with ‘fewer’, with other things, like money, (moneys) you should use ‘less’. Simple really, -so why can’t thick thickos like me (and supermarkets) get this into their thick thicko skulls?

Well when we examine GrammarGirl’s advice we find this interesting note:

There are exceptions to these rules

Oh yes?….do go on!

for example, it is customary to use the word less to describe time, money, and distance (2, 3). For example, you could say, “That wedding reception lasted less than two hours. I hope they paid the band less than $400.” So keep in mind that time, money, and distance are different, but if you stick with the quick and dirty tip that less is for mass nouns and fewer is for count nouns, you’ll be right most of the time

Ah-ha! so things are not actually that straight-forward. I don’t want to be right “most” of the time dammit, I want to right all of the time! OK, so just use “fewer” with count nouns, except for time money and distance…right? right, I’ve got it!

But what about weight?  Can I say “I weigh 5kg less than last year” or should it be “I weigh 5kg fewer?” The latter sounds ugly so I’m going to go ahead and add weight to those exceptions.  OK so, time money, distance and weight, got it!

Well not quite, it also seems that you can’t use “fewer” with singular count nouns. For example “that’s one less thing to worry about.” should be wrong but no one say “one fewer thing to worry about”. So is this another exception or do we have to make some ugly compromise like “Now I don’t have so much to worry about”

And what about “less” in the phrases “more or less”? Surely regardless of what number was being referred to  a person would always say less, like “I ate 10 of those cakes, more or less”, but they would never say “more or fewer”. So set phrases seem to be exempt as well. (This is turning out to be as useful as the I before E rule.)
“Illiterate” signs? Hmm

Don’t even get me started on the mind-boggling world of “least number/amount, fewest number/amount”. I’ve never heard anyone get upset about this, but a Google search shows a huge state of disarray. If you’re going to get upset at supermarket signs, then don’t go anywhere near this one. workers in the UK take the least number of paid holidays” says the daily mail, noting later in the same article that they take the fewest. If ‘holidays’ are countable then it should be “fewest”, no? And least number? Shouldn’t it be ‘least amount’ and ‘fewest number’? or just fewest? (head asplodes)

An important question that the people who get angry about this never seem to ask is, -why does  English even need two words for things being smaller in number/amount when we manage to get by fine with one word for things being larger in number? No one has a problem saying “more money, more friends, more time and more stupid grammar rules.” No one gets confused and feels the need to invent a word to fill that gap. So why do people get so upset about this? Why the mindless observance of this useless rule?
Some people might say that we need to retain the historically correct rules of English. That’s a nice idea but as the Motivated Grammar blog notes, this so-called rule has only been around for a few hundred years:

As it turns out, this whole notion that fewer is countable and less is uncountable has been traced back to 1770 by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. And it wasn’t a rule back then, but rather a preference of a single author, Robert Baker.

That’s right, if you’re insisting on this in 2012 then you’re basically peddling the preferences of some eighteenth century dude. You’re getting angry over something someone 200 years ago didn’t like the sound of. You might imagine yourself the arbiter of “good grammar” but you might as well be running around shouting “don’t use the word bully, Jonathan Swift didn’t like it!”

The earliest example of someone getting it “wrong” was Alfred from Batman the Great who in 888ad wrote Swa mid læs worda swa mid ma, swæðer we hit yereccan mayon” or “with less words or with more, whether we may prove it.”. However I don’t think that people are concerned with historical value at all, they are concerned, as always where language is involved, with showing that they are more educated, more discerning and thus better than those oiks who get it wrong. Thus, like so much maven prescriptivism, this is yet another foundationless linguistic Shibboleth.

If we listen to these kinds of people we’ll end up with supermarket signs saying “10 items or fewer”, teachers saying “Write an essay of five-hundred words or fewer” and people being forced to say “that’s one fewer thing to worry about” and let’s be honest, that just sounds crap. Ignore these pedants, and if they insist then tell them that you couldn’t care fewer.

* Thanks to Florentina Taylor for pointing out that there is a difference between the adverbial use of “less” and the adjectival use.


linguistic myths #1 Chinese crises

In the Guardian todayan article started with the sentence “The Chinese, according to John F Kennedy, use two brush strokes to write the word “crisis”. The first stands for danger; the other for opportunity”.  Supposedly this refers to 危機 weiji.
firstly, it’s certainly not two “brush strokes”.  Depending on whether you use traditional or simplified characters, it’s either twelve or twenty two brush strokes.  Two would be miraculous.  ThoughKennedy probably meant two characters.  
secondly, While the wei does indeed mean danger and usually appears in compounds like “dangerous” 危險, ji doesn’t mean opportunity. The mistake perhaps arises because ji appears in the compound 機會 jihui, which doesmean opportunity. However, on its own the character doesn’t mean anything, but most would see it meaning “machine” as it appears in the compounds 飛機 feiji airplane 機器 jiqi machine, 機算計jisuanji calculator,  機車 jiche moped and 機器人 jiqiren robot.

The second problem with this statement is that it leads the reader to a kind of Sapir–Whorfconclusion that’s wholly unwarranted. We are suppose to take from this sound-bite that the Chinese, because of their language, see crises as opportunities (and perhaps, therefore we should learn this from them). However this is very silly and ranks up there with Eskimos having [insert number] words for snow. Take the word “breakfast” which is composed of the word “break” and “fast”; do we actually think about the breaking of a fast when we use this word? I would argue that you would be a very peculiar individual if you did.  If a Chinese reporter indicated that the English  view breakfast as a religious event, or that English speakers were such gluttons that going to bed, and thus not eating, was such a strain it was considered as a “fast” it would seem laughable to us.  

So in short, great for motivational speakers and pithy facebook updates, not much good for linguistics.