Home Events Review | Event 52 – Story of Your Life: Linguistic Landscapes in Literature

Review | Event 52 – Story of Your Life: Linguistic Landscapes in Literature

SpeakerDr. Junhong Liu

On the evening of Saturday, July 20, 7PM Literary and Film Salon hosted our 52nd event, during which Dr. Junhong Liu led us through the fiction Story of Your Life with her reading experience and academic expertise. The story was adapted into the 2016 film Arrival. Dr. Liu identified and pointed out the linguistic elements in the story, and discussed with the audience how the story sheds light on the use of language.

The Story and the Author

Ted Chiang is the author of Chinese descent who has received the most nominations for the Hugo Award. Well known for thrifty quantity and high quality, his works have a far-reaching impact among sci-fi writers of Chinese heritage.

Ted Chiang stages the story on the premise of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines thought. The female protagonist, Dr. Louise Banks, in the course of studying the language “heptapods” the aliens, has gradually acquired their unique worldview and ability to foresee the future. Heptapods employ a written system featured by non-linear texts that cannot be directly translated to spoken vernaculars. Each stroke of the character is at the same time a component of another stroke. Therefore, Dr. Banks is able to obtain her perception of the future from this non-linear text by virtue of the fact that Heptapods, unlike humans whose way of thinking is confined by cause and effect, have a train of thought oriented towards outcome.

Ted Chiang

Two Canonical Theories of Linguistics

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: language determines thought.

For me, thinking typically meant speaking in an internal voice’ as we say in the trade, my thoughts were phonologically coded.

[T]he heptapods were using a nonlinear system of orthography that qualified as true writing.

The heptapods are neither ee nor bound as we understand those concepts; they don’t act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons. What distinguishes the heptapods’ mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history’s events; it is also that their motives coincide with history’s purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology.

——Story of Your Life

The hypothesis primarily embodies two points:

1)Language creates, or determines or dictates reality.

Language influences how humans cognize the world through its self-formulation and self-recreation, functioning as a decisive factor in our imagery of the world. One’s thought is solely determined by his mother tongue because he can only comprehend the world based on the code, categories, and definitions in the mother tongue.

An example that I can recall is a conversation between a three-year-old kid and me. The child understands English but talks to me in Mandarin, whereas I understand Mandarin but talk to him in English. Standing on a balcony, we are looking down on a construction site, where a tree blocks the operation.

I say, “they are going to cut that tree down.”

He says, “他们用什么剪子 (scissors) 呀?”

I could infer that the boy asks this question because he is thinking about the connotation of the English word “cut,” since in Mandarin “砍 (chop, slash)” is irrelevant to scissors.

2)Linguistic Relativity

There is an indefinite quantity of variations in linguistic structures, and therefore, each language monopolizes its own categories and distinguishing definitions that are different from the counterparts in other languages.

Speech act theory

Not only is language a conversational instrument, but it is also an act.

Examples of language as act include “you have been arrested” or “I promise that…” — The announcement validates the act, which other rituals alone cannot. For words that embed the meaning of act, speech is act. Going back to the story, heptapods speak not so much to communicate thought as to confirm the behavior. They already know how the conversation will proceed, but they still choose to continue the dialogue in order to transform speech into act.

The key idea of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that language is a form of human’s distinctive behavior and that language behavior is the fundamental unit of meaning and communication. When speaking, we are simultaneously exercising three types of behaviors:

  1. Locutionary act: the act of speaking uttering the words or sentences;
  2. Illocutionary act: the act of expressing intentions;
  3. Perlocutionary act: the act of exerting influence following the speech.

Let’s take “Morning!” as an example.

  1. Locutionary act: the speaker pronounces;
  2. Illocutionary act: the speaker expresses greeting;
  3. Perlocutionary act: the other person replies, “Morning.”
Still from Arrival (2016)

Some other fun facts

●     Arbitrariness

This is one of the most significant characteristics of language. The source of many words or connotations is arbitrary or gratuitous.

Example: Captain Cook arrived in Australia, where there were some type of animal that carries its baby in a pouch. A crew member asked an indigenous people about what it is, and he replied “kanguru,” which later became the name of the animal. In fact, “kanguru” in the local language refers to “What did you say?”

●     Pun

“Hi Jack!” Jack is the most repugnant customer on any flight.

●     The author’s view on learning a language

That’s your call, of course. But the only way to learn an unknown language is to interact with a native speaker, and by that I mean asking questions, holding a conversation, that sort of thing.

Story of Your Life

●     Comprehending the writing of heptapods

“Their script isn’t word-divided; a sentence is written by joining the logograms for the constituent words. They join the logograms by rotating and modifing them. Take a look.” I showed him how the logograms were rotated.

“So they can read a word with equal ease no matter how it’s rotated,” Gary said. He turned to look at the heptapods, impressed. “I wonder if it’s a consequence of their bodies’ radial symmetry: their bodies’ radial symmetry: their bodies have no ‘forward’ direction, so maybe their writing doesn’t either. Highly neat.”

Story of Your Life

Much more interesting were the newly discovered morphological and grammat- ical processes in Heptapod B that were uniquely two-dimensional. Depending on a semagram’s declension, inflections could be indicated by varying a certain stroke’s cur- vature, or its thickness, or its manner of undulation; or by varying the relative sizes of two radicals, or their relative distance to another radical, or their orientations; or various other means.

Story of Your Life

●     Context

This form of writing was reminiscent of primitive sign systems, which required a reader to know a message’s context in order to understand it.

Story of Your Life

This is actually a core issue of pragmatics. Things like how chairs and desks are arranged in classrooms or auditoria in China and other cultures are contingent upon cultural and physical contexts. Another intriguing comparison is High Context culture versus Low Context. China, compared to the US, is a High Context culture, where people are more likely to maintain silence and rely on common culture, background, consensus, etc. Contrariwise, in American culture, members assume that they have to explicitly elucidate their meanings.

●     Fermat’s Principle

The path of light is always the one that consumes the least time. The light beam must have known its destination, which determines the fastest possible route. The fastest route is meaningless without a settled destination. Meanwhile, the light beam should also knows what is on its way, such as water. In other word, this ray knows everything about the path upfront. This nature precisely resembles the thinking of heptapods.

“Imagine, just for grins, that the ray of light traveled along this path.” He added a dotted line to his diagram: “This hypothetical path is shorter than the path the light actually takes. But light travels more slowly in water than it does in air, and a greater percentage of this path is underwater. So it would take longer for light to travel along this path than it does along the real path.”

Story of Your Life

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Jul 20 2019


7:00 am - 9:00 pm


Campbell Hall 101
Campbell Hall 101, UC Berkeley


7PM Literary and Film Salon