Neil deGrasse Tyson messes up a bit about linguistics

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



  1. E.A. Blair
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Many people have no idea what linguistics is about. One of the most common questions I get if I mention that I have a degree in linguistics is, “How many languages do you speak?” That’s not the point – the point is understanding the underlying principles behind languages.

    The jackpot task for almost any linguist is to go into the field and decode a previously undocumented language. That takes insight, intuition and patience. However, one thing that field linguistics (which is what was going on in Arrival) has in common with cryptanalysis is pattern recognition. However, the biggest differences is that where encryption is involved, the objective is to hide patterns, while in linguistics, the patterns are conventions that have developed to unite communities of speakers in understanding each other.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      I met a few people in linguistics when I was at university because they would be in the language courses I took. I would have loved taking linguistics but the stats component scared me away given it would drag down my grade point average.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      It is ‘lucky’ [& very human] that the Arrival aliens communicate using speech with ‘words’ & have a separate visual written language [which isn’t related to the spoken language for some reason]. The plot of the film might have been more engaging for me if the aliens had been only marginally more exotic in their outlook – meaning in their conceptualisation of reality & their ways of categorising the ‘objects’ in it. Not very interesting aliens these heptas.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        I kept thinking the heptapods were going to be actual podes!! So you’d see the whole creature at the end & they’d be enourmous!

      • Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        I’ve not seen the film but I’ve read the story.

        In that the aliens have an entirely different perception of time, based on a written language of pictograms in which word order does not matter.

        The aliens have a teleological view of reality, not a linearly deterministic one.

        The idea follows from the largely discredited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines perception.

        I think a linguist would be an essential part of any first contact team but it I’m not sure a linguist with a theory that is just plain wrong would be any more use than a physicist who believed in the luminiferous aether.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted March 5, 2017 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

          I think a linguist would be an essential part of any first contact team

          Any planned FC team, yes. More likely, your FC team would be the engineering, geo-ish-logical and command crew of a mining boat hunting for RESOURCE in the grey bits at the edge of populated space.

    • Posted March 5, 2017 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      I thought this movie was annoying for a lot of reasons although it does pose interesting ideas.
      I’ve always assumed that linguists learned language within a framework of Chomskyish rules for human language. But this would be useless for aliens that have different rules. I’d use the language of mathematics. It would be easy to symbolically represent a numerical succession. From there it would be easy to create symbols for “whats next” and “either/or” With this you could quickly start asking questions about the aliens intentions. Neither humans or aliens would think that you need to communicate with your messy and needlessly complex language, both would know you need to invent a universal language based on logic and math.

      But why are we lowly humans the ones who have to figure this out?? You’d think that if the aliens can travel across the galaxy they’d have a plan for communicating with us!

      • docbill1351
        Posted March 5, 2017 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

        Unless the aliens didn’t have a frame of reference for numerical succession. I would maintain that our evolution and history shape how we perceive the world from balls and springs representing molecules, to arrows pointing to how we sense time and space.

        Eons ago I read a sci-fi novel about an alien race that had a totally different perception of the universe than our human view. I don’t remember the title, but I do remember how frustrating it was to read. Maybe that was the point!

        • Posted March 5, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

          I would think that we could reasonably expect a certain amount of convergent evolution in terms of body shape for alien organism. I would also expect a certain amount of convergent evolution in terms of the way minds work among intelligent organisms. After all, minds that evolve are constrained by the same laws of physics and chemistry everywhere. That still leaves a lot of room for differences but I would expect that among creatures with advanced technology some form a mathematics would not be among them.

        • Bent Backenforth
          Posted March 6, 2017 at 6:06 am | Permalink

          A number of stories & novels appeared after the 1960s as a reaction to the Golden Age, in which the aliens or their abandoned artifacts were completely incomprehensible & dangerous. Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys, The Alien Years by Robt. Silverberg, & <The Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers are examples of this genre.

