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

“Eel sentences” in Japanese

Imagine the following conversation:

Waiter: What would you like for the main course?
Customer 1: I will have the squid.
Customer 2: I am an eel.

In English, this makes no sense, unless Customer 2 is actually an eel, which seems unlikely. Japanese, however, has a construction that can be literally translated as though the speaker is declaring that they are an eel. This is called the “eel sentence”.

An eel sentence (or unagibun in Japanese) is a sentence of the format “X wa (topic marker) Y da (copula)”. This format, in its most basic use, can be translated as “X is Y”. However, in the case of an eel sentence, this meaning does not apply. Therefore, a customer in a restaurant might say: “Boku wa unagi da”, with X = boku (“I”) and Y = unagi (“eel”). But rather than intending to say that they are an eel, the customer here means that they will have it for dinner.

The term unagibun was coined by Keiichirō Okutsu in 1978, and since then it has been used by many linguists and featured in Japanese language textbooks. Of course, the word “eel” can be substituted by almost any other noun depending on the context, but since “eel” was the example originally used by Okutsu the term “eel sentence” stuck.

If you would like to read more about eel sentences, see the articles listed in the bibliography below.

Anne Aarssen
Editor of Brill’s Linguistic Bibliography

Koya, Itsuki: Shitei unagibun to “NP1 no NP2” ni tsuite. – Reports of the Keio Institute of Cultural and Linguistic Studies 45, 2014, 227-238 | The specificational “eel” sentence and its relation to the “NP1 no NP2” construction.

Obana, Yasuko: Unagi-sentences in Japanese and mutual knowledge. – Journal of pragmatics : an interdisciplinary monthly of language studies 33/5, 2001, 725-751.

Yagihashi, Hirotoshi: Why can a Japanese unagi-sentence be used in a request? – Lodz papers in pragmatics 5/2, 2009, 227-240.