Most of us are picky about errors that laypeople make about our fields of expertise—as I’ve learned from the many misstatements I’ve made on this website. And that goes double for linguists, whose job is often to be picky about language itself. Here’s a tw**t from Neil deGrasse Tyson that has raised the hackles of some linguists.
Tyson is referring to the 2016 movie “Arrival“, which deals with the arrival of a group of friendly aliens on Earth and the desire of some humans to extirpate them. The movie stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Tzi Ma, but I haven’t seen it because I’m sci-fi illiterate. (It gets a very high critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes.)
Here’s the first paragraph of Wikipedia‘s plot summary so you can see what Tyson’s talking about:
In what appears to be a flashback scene, linguist Louise Banks is caring for her adolescent daughter, who dies of cancer. While she is lecturing at a university, twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft appear across the Earth. U.S. Army Colonel Weber asks Louise to join Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist Ian Donnelly to decipher their language and find out why they have arrived. The team is brought to a military camp in Montana near one of the spacecraft, and makes contact with two seven-limbed aliens on board. They call the extraterrestrials “heptapods”, and Ian nicknames them Abbott and Costello. Louise discovers that they have a written language of complicated circular symbols, and she begins to learn the symbols that correspond to a basic vocabulary. As she becomes more proficient, she starts to see and dream vivid images of herself with her daughter, and of their relationship with the father.
It didn’t take long for four linguists, all from different countries, to write an open letter to Tyson at Language Log, setting him straight about the “cryptographer” and “linguist” part. I won’t reproduce it all, but here’s an excerpt:
Most importantly, a cryptanalyst would likely be much less suited to the task of communicating with aliens than a linguist would (a cryptographer even less so, since they work on encryption, not decryption). Cryptanalysis relies on decrypting coded messages from a known language. If the source language and the encryption method are both unknown, ordinary cryptanalytic methods will fail. This is why the Native American code talkers of the 20th century were so invaluable to the US in both world wars: their languages were not understood by enemy cryptanalysts, so their encrypted versions could not be cracked, unlike with well-known languages like English.
A linguist’s interactive methodology is more likely to result in successful communication with aliens. Whereas cryptanalysts generally work with a static corpus of encrypted messages and cannot obtain new ones of a particular type on demand, linguists are trained in a variety of techniques to elicit targeted utterances from speakers, as broadly demonstrated by the elicitation sessions in Arrival. These elicitation sessions are designed to bring to light subtle information about the atomic units of a language, how they are combined into longer units, what those units mean, and how they are used. These methods are used for analyzing the structure of well-known languages as well as for documenting and analyzing endangered languages that the linguist may not speak with any fluency and may be typologically quite different from widely spoken languages of the world.
I can understand why they’re a bit exercised, as Tyson has nearly four million followers on Twitter, and if I were a linguist I’d be a bit miffed at the widely-propagated misrepresentation of what linguists do.
And if you don’t know what the “code talkers” were, it’s a cool story. These were Native American soldiers, mostly Navajos, and mostly during World War II (there were other tribes of Native Americans as well as Basques), who, during battle, relayed messages to each other in their native languages—verbally. Since Navajo is a language that is unwritten, there was no reference the enemy could use to decrypt the words. This was both clever and effective, though the contribution of code talkers to the war effort—they greatly helped win the Battle of Iwo Jima, for instance—has gone largely unrecognized.
Here’s a short video about them that I recommend:
h/t: Stephan Hurtubise