‘Aliens, Fieldwork, and Universal Grammar’ is a talk by Jessica Coon (Associate Professor of Linguistics, McGill University, Montreal) and a conversation with Vincenzo Latronico (Writer, translator and guest co-editor of The Serving Library Annual 2018/19, Paris and Milan) curated by The Serving Library in partnership with LJMU’s Exhibition Research Lab for Liverpool Biennial 2018.
If aliens arrived, could we communicate with them? How would we do it? What are the tools that linguists use to decipher unknown languages? How different can human languages be from one another? The recent science-fiction film Arrival touches on these and other real questions in the field of linguistics. In the movie, linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to translate the language of the newly-arrived Heptapods in order to answer the usual question: why are they here? Language, it turns out, is a crucial piece of the answer. Although she has never worked with an alien, Coon was employed as scientific consultant for the linguistics in Arrival. In this talk and a subsequent discussion with novelist Vincenzo Latronico, she will discuss her own fieldwork on Mayan languages, what these languages can tell us about linguistic diversity and Universal Grammar, and how much any of this will help us at first contact.