ByElle McFarlane, writer at
'There's always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you.'
Elle McFarlane

From rhythmic drumming, cave-paintings and pictograms to the Internet, iPhones and Facebook, if humankind is driven by one thing, it's the need to communicate. And yet, thousands of years in the making, we've still not mastered the art. This inability to both communicate, and be interpreted clearly has resulted in untold numbers of wars, poor political decisions and a lengthy history of horrific first dates. It's the defining issue of our times and if the explosion of social media is a testimony to anything besides our latent narcism, it's of the colossal disconnect between our need to communicate and our inability to be understood. A disconnect which is growing exponentially each time a vapid new status is sent out into the Facebook ether.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated movie dares not only to look this problematic paradox dead in the eyes, but delves beyond where our mere mortal brains believe the parameters of linguistics lie. Consequently, the movie which stars and confronts us with an entirely new, yet familiar problem: How do we connect with an alien life force who cannot understand human methods of communication? A struggle that mothers with hormonally rampant teenagers know is only too real. But, by tackling this problematic quandary, Villeneuve and his brilliant team of screenwriters and production artists have created a fully functioning, visual, alien language, ripe and ready for the masters of Elvish, Dothraki and Klingon to eagerly devour.

The Language Of Arrival's Aliens Is Unlike Anything We Know

The language of Arrival's Aliens
The language of Arrival's Aliens

Devoid of letters, punctuation and even a linear word order, creating the language of Arrival's aliens posed a unique challenge to screenwriter Eric Heisserer. Referring to the language as a series of 'logograms' rather than distinguishable characters, it is instead entirely comprised on what look like complex squiggles of black ink. Based on a short novel, 'Story of Your Life' written by Ted Chiang, Heisserer was given a foundation from which to visually construct the language.

Talking to Inverse, Heisserer explained how the process of trying to describe the language was becoming intolerably frustrating, until his wife suggested he tried to visually describe it. This was the key to unlocking the language which is so marvelously complex that different inflections are 'indicated by varying a certain stroke's curvature or thickness.'

How The Language Was Developed


Heisserer relied a great deal on his background to help him develop the new language. With his father being a Classics professor, fluent in many different tongues, he was cautious of the importance of refining the visual aspect of the language, and the way it was verbally described amongst the cast and crew. Once he was happy he'd fully fleshed out the conceptual side of the language to the best of his ability, he then passed on all of his research to Patrice Vermette, the Oscar winning production designer who was charged with bringing it into being.

Having worked on the likes of The Young Victoria, Enemy, Sicario and Prisoners (the latter two both being directed by Villeneuve), Vermette is one of the leading visionaries in his field. Speaking to Inverse, the key to his success seems rooted in the fact that he pays attention to every little nuance of whatever it is he is creating:

And this is how from Ted Chiang's linguistic foundation, both Heisserer and Vermette managed to create an entirely new, fully functioning language which looks visually stunning on the big screen.

How Arrival's Logogram Language Works


The logograms, like the digital breakdown of the one above, comprise linguistic formations, emotions, words and sentences which do not adhere to a linear structure. In the end, Heisserer, Vermette and their teams managed to create a 'logogram bible' which included over a hundred different completely operative logograms, seventy one of which actually feature in the movie. Due to the incredible complexity of each individual logogram, it took a long time for the creators to find a way to interpret them for a linearly primed human mind, but they succeeded and in doing so brought a wonderfully original new language into the world.

And here, in essence, lies the true brilliance of the sci-fi genre, where ideas of the future can literally change our present and expand our minds. From one short story we now have a full length feature film and a language which operates beyond what humankind previously conceptualized as 'language.' Nerds grab a pen and paper, because mastering Arrival's logogram language truly feels like decoding the final frontier.


Which is the best fictional but fully functioning language?


Latest from our Creators