The Motion Picture Club recently participated in a conference call with the film’s linguistic consultant Jessica Coon to discuss her involvement with the production and to explain the approach used to not only help Amy Adams embody the role but to help audiences understand some of the more difficult aspects of the linguistics used in the movie.
Originally getting involved with the production through happenstance, Jessica was recommended by a colleague as someone who had done proper fieldwork and could give feedback on “some of the more linguistically relevant parts of the screenplay”. Additionally, Jessica mentioned that a lot of what she did with the film was “work with the set crew”. Essentially being the model for Adams’ character, the crew visited her office taking pictures, borrowing books and examining things such as what would be written on her whiteboard, Jessica made sure to note the level of detail that went into the production.
Jessica also made it clear that she did not take part in creating the language that is seen in the movie. The visual component of the language, known as logograms, came from the short story that the film is based off of (Story of Your Life). The “circular, whirly, nonlinear symbols play a big role in the short story… and the main plot line of the movie.” Jessica also credited her colleague, Morgan Sandregor, with helping to “put together some really alien sounding sounds” that she described as “completely nonhuman”.
When asked what was important for Amy Adams to know to properly portray a linguist, Jessica singled out the approach used. Describing the diligent process a linguist goes through to reach their desired interest of “the abstract system of language” and how “crucial it is to develop a sort of positive working relationship and have comfortable interactions”. On the flip side however, Jessica remarked that “there is one part in the film that I think is going to make every linguist I know cringe”. That part? The perception of just what a linguist is. Clarifying that linguists are not “glorified translators” but are instead “interested in the systems behind languages” and “what patterns that you find in languages” Jessica joked that she was warned and she “shouldn’t be offended if they get some things a little bit off”.
Emphasizing how important the communication aspect of the film is, Jessica explained the potential for failure not only exists because of the difficulty between human and alien interaction but between humans themselves. Citing how in the film “communications sort of breaks down. And people become afraid and mistrustful of each other and sharing information… It’s clear that things could go very, very wrong”.
Finally addressing what she hopes people take away from the movie, Jessica continued to express “how important communication is to all aspects of everything we do… Language is what sets humans apart on Earth at least from all other species. And that is really what makes us human. And so I think that comes out really nicely in the film.” Additionally, Jessica admits that “selfishly also what I want people to get out of this is that if this you’re interested in studying language, we’ve got a field out here, the study of linguistics… So I certainly hope that this movie will inspire a new generation that have people interested in languages to joint the formal study of linguistics…”