Linguistics goes blockbuster

McGill researcher advises on acclaimed Hollywood film

Photo: Amy Adams as linguistics expert, Louise Banks, from the 2016 motion picture Arrival (© Paramount Pictures).

When the film Arrival garnered two nominations for this year’s Golden Globe awards, it joined a long list of popular and critically acclaimed movies that put the theme of language and communications at the core of the action.

In the last few years alone, such films have earned countless prestigious awards. The Imitation Game (2014) about the breaking of the Enigma Codes, The Artist (2011) showcasing the power of non-verbal communication and The King’s Speech (2010) about King George VI and his language therapist are prime examples of audiences’ fascination with the mysteries and challenges of communication.

Cinematic success rests largely on solid plot development and a sense that a story is credible. Enter Jessica Coon, Canada Research Chair in Syntax and Indigenous Languages. The McGill University scholar was a pre-production advisor on Arrival, where her guidance and linguistics expertise helped flesh out the central role played by Amy Adams. Far from the daily routine of an academic, the US military recruits the film’s protagonist to try to make contact with visiting aliens.

Coon says that working on the film has forced her to think about how to talk about linguistics in a more accessible way.

“Linguistics is not taught in high school, so many people don’t know what we do,” she points out, adding that the film also provided a platform to explore the issue of language preservation.

Coon’s research focuses on syntax and morphology, as well as language revitalization. Her current work on helping First Nations communities in Quebec and the Maritimes preserve the Mi’gmaq language is funded by two SSHRC Insight Grants, running until 2019 and 2021 respectively.

While Hollywood’s recognition of linguistics as a proper science is welcomed, Coon warns against the notion that linguists can revitalize or save a language. “It’s really up to the community,” she says.

Arrival, directed by award-winning Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, is nominated for eight Oscars at the 89th Academy Awards ceremony to be held on February 26, 2017.