Time, Aliens, and Language


If you have not yet seen the movie “Arrival,” and plan to do so, then you may want to read this blog after you see the movie. Not everything will be spoiled, just a little.

Amy Adams’ character has a special gift…or tool…or weapon: She can see into the future. There are several instances of this in the movie, sometimes making it difficult to determine what has passed and what is yet to come. This gift…or tool…or weapon plays a significant role and even is related to her job as a linguist trying to communicate with the aliens. The aliens’ verbal language (grunts and squeals) is unrelated to their “written” arrival-languagelanguage which is a circular ink squirt with numerous tails, knobs, and other irregularities. Like pictograms or ideograms, each stands for an idea or phrase.

These alien “words” may seem like nothing more than a fanciful scribble were it not for a comment she makes that our thinking is determined by our language. In other words, the language we speak actually affects the way we think. That’s a rather startling idea. My use of English and its particular format and sentence structure and pronouns and verb tenses actually causes me to think in a particular way—in an American-English way. And if my native tongue were Mandarin or the Khosian click language, I would naturally think in a different way.

At first, this seems like a great surprise, but a bit of reflection leads me to believe that it is entirely true. How often have we known someone from a different culture, a different language, who thinks very differently than us? And not just because they are from a unique culture and have had different experiences, but because they process information and arrive at conclusions in their own unique way.

So how is the ability to see into the future related to the way language affects our thinking? In the movie, the past, present, and future are sometimes blurred—or at least not independent of one another and not necessarily “sequential.” Obviously, this is very different from our experience and expectations. But the aliens have a particular reason for coming to Earth, and it is related to their view of time. And so their thinking about time is reflected in their language: their nonlinear view of time is reproduced in the non-linearity of their circular “words”—their words that fold back on themselves and never really end, never really stand alone.

What could such a movie scene have to do with me? Well, how does my thinking about time affect my life and my language now? How has my language affected the way I think and plan and live? And when it comes specifically to “time,” have I limited my thinking and my actions because I do not see myself as living an eternal life? An eternal life that begins now, in this life?

How would my life change if I really believe I now possess life eternal?