      • Posted March 5, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        I don’t see how any language could be outside Chomsky’s framework. There is a theorem which says (I’m loosely paraphrasing a very precise result) that anything that you can model with Chomsky’s rules can be modeled by a Turing machine, and vice versa. So, if you can’t model it with Chomsky’s rules, you can’t compute it.
        I think a language is a mechanism for solving the following problem. Alice has a large set of concepts in her mind, linked in very intricate ways, and she wants to communicate part of this network to Bob. But she has to use a 1 dimensional channel (time) to communicate, either by speaking, writing, semaphore, or whatever. She has to select concepts, encode the relationships somehow, shove them down the channel, and rely on Bob to build a network that matches the relevant part of hers. The processes that Alice & Bob use must be algorithmic, and hence able to be modeled by both Turing Machines and Chomsky rules.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted March 5, 2017 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

          “But she has to use a 1 dimensional channel (time) to communicate”

          Not necessarily. She could draw a map or chart or diagram of some sort. The fact that it takes time for humans to draw such things is irrelevant, as is the precise sequence of strokes. It’s the final image that conveys the message, and if we had some squid-like power to form images directly on our skin, there’d be no need for Chomskyan serialization.

          The point of the story and film is that the aliens’ language is like that, with meaning conveyed as gestalt images rather than as sequences of symbols, and that this is a consequence of their Tralfamadorian view of time.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted March 5, 2017 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

            Yes but in reading a map or chart or diagram, we are essentially reducing it to one dimension. We follow a line on the map to see where it goes.

            Only after some study of different lines do we build up a mental picture of the whole.
            And this is because our thought processes are essentially linear, we only think of one thing at a time.

            So I think in that respect it resembles the transmission described by Simon.


            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

              “our thought processes are essentially linear”

              Visual pattern recognition is far from linear; it relies on massively parallel networks of neurons that process whole images at once. Recognizing a friend’s face is not a matter of consciously fitting together puzzle pieces one by one; it just happens automatically.

              Similarly, much of the thought process of highly creative people is nonverbal and nonlinear, and involves intuitively grasping patterns visualized with the mind’s eye. Sometimes the best way to understand something is to shut off the internal monologue and just grok.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted March 6, 2017 at 12:43 am | Permalink

                Yeah that’s pattern recognition – of patterns already known.

                But I submit, in trying to comprehend an all-new map or diagram, one concentrates on one line or feature at a time and builds up a whole bit by bit.


              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted March 6, 2017 at 2:56 am | Permalink

                Even if that were true (which I doubt), you still have all your work before you if you want to show that such a process is equivalent to parsing a serialized grammatical structure.

        • Posted March 6, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

          There are two ideas here: one is the idea that all human languages conform to a restricted collection of principles, embodied in the hypothetical UG. This restricts the class of language to wherever it is on the hierarchy, which is the *second* aspect.

      • Posted March 5, 2017 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

        A couple of ways to look at this:

        (1) Though it’s made more explicit in the short story, the Heptapods are coming at this interaction from a very different perspective (i.e., what they find intuitive, we don’t, and vice versa). What you describe might not work as well as you’d expect.

        (2) More to the point — and spoiler alert — the whole reason they’re here is for us to learn their language. Doing that properly, and in as short an amount if time as possible, means forcing us to figure it out for ourselves.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted March 5, 2017 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

          Robert Sheckley looked at this from the opposite direction in Shall We Have a Little Talk.

          (Can’t find it online but there’s a description here: )

          The protagonist, a natural linguist, was sent by Terran Federation or whoever to an alien planet to learn the local language, with a view to buying land, which would then give Terra a legal pretext to invade to ‘protect its assets’.

          So he soon learnt their language, but when the time came to sign the document the aliens were using a language completely unknown to him. Which he duly learned. But then at the next meeting it was different again.
          And he finally realised that the alien language was evolving and changing rapidly in a way that no foreigner could comprehend. Which meant he could not possibly complete the legal formalities to buy land and so Terra was foiled.

          Typical Sheckley, I might add.


      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted March 5, 2017 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

        You’d think that if the aliens can travel across the galaxy they’d have a plan for communicating with us!

        Why do you assume that an alien species that can travel around in the galaxy would choose to do so? Given that our current understanding of physics leaves us with the option of launching and forgetting generation ships, which might arrive at their destination in a few hundred generations – how many humans are ever likely to travel outside the star system of their birth?

      • Posted March 6, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        It would be an interesting test of UG.

        But I would be willing to “sportsman’s” bet that any extra terrestrial language is computable.

  2. Randy schenck
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    It is hard to understand why Tyson would even enter such a comment. He obviously is not informed or is just shooting from the hip. The example they used in their counter argument was very good.

