Sapir-Whorf and science fiction

The recent film Arrival has become the talk of the town among linguists. The film features a linguist who has to learn the language of aliens who have landed on Earth, in order to be able to communicate about their purpose. So how do linguistics and science fiction films work together? It seems that despite the genre, this film took the correct representation of reality rather seriously, as linguist Jessica Coon was recruited to advise the filmmakers about the way in which a linguist works.

In the film, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (also called linguistic relativity) is an important plot point. This hypothesis, very simply put, states that the language one speaks affects the way in which one thinks. For example, speakers of a language with no separate word for green would have more difficulty distinguishing between what we call “green” and “blue”, simply because for them one word covers what we see as two colours. Now, this theory is controversial and there are more nuanced versions of it, but Arrival takes the theory rather literally. (The following contains plot spoilers, so be warned!)

Thanks to linguist Louise’s work we find out that the aliens did not come to Earth to destroy us with a “weapon” (as Louise’s original translation seemed to imply), but to give humans a “tool” or a “present”, and that present is their non-linear language. This is then taken to mean that once you learn the aliens’ language, you can think non-linearly as well, meaning that you can see into the future. This seems rather far-fetched, of course, but we are talking about a science fiction movie. At least the film introduced the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to a broad audience, and demonstrated the importance of language/communication as a tool to avoid war.

If you would like to read more about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and related subjects, you can refer to the bibliography below. For even more publications on the topic, you can search the Linguistic Bibliography Online with the keyword “linguistic relativity”.

Anne Aarssen
Editor of Brill’s Linguistic Bibliography


Casasanto, Daniel J.: A shared mechanism of linguistic, cultural, and bodily relativity. – Language learning : a journal of research in language studies 66/3, 2016, 714-730

Deutscher, Guy: Through the language glass : why the world looks different in other languages. – New York, NY : Metropolitan books ; New York, NY : Holt, 2010

Enfield, Nick J.: Linguistic relativity from reference to agency. – Annual review of anthropology 44, 2015, 207-224

Pavlenko, Aneta: Whorf’s lost argument : multilingual awareness. – Language learning : a journal of research in language studies 66/3, 2016, 581-607

Skerrett, Delaney Michael: Can the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis save the planet? : lessons from cross-cultural psychology for critical language policy. – Current issues in language planning 11/4, 2010, 331-340

Semantic prosody

When we think of words like happen, cause, perfectly, or totally with respect to their contexts of use they seem more or less neutral concerning their associative meaning. Anything could cause something to happen whether perfectly or totally whatsoever. To sum it up: everything seems possible to occur, words obviously combine without restrictions.

Yet when you look closely at corpus data for each of those examples especially in the KWIC (Key Word In Context) mode you will see that the words used in combination with e. g. cause “group in interesting ways” as Hoey (2005) puts it (p. 22):

From Hunston (2007, 251)
From Hunston (2007, 251)

We see concern (14, 15), problems (13), anger (4), damage (8), misery (11) and several seemingly unpleasant diseases including dizziness and vomiting (9), a kidney stone (6) or even inflammation of the liver (10). Now you could claim that the respective data may not be valid enough as it shows such obvious biases. Stubbs (1995) and several others however found out that an amount of over 90% of the occurrences of cause in the British National Corpus – a rather representative sample of the English language – is associated with negative meaning. Hunston  (2002: 142) even writes that this “can be observed only by looking at a large number of instances of a word or phrase, because it relies on the typical use of a word of phrase.” The whole concept therefore seems rather to be more corpus driven than just a corpus based theory.  So altogether it isn’t a marginal phenomenon at all and many further examples can be encountered by having a closer look at corpus data.

Sinclair (1991) sums it up as the following:  “[M]any uses of words and phrases show a tendency to occur in a certain semantic environment, for example the word happen is associated with unpleasant things – accidents and the like” (Sinclair 1991: 112) or as Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction states…

This phenomenon is called semantic prosody or discourse prosody: a “consistent aura of meaning” (Louw 1993: 157) emerging around words as they are frequently used in certain environments as shown above. The expression was first introduced by Louw (1993) following John Rupert Firth’s description of prosody in phonological terms: “Firth (1957) argued that when we pronounce a word such as /ʃɪp/ our mouth is already shaping the [ɪ] sound even as it makes the [ʃ] sound.” (Hoey 2005: 22). On that account as the sounds in words interact while we pronounce them, meaning seems to do the same as it emerges from usage.

So now we know for sure when we ask ourselves, what could possibly happen

For further reading explore the literature below.

Jonas Schreiber (FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg)
Intern at Brill’s Linguistic Bibliography


Begagić, Mirna: Semantic preference and semantic prosody of the collocation make sense. – Jezikoslovlje 14/2-3, 2013, 403-416.

Hoey, Michael: Lexical priming : a new theory of words and language. – London : Routledge, 2005.

Hunston, Susan: Corpora in applied linguistics. – Cambridge : Cambridge UP, 2002.

Hunston, Susan: Semantic prosody revisited. – International journal of corpus linguistics 12/2, 2007, 249-268.

Louw, Bill: Irony in the text or insinceriy in the writer : the diagnostic potential of semantic prosodies. – In: Text and technology : in honour of John Sinclair / Ed. by Mona Baker ; Gill Francis ; Elena Tognini-Bonelli. – Amsterdam : Benjamins, 1993, 157-176.

Morley, John; Partington, Alan Scott: A few frequently asked questions about semantic – or evaluative – prosody. – International journal of corpus linguistics 14/2, 2009, 139-158.

Partington, Alan Scott: “Utterly content in each other’s company” : semantic prosody and semantic preference. – International journal of corpus linguistics 9/1, 2004, 131-156.

Sinclair, John McH.: Corpus, concordance, collocation. – Oxford : Oxford UP, 1991.

Stubbs, Michael W.: Collocations and semantic profiles : on the cause of the trouble with quantitative studies. – Functions of languge 2/1, 1995, 23-55.