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What I remember is, in the beginning of the movie, Louise gives the military guy a linguistic challenge to give to the translator he is going to see next, after the military guy says he will give the other translator the job if he's more cooperative than Louise (not making demands). When the military guy comes back, it is with a challenge - or possibly the second half of her challenge - that she answers, before she gets the job despite her standing by her requirements.

The dialogue I recall was something like "ask him, what is the sanskrit word for [war?] and what is its [something]", and when he returns, he asks [something] to which she replies "to have many [goats?]".

In context, it's clear that the challenge is about Louise reminding the guy to check for competence, not just cooperativeness, when choosing a linguist, so the fact I didn't quite catch it probably didn't change the movie's meaning. Nevertheless, I was interested in what that specific challenge might be — and if it was two parts of one challenge or two separate questions and answers.

So the question is, were the question (and answer) that Louise asked the military guy to pass on to the next linguist, the same question she answered after the military guy came back? What was the question (and answer(s), if possible) that she was using to challenge the guy with?

Bonus points for any contextual information about the translation being asked for and why it is a linguistic challenge.

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    See movies.stackexchange.com/q/65172/9382 – SQB Jan 4 '17 at 7:28
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    "after he says he will give him the job if he's more cooperative" Can you reword this? Too many "he"s and "him"s referring to different people. – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 4 '17 at 15:36
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit - Fixed it, sorry. I was writing ahead of my meaning, I guess, I hope it's clearer now. – Megha Jan 5 '17 at 2:59
  • I haven't seen the movie - does it equate being a linguist with being a classicist? – curiousdannii Jan 5 '17 at 4:22
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The question Louise Banks poses is as follows:

DR. BANKS: Before you commit to him… ask him the Sanskrit word for “war” and its translation.

It’s a way of challenging the other linguist’s qualifications, and it is indeed the same question she later answers.

Later, we hear the other linguist’s response, as relayed by the army handler:

Gavisti.1 He says that means discussion. What do you say it means?

DR. BANKS: A desire for more cows.

The point of this exchange is understanding how a language relates to the culture with which it’s associated. Cows, presumably, were valuable in the milieu in which Sanskrit developed.

This must further be understood in the context of the main thesis of the film, which is a very strong version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: that a language influences how its speakers perceive the world.

Thus Arrival would go even further, arguing that the precise meaning of the word “gavisti” influences how Sanskrit speakers perceive war. The point of this, plot-wise, is to indicate that Dr. Banks has a better understanding of cultural and linguistic relativity than the other linguist. As such, she is better suited to tease out the nuances of the heptapods’ language, which relies very heavily on an exaggerated version of Whorfianism. From the perspective of the military handler, though, it probably just demonstrated that she could give a more precise translation than the other linguist.

1: In Devanagari, गविष्टि . A lot of people have said that युद्ध (yuddha) is a more likely translation for “war.”

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    I don't know much about that word in particular, but the original speakers of Sanskrit were likely pastoralists, to whom the size of their herd would indeed be the definitive measure of wealth. – T.E.D. Jan 4 '17 at 14:06
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    Oh, and an extra virutal +1 for actually mentioning the formal name for the principle of language influencing thought patterns. I knew this as a principle, but not the name for it. – T.E.D. Jan 4 '17 at 14:10
  • Reminds me of the scene in Stargate when Daniel Jackson trashes Richard Kind's character's translation. – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 4 '17 at 15:39
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    It’s hard not to notice the parallel with the Latinate word impecunious meaning “impoverished” but ultimately deriving from pecu meaning "cattle", so the impecunious have no wealth because they have no cows, which again tells you something about what that culture thought about cows. :) – tchrist Jan 5 '17 at 3:20
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    @tchrist - That Latin root is also where we get the English word "pecuniary" (having to deal with money). – T.E.D. Jan 5 '17 at 17:04
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(There is a TL;DR at the end for those who don't care about Sanskrit or grammar.)

Adamant's answer is pretty excellent, but as a holder of a BA in Sanskrit & Linguistics, perhaps I can add something. I failed two of my exams, but what can you do?

The question is:

DR. BANKS: Before you commit to him… ask him the Sanskrit word for “war” and its translation.

Now, if you search "war" in Vaman Shivram Apte's The Student's English - Sanskrit Dictionary you will get:

War, Warfare, s. विग्रहः, संप्रहारः, वैरारंभः, वैरं, संग्रामः, युद्धं, रणं, (a particular battle); 'w.-cry' सिंहनादः, क्ष्वेडा; 'w.-horse' वारकीरः. -v. i. विग्रह् 9 P, युध् 4 A, कृ with (s.). -like, a. रणप्रिय, युयुत्सु, युद्धदुर्दम; रणोत्सुक, रणवीर-शूर; 'w. qualities' क्षात्रधर्माः; 'w. tribe' क्षत्रियजातिः. 2 सांग्रामिक-सामरिक (की f.).

Link

This would take a little decoding, but it's alright, because most of it isn't relevant. What it gives us is a list of the most commonly used words for 'war/warfare'. It should be noted that these words are ordered not according to frequency of use, but according to their roots. The precise ordering isn't made very clear in the introduction. The Sanskrit words for 'war', then, are:

विग्रह vigraha-, सम्प्रहार samprahāra-, वैरारंभ vairāraṃbha- (I can find no trace of this word), वैर vaira-, संग्राम saṃgrāma-, युद्ध yuddha-, and रण raṇa-.

I would tend to agree with Adamant that युद्ध yuddha- is the best translation of 'war'. Vālmīki's celebrated Rāmāyaṇa (the story of Rāma and Sītā), for example, includes a book called the युद्धकाण्ड Yuddha-Kāṇḍa, "The Book of War", or "The Book of Battle" and it is the book in which the great battle takes place.

युद्ध yuddha- comes from the root युध् yudh-, meaning "to fight, wage war, oppose or (rarely) overcome in battle". It is defined in Monier-Williams's well-used dictionary like this:

n. (ifc. f. ā) battle, fight, war, RV. &c. &c.;

Link

What all of that means is that it's a neuter gender noun, which is found in Sanskrit literature from the Ṛg-Veda (the oldest extant Sanskrit work of any import) to, and I quote, "&c. &c." which presumably means it's found throughout Sanskrit literature. Don't worry what "(ifc. f. ā)" means, I promise you it's more effort to explain that it's worth.

However, the response is:

Gavisti. He says that means discussion. What do you say it means?

DR. BANKS: A desire for more cows.

How can this be?

Well, गविष्टि gáviṣṭi- is an old Sanskrit compound. Monier-Williams tells me that it's attested in the Ṛg-Veda, but it seems (and I could be wrong) like the word fell out of use and was not used in any texts more recent than the oldest known Sanskrit text.

The word is a compound of गो go- "ox, cow" and इष्टि iṣṭi- "seeking, going after" or "wish, request, desire". Monier-Williams defines गविष्टि gáviṣṭi- like this:

mfn. id., RV.; f. desire, eagerness, ardour, fervour, RV.; desire for fighting, ardour of battle, battle, RV.

Link

The "id." means that गविष्टि gáviṣṭi- has the same meaning as गविष gaviṣá-, which has the same meaning as गविष् gavíṣ-: "wishing for cows, desirous (in general), eager, fervent".

So, judging by one of the premier Sanskrit dictionaries, गविष्टि gáviṣṭi- is a little-used, Vedic word that means "desiring cows" or "ardour of battle, battle". Which is great, it's an excellent little bit of linguistic fun.

I set out to see if I could find an example, and despite the