  3. Erp
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Actually the languages like Navajo had written forms though not necessarily standardized (missionaries frequently did this sort of work). The alphabets were also obscure, not necessarily phonetic, and even knowing how it sounds doesn’t help if you don’t know the morphology or grammar so that the enemy forces had no resources. Note even in the language they still used code (one word standing for another word or concept) so even if by chance the enemy had a speaker it still wouldn’t be understandable (but would be easier to crack).

    • Derek Freyberg
      Posted March 5, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      IIRC, the “codes” used by the code talkers were just the use of common Navajo words for objects that had no Navajo name. So, “tortoise” for “tank”, and the like – terms that were easy to remember and use in the tactical radio messages for which the code talkers were used, rather than terms that deliberately obscured meaning. Incidentally, “tank”, though now the common term for a type of armored vehicle, began as a code word back when tanks were first used in WWI.

  4. Mark Joseph
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Good morning Jerry. I have no recommendation one way or the other about whether you might want to see the movie (I haven’t, as I’m not a moveigoer), but I suspect you might want to track down and read “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, the novella from which the film is (ostensibly) taken. It is ferociously intelligent (like all of Chiang’s work), and very moving.

    A Locus magazine poll in 2012 voted it the best science fiction and fantasy novella of the 20th century. While I don’t know if I’d actually rate it #1 myself, it’s certainly a reasonable pick, and definitely in the top ten. It’s one of my go-to pieces to give to people who think of science fiction as nothing more than Buck Rogers kind of stuff.

    While the story has been anthologized a number of times, the easiest way to find it and others of Chiang’s superb stores would be his collection Stories of Your Life and Others. “Tower of Babylon,” which kicked off his career, is spectacular. One story which will probably appeal to a large percentage of this web site’s readership is his “Hell is the Absence of God,” a fantasy (obviously!) in which god interacts regularly with the world, and heaven and hell are both visible and a part of daily life.

    • Billy Bl.
      Posted March 5, 2017 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      Arrival is a sci-fi movie for non-sci-fi fans (and scientifically illiterate people). I’m a sci-fi fan (and an ex-scientist) and didn’t like it much.

      • pck
        Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        As a sci-fi fan and current scientist I greatly enjoyed the movie. Up there with Contact in the good sci-fi movie pantheon.

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted March 5, 2017 at 11:25 am | Permalink

          Agreed, but the book Contact was still, at a rough approximation, one hundred million times better than the movie.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted March 5, 2017 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

        As an SF fan, I saw it and was disappointed. too much “fluffy nice hoomins and some crabby nasty hoomins, and lots of hoomin interest”, and not enough about the science or interesting aliens. “District 9” was much more interesting, IMO.
        But, given the usual run of the mill, it could have been a lot, lot worse. I wasn’t as disappointed as with, for example, “Prometheus” (which fills me with dread for the rumoured “Blade Runner 2”).

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      I would recommend it. You can always read the book it is based on as well. I think non sci-fi fans would like it. My dad got all confused about the plot twist and couldn’t figure out (I don’t think he was paying attention) but I was looking for hints about what was going on all through it.

    • Posted March 5, 2017 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      Well, with that kind of encomium I should really check it out. Thanks!

    • John Frum
      Posted March 5, 2017 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Mark.
      Sounds good and I just bought it on Kindle.
      While not sci-fi I can thoroughly recommend Haruki Murakamis books.
      Most if not all have a supernatural element, some overtly and others leave you guessing.
      I have read that he writes in English and then translates that to Japanese. The English versions are then translated by someone else.
      I don’t know if he still does that but it certainly makes for an interesting style.
      I think the reason I like them is because they are so very different from any other author I have ever read.
      The stories are engaging as well.
      He has just released a new one but only in Japanese so far unfortunately for me and it was selling over a million whereas most Japanese authors release sales are in the thousands.
      Anyone else out who likes him?

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted March 6, 2017 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

        Love your handle, guy!

        I haven’t read Murakami yet, but he’s on my list, and I’ve gone as far actually purchasing a copy of Kafka on the Shore (what, me buying books?? Who knew?!).

        Let us know how you liked the story about which all the fuss is being made, as well as the others.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted March 6, 2017 at 4:06 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the review, Mark. I’ve added it to my Amazon wish list.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted March 6, 2017 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

        Much obliged. Enjoy!

