Arrival is a 2016 American science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve… It follows linguist Louise Banks, who is enlisted by the U.S. Army to help translate communications from one of several extraterrestrial craft that have appeared across the world. She must find out why they have arrived on Earth before tensions lead into war. (Wikipedia ‘Arrival (film)’)
The process in the film that aliens, called ‘heptapots’ by Greek etymologic sources, and human beings try to understand each other and then trade ideas shows some basics of the semiotics, or more precisely, the linguistic signs.
The core presumption of Saussure’s dyadic model is that a linguistic sign is a link between a concept [signified] and a sound pattern [signifier] (Chandler P9). The film presents a clear explanation. At the beginning of learning each other’s languages, Louise points at herself and her colleague Inn, repeats to utter the sound of ‘human’, and holds a board written characters of this word.
What Louise does here illustrates how a sign works to convey meanings. She uses two examples at present– her and Inn– by pointing at him and herself, to externalize the concept ‘human’ (signified). Then using a specified sound, she connected the concept with a psychological result (signifier) when aliens hear the sound, which also matches with a visible, touchable form — written characters.
A core foundation of semiotics is that there is no logical, or reasonable, or presumable correlation between the concept and the vehicle we use to express it. Just as depicted in the film, after Louise presents her intention to figure out each heptapot’s name, Inn, faced with two puzzling circle symbols, says ‘I would like to say Abbott and Costello’. Any name here works! The left heptapot isn’t called as ‘Abbott’ for any Abbott-y features, neither is the right one, but simply a random link.
One thing in Saussure’s model should be emphasized. In Saussure’s theory,
his ‘signified’ is not to be identified directly with such a referent but is a concept in the mind – not a thing but the notion of a thing (Chandler PP16).
To my understanding, the ‘notion’ here echoes with Plato’s ‘theory of Forms’, the only real and certain which everything — like words and objects — we can express and touch in the world we live in is imitating. Although Saussure may not render his ‘notion’ exclusively supreme as Plato does (or he also does since I only read the simplified, second-hand summary of his works), he still clearly puts both objects and sounds we adopt to refer to a concept in a secondary position. Only concepts and sound patterns are fundamental, not in reality but in mental construction. This mental construction happens twice in the whole process. First, the sender externalizes the concept in his mind with a sound. The sound travels as a wave, hits on the receiver’s mind as a pattern, then — here’s the second mental construction — arouses all his conscious related, and finally represents the concept.
Undoubtedly, Saussure makes his theory clarified and delicate by reducing all definition to the very intrinsic and abstract. In reality, however, Saussure’s model leaves a critical gap between the sender and receiver of the concept. What happens in those two mental construction? Can the concept remain exactly the same through this process? If not, what decides the result?
On this point, the Peircean Model is more practical. In Peirce’s theory, he raises the ‘interpretant’ as a third part of the sign (Chandler pp29) between the ‘represented’ and ‘representamen’, two concepts that roughly correspond with Saussure’s.
Peirce noted that ‘a sign……addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. The sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign’ (Chandler PP20).
Umberto Eco uses the phrase ‘unlimited semiosis’ to refer to the way in which this could lead (as Peirce was well aware) to a series of successive interpretants(Chandler PP20).
Under the summary of Peirce’s by Daniel Chandler, I assume the ‘interpretant’ here refers to ‘the second mental construction’ I mentioned before. This concept can easily explain some phenomenon we are encountering in everyday communication.
The plot of the film can also inspire us on this point. After establishing some basic vocabulary of alien’s language, Louise raises the essential question to heptapots: their purpose coming to the earth.
The answer is presented with a written sign, translated as ‘offer weapon’.
The ‘weapon’ word stirs up enormous trouble in confirming the meaning. For the heptapots, all their unique characteristics from biologic structure, to social forms, cultures, histories — if they also have — and any other effects, resulting from what we human cannot even imagine because we’ve never experienced, construct heptapots’ concept of their ‘weapon’. Some parts of this concept seems similar with human’s concept of ‘weapon’, when Louise uses the methods showed before in the film to establish vocabulary with them, so a translation relationship shapes between two written symbols presented by two sides. This rough process of matching symbols is the whole context human and heptapots share about the concept ‘weapon’. They never communicate further to clarify contents and borders of this concept, or experience the same events to add common memories to this concept. That’s what Louise means when she says ‘We don’t know if they understand the difference between the weapon and the tool.‘
Louise’s also saying, ‘our language like the culture, is messy, and sometimes, one can be both‘, shows the ubiquitous misunderstandings that the sign we use may lead to in the communication. They happen in the process of those two mental constructions.
Any individual expression of meaning is always already embedded in a larger network system of relations which makes it possible (Irvine PP11).
Meanings and values learned and discovered in our sign systems are not “located” “in” anyone’s head or any-where, but are cognitive-social events that we activate and instantiate by using our “cognitive- symbolic resources (Irvine PP10).
Individual is the unit that composes the whole society. Hence, every person is putting bricks to the building of meanings through social events everyone participates in and the history passes on. When we mention the word ‘Chernobyl’, for almost everyone in this world will immediately recall images like nuclear power and radiation and death, even though very few of us was at the present of that event. That is a collective construction of meaning. For people died before the year 1986, that place was just a place, while for people experienced the disaster and luckily survived, the word ‘Chernobyl’ may be related to more personal and detailed psychological reflection like the colorless cloudy sky and the special smelly air of that day. Most parts of individual’s construction shape the concept shared by the whole group, but there must be some little parts remain private or recognized within a limited circle. Just to say the plot of naming two heptapots mentioned before, ‘Abbott’ and ‘Costello’ is only meaningful between Louise and Inn, who have once shared the same experience under common context. In fact, those two heptapots may be acknowledged as ‘Alpha’ and ‘Beta’ on official records by other scientists or officers.
Besides, an interesting, or maybe the only ‘science fictional’ part of this film is the idea that ‘there is no correlation between what a heptapot says and what a heptapot writes; unlike all written human languages, their writing is semasiographic; it conveys meaning; it doesn’t represent sound‘. Saussure’s theory claims that:
writing as a separate, secondary, dependent but comparable sign-system…… thus a written word would also signify a sound rather than a concept…… for Saussure writing is ‘a sign of a sign’ (Derrida 1967a, 43) (Chandler PP16).
The film here depicts an option completely contradicts Saussure’s theory. It is so inviting that makes me wonder if it’s possible. What will happen if a written word directly signifies a concept rather than a sound? How does Saussure support his theory? Can this idea survive under current theories?
To my imagination, there’s no reason to be impossible. To convey a concept, the sender presents it as a written symbol, seen by the receiver as a ‘muted pattern’, arouse all his consciousness related, then represents the original concept. When studying the language, kids skip the process to match the concept with a certain word’s sound, directly with a written symbol (maybe as kind of similar as a deaf-mute child learning gesture language?). Nevertheless, even though all these can make sense, we will still mock the whole assumption because the process is way too much uneconomical. It’s true if we stand at the side of human beings, but it can be the most economical way for an intellectual creature who can only utter sounds in very limited frequency but has twenty hands.
Biological features lay the foundation of what we never ask why and take for granted. Saussure’s assumption about written word and sound should be right at this level.
Another intriguing point in the film, also mentioned in many linguistic articles is that ‘the language you speak determines how you thinks’. But how does it realize literally?
The Grammar of Meaning Systems:Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics, Martin Irvine
Semiotics: the basics, Daniel Chandler