Recently I came across three fictional narratives where linguists are the heroes. I am talking about the film Arrival (2016, based on the 1998 short story The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang), the podcast The Message (2017, produced by Panoply and GE Podcast Theater), and the tv show Manhunt: Unabomber (2017, Discovery Channel). The first two are science fiction and both wonder what could alien languages look like and how would we communicate with them. Personally, I think The Message does not really delve into the issue enough and becomes a simple suspense story, while Arrival and The Story of your Life do offer very interesting tought experiments. Manhunt: Unabomber is very different, it is based on the true story of how the Unabomber was caught thanks to the linguistic analysis of his letters.
In these stories a female linguist needs to use her knowledge, wit and courage to solve the problems other characters (mostly men part of the military or the police) can’t solve. Of course, many of these arrogant men of action don’t trust the linguistic approach, but are forced to recognize its ultimate victory.
This depiction of the linguistic profession is a pleasent surprise to me. Usually, the scientists who save the day in sci-fi films are mathematician, physicist, biologist. Even an archeologist has had a much more heroic hollywood-hero career than any linguist I know of. Being a quarter linguist myself, I really appreciate this new trend, but I wonder why it is happening right now.
It is interesting that during part of the 20th century linguistics was one of the most sucessful disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Sausure’s structural approach to language was borrowed by many other disciplines in the 50’s and 60’s in an attempt to become more reliable (Anthropology, Literary Studies, Marxism, Psychoanalisis, etc). Sociolinguistics and Cognitive Science also made huge developments. Linguistics was the diva in academia, but that fame didn’t translate to popular culture. Or maybe it did and I am just not aware of that?
In any case, I think the current heroicity of linguistics in popular culture responds to a revival of the discipline through computational methods and a more direct contact with the concerns of the digital age. Machine Learning and AI are used regularly to analyze the way we communicate and use language over the internet. Everyone is aware of bots capable of processing and creating language. Thanks to the web, language is on the spotlight and linguistics is considered a very powerful tool. Even to fight against aliens.