  5. Christopher
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I’ve not seen Arrival, nor do I really care to (sounds like a riff on Sagan’s Contact, which also had a female lead, despite what the Ctrl Left claimed) but wouldn’t we all rather have a larger team of experts, not just two, no matter which two are “correct” according to tw*tter? This kind of forced outrage over tweets is exactly why I ditched tw*tter. Oooh, somebody made a mistake? Let’s all pile on them! It wasn’t too long ago that tw*tter’s final arbiters on culture and morality went after Tyson because he once put out a list of the 10 classics that he would want everyone to read, yes, since they were classics, they didn’t contain a single woman, so he was immediately branded a misogynist; sexism since the beginning of western culture was clearly his fault, somehow.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted March 5, 2017 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      This sort of thing is why I choose to not be a celebrity. 😉

      • Christopher
        Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:12 am | Permalink

        👍me too.

    • Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      It is a poor rehash of Contact, where Ellie “decodes” the alien message. The silly thing in Arrival is that humans must expend enormous time and energy trying to understand the communications of beings who, while far more technologically advanced than we are, expect our primitive species to figure out their language. LOL. If humans contacted a primitive species, would we expect them to translate our language? No, we would establish common meaning using a code primer (phase modulation in Contact.) Tyson is right, you’d send a cryptographer.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:18 am | Permalink

        But (spoilers) remember the way the aliens use language. They know there will be help from humans in the future so they know humans can do this.

        • jwthomas
          Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:26 am | Permalink


        • Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:37 am | Permalink

          I will admit to not understanding that part.

      • Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        They don’t learn human language because learning is based on a linear perception of time.

        Learning is a process that moves from ignorance to knowledge; the aliens perceive the past and the future in exactly the same way, like the Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse 5

        • Posted March 5, 2017 at 11:20 am | Permalink

          Well that would allow throwing all logic in the story to the wind, but I still find it surpassingly goofy that in order to communicate with an alien race capable of interstellar travel we send a linguist with a whiteboard who writes the (English) word “human” and then points at herself.

          • Posted March 5, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

            Even pointing at something makes assumptions about the ‘ostensive’ nature of linguistic acquisition – dubious even among human societies. Quite why you’d expect aliens with no fingers to make any sense out of the pointing gesture I don’t know.

            I think you can criticise Tyson for downgrading linguistics but the linguistic theories presented in the story are pretty dubious in themselves so they don’t make a great case for linguistics.

            I’m not going to criticise Tyson for this.

        • Posted March 5, 2017 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

          Ah, that makes some sense, since I was wondering why they didn’t learn English.

          One wonders how any process is allowed for the heptopods’ perception, in that case. Two heptopods are said to be in the death process, if I recall correctly. I can’t see that learning is distinct, temporally, from any other process.

          I also thought a babel fish would have been handy.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted March 5, 2017 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

          “the aliens perceive the past and the future in exactly the same way,”

          That makes no sense. Unless they’re time-travellers (with all the paradoxes that entails), the past is known and the future is not. So the only way they could perceive the two in the same way would be to have no memory at all, and I think that intelligence is impossible without memory.


          • Posted March 5, 2017 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

            I think the idea is that a tralfamadorian alien knows the future as well as it knows the past because the universe is deterministic. They are like LaPlace’s demon. There is a flaw, however. To know the universe at any moment you must be able to interact with it, and all interactions are reciprocal so you cannot help disturbing the universe at that time. This introduces the possibility of the time travel paradoxes you mention.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted March 5, 2017 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

              Umm, okay, I can see that if the future is 100% deterministic they could ‘see’ the future that way.

              I suspect that in practice, errm, quantum, plus chaotic processes, plus the computational complexity required for prediction, would rule it out.

              But I get the premise.


      • Posted March 5, 2017 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

        I won’t argue over taste, but in defence of the plot (and spoiler alert): the Heptapods already know spoken English, which makes sense, since they can see through time to when they’ve already interacted with humanity (think about how, when Louise reaches a certain threshold of understanding, she can simply peer into the future to decode the language). This point is made clear by the fact that Louise simply speaks English to Costello at the end of the film, despite having gone through all the effort of constructing logograms up until that point. Recall that their whole purpose is for us to learn their language, not for them to learn ours. Only interacting with us through logograms gives us the immediate incentive to do this.

        As for sending a cryptographer, you should have a look at the letter.

        • Posted March 5, 2017 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

          I read the letter, I just didn’t agree with it. In general, cryptography is the science of coding and decoding information. At present it is used primarily for encryption but the principles are universal and could be used for anti-cryptography in the event of a SETI signal.

    • Posted March 5, 2017 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      I understand the sentiment. My own concern is that NdGT has a much wider reach than linguists do, by many orders of magnitude, and he’s perpetuating a misunderstanding of the field which, I’ll admit, really gets under our skin. It’s easier for him to make this mistake than it is for linguists to correct it, and I personally appreciate Dr. Coyne’s help on this.

      Also, for the record, both the linguist and the physicist in the film had a whole team working for them; the only choice to be made was who should lead the effort in each case, and I think the letter makes a good argument that a linguist makes the most sense.

  6. Richard Bond
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Chapter 5 of Simon Singh’s The Code Book discusses the decipherment of unknown languages. His examples of hieroglyphics and linear B tend to indicate that both linguists and cryptanylists could contribute.

  7. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I did not know that Navajo talkers were used in the first world war. Slightly surprised that it worked a 2nd time.

    • Christopher
      Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      I believe that the best known codetalkers of WWI were Choctaw, or perhaps I should say barely known, but I would bet that anywhere there were significant numbers of Native American soldiers there was some use of their language as code. It’s a shame that the Navajo were memorialized in such a shitty movie. I had such high hopes for it but it turned out to be such a turkey, thanks in no small part to Nicholas Cage.

      • John Conoboy
        Posted March 5, 2017 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

        I agree about the movie.

        Here in New Mexico the Navajo Code talkers are very well known. Sadly, they are dying at an increasing rate. The last of the original 29 died in 2014. There were actually code talkers from many tribes, and ethnic groups. The Choctaw were used in WWI.

  8. Heather Hastie
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    If nothing else, this error has probably educated a lot of people about what linguistics actually is.

    I’ve always thought the work of the code talkers was a really cool story. I wish more knew about it. They were such an important part of the victory.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      It is also true that the allies did not break Japan’s codes anything like they did with Germany. Although they sometimes cracked the dialog with additional baiting. Such was the case before the battle of Midway when they figured out Midway was the Japanese target by sending out a message about water shortage at Midway. The Japanese then followed up with a message about the water problem and included their code word for Midway.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted March 5, 2017 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        That’s interesting! I don’t know so much about the war in the Pacific, which is bad since it’s where I live.

        There are still old gun emplacements around the coast in New Zealand from WWII. They were never needed, and I always found the fact they even existed quite surreal as a kid.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted March 5, 2017 at 11:54 am | Permalink

          Yes, lots of Americans do not pay much attention to the Pacific part of WWII but it was a large and important part of the war. There are lots of old gun emplacements the Japanese left on Guam that are still there. There are many reminders of the War on Okinawa where the last and largest battle was fought. I have taken some of the tours there and been through some of the underground areas that were all over the southern part of the Island. There is a place there called Peace Park that any visitors should see and a walk up a hill on the south end of the Island where you go past all the Japanese units that fought and died there and the place where the General committed suicide. Of course there are many books, just on Okinawa alone but I would recommend one, Tennozan, written in 1992. I must warn it is well over 500 pages but covers the American, the Japanese and the Okinawan parts of the battle.

          • John Nunes
            Posted March 5, 2017 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

            Lots of Americans don’t understand that vast majority of WWII was fought in what was then the Soviet Union.

            • Randall Schenck
              Posted March 5, 2017 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

              Absolutely. One very surprising statistic and a tough reality of war was – 4 out of 5 Germans who died in WWII were killed by Russians.

              Americans like to think they did it all. Hardly. I think the Russians lost something like 20 million in WWII The Americans less than 1/2 million and that includes the Pacific.

              • Posted March 6, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

                For historical accuracy’s sake: The *Soviets* lost some huge number of citizens. I say that not just because the USSR was the country at the time, but because *non-Russians* died in numbers too. I haven’t seen any figures, but I imagine huge numbers of Ukrainians, especially, did.

                So: American money, Soviet bodies, UK / Polish ingenuity (Engima) and (down a ways) Canadian technology: agriculture, and somewhat astonishingly, electronics. There are Canadian made, Russian-labeled Soviet communications devices in the Canadian War Museum – which was educational to me when I first saw the exhibit!

        • Posted March 5, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

          Heather, not just WWII. There’s a “disappearing gun” on Mount Victoria (Devonport), left over from the 2nd Russian scare of the late 19th century.

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted March 5, 2017 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

            Cool! I went to the one at Devonport a few years ago, but I was looking after nieces and nephews at the time so I didn’t get to read all the signs etc. so I didn’t know it was there for the Russia scare as well. Thanks.

            We did a primary school trip to the one in Gisborne which wasn’t a proper fort and was tiny. It was quite a long way back from the beach and facing the road rather than the beach or harbour. I assume the plan was to fire on the enemy as they marched into town, but you couldn’t have got more than two or three machine guns in there.

          • Randall Schenck
            Posted March 5, 2017 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

            The coastal guns were very popular in the 19th century in the States as well. If you look at the San Francisco Bridge, on the Frisco side, right under the bridge is Fort Point. On top of this fort there were several guns to defend against invasion I suppose.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 5, 2017 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

        That form of generating ‘telltales’ in enemy messages was used quite extensively in Europe too. They would send an aircraft out to drop a bomb on some German outpost in the knowledge that it would be reported back in cypher. Or sometimes they would let a message be intercepted by the enemy, expecting that it would be passed on in encyphered form, and use that as a ‘crib’.

        Fascinating stuff, as was deception. For D-Day, the Allies used every means in their arsenal – ‘turned’ German agents, dummy Army units in Kent, bombers dropping ‘window’ to simulate an invasion fleet on radar, fake signals traffic, ‘security leaks’ – to persuade the Germans that the real invasion was coming in the Pas de Calais and the invasion in Normandy was just a diversionary tactic. The Germans held several divisions back in Calais waiting for the non-existent invasion force. D-Day was so important the Allied planners were quite prepared to have all their carefully-hidden tactics ‘blown’ afterwards. But then they found a way to salvage that – they let the Germans become aware that the Normandy ‘diversion’ had been so unexpectedly successful that all the (mythical) Pas de Calais invasion forces had been re-routed to the Normandy beachhead.


        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted March 6, 2017 at 4:28 am | Permalink

          Fascinating, indeed. Thanks!

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted March 6, 2017 at 4:57 am | Permalink

            If you can get hold of a copy of Bodyguard if Lies by Anthony Cave-Brown, which recounts much of the ‘black’ operations during the war, including Ultra (the code name for Enigma intercepts), it’s a fascinating read. Was written about 40 years ago but still I think in print.

            The other extraordinary thing, to me, is that until that book and F W Winterbotham’s The Ultra Secret came out in 1974, the whole story that ‘we’ were reading most of the German codes was successfully kept secret for almost 30 years. Thousands of people knew this fantastic fact and nobody talked. Incredible.


            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted March 6, 2017 at 4:58 am | Permalink

              Bodyguard OF Lies



    • Posted March 5, 2017 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      + 1, and thanks to PCC for writing about them.

  9. Harrison
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    I was once quite enamored of Tyson as he has a lot of natural charisma and speaks authoritatively, but he’s so often put his foot in his mouth when attempting to seem clever that the shine’s worn off.

    I still recall his altercation with Steve Novella where Tyson seemed ignorant of what medical doctors actually do when interacting with patients but still felt justified in disparaging them as a class.

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted March 5, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      I’ll have to check that out.
      I like Tyson but I really like Steve Novella, he seems extremely level headed, and smart.

    • John Nunes
      Posted March 5, 2017 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      That almost sounds like Ben Carson in reverse, but for the same reason. (if something isn’t immediately quantifiable, it’s useless)

  10. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    There is one line in the movie that made me laugh a little – when the physicist tells the linguist that her work is precise like a mathematicians. Well duh. She just does a “oh is that so” to his comment which is funny too. This is what NdT’s tweet reminded me of – the comment by the physicist character in the movie.

  11. jwthomas
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Tyson’s problem is that he doesn’t understand what the movie is about. There’s no indication that he saw it or read Ted Chiang’s highly recommendable story.

    It doesn’t matter who the gov’t might have sent to interrogate the aliens, that person would have been offered the “gift” that the aliens were bringing. It’s just that Louise Banks as a linguist was uniquely qualified to understand what the gift was and to allow it to modify her mode of thinking.

    There’s been no better review of this film than James Gleick’s in the 2/9 issue of the New York Review of Books.
    I also recommend Ted Chiang’s original story, which once again demonstates that serious SF if not exactly literature offers us, like the aliens’ gift, many new ways of thinking.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      I think Science Fiction is definitely literature and those who oppose it are often caught up in its pulpy origins.

      • jwthomas
        Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        Some is, some isn’t. To see which is which is a worthy challenge. I’ve noticed in recent years that more and more “literary” novelists are using SF themes in their work.

        • jwthomas
          Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:41 am | Permalink

          Genre fiction of any kind is by some automatically consigned to the trash barrel. I was pleased to see the NYRB
          print a very lucid review.

        • Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:52 am | Permalink

          They always have: Samuel Butler, William Morris, Arthur Conan Doyle, E M Forster, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, Kingsley Amis, Margaret Atwood

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted March 5, 2017 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

            … Jules Verne, H G Wells …


        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted March 5, 2017 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

          Some [SF] is [definitely literature, some isn’t.

          Is there a genre of “literature” for which that isn’t true. Even amongst “Mills & Boon” (I don’t know the EN_US or EN_CA for that syrupy concoction), there is probably literature. By someone’s benighted standards.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted March 5, 2017 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

            Well now, you’re highlighting the difference between Literature (in the sense of well-written classics which are worth reading, even though different people may disagree on which works qualify for that description); and the looser definition of ‘literature’ which means any work of descriptive fiction up to and including investment prospectuses and estate agents’ fliers.



            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted March 5, 2017 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

              The problem with estate agent’s “literature” is that the ink stains your bum and your fingers, and then your fingers go through it.
              Never have that problem with SF.

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted March 5, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        SF literature has given me hours and weeks even maybe years of escape and joy and wonder and knowledge and philosophy.

        I would be a completely different person without it.

    • Billy Bl.
      Posted March 5, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      Even though I didn’t particularly like the movie, I should read Chiang’s story. He has won some Hugos, and Hollywood has a reputation of butchering good stories.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted March 5, 2017 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

        Hollywood has a reputation of butchering good stories.

        You, my good friend, have just won the “Understatement of the Year” award for 2017!

  12. Maine Atheist
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    What amazes me is the US government used Native Americans twice, WWI & WWII, as “Code Talkers” and both times the government thought ALL Native Americans spoke the same language!

  13. Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Sounds like a movie i’d like to see! Maybe Neil should stick with the stars and planets? I hear he got them to redesign the night sky in the movie “Titanic”!

  14. pck
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I’m equally amazed at Tyson’s ignorance of what astrobiologists do. An astrobiologists would walk into the spaceship, look at the alien and conclude “yup, that’s alien life, nothing more I can do”.

  15. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    If you are going to criticise linguists you would think you would check your spelling and grammar.
    “I’d chose a …” should be “I’d choose a …” shouldn’t it?

    • jwthomas
      Posted March 5, 2017 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Don’t criticize someone because of an obvious typo. Proofread your own tweets.

  16. Jeremy Rigsby
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of wartime codes, lexical confusion and science, we all know the Geoffrey Tandy story, right?

    If not, it’s hilarious:

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted March 6, 2017 at 4:34 am | Permalink

      Lovely story. Thanks!

  17. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    And that goes double for linguists, whose job is often to be picky about language itself.

    I’m trying to puzzle out what you mean by this. Linguists’ job is to treat language as a natural phenomenon to be studied, not as a set of rules to be enforced.

    • James Walker
      Posted March 5, 2017 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      I interpreted it charitably to mean that linguists are picky about language the way chemists are picky about molecules …

  18. Posted March 5, 2017 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Many thanks to Dr. Coyne for sharing this letter; I know our community appreciates it!

    If you want to learn a bit more on how a linguist would have gone about uncovering the alien language in Arrival, I wrote a short piece some time ago describing the process:

    • Posted March 5, 2017 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

      N.B. Sorry about the link the the article being so large and obnoxious; I didn’t mean for that. :-/

  19. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    How do you guys feel about taking the approach that “Anything that encourages conversation between scholars of different specializations is a victory in its own right”?

    Most scientists – most specialists even – like to talk. This entire blo^H^H^H website could be viewed as PCCE talking about things that interest him, with a slant towards evolutionary biology.
    The problem isn’t getting specialists to talk to each other. It’s getting the other guy (other genders and identities are available) to shut up so that I can make my point.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted March 6, 2017 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      One of my favourite rants in the last couple of years is on the uselessness of gum-flapping over plans for terraforming Mars.

%d bloggers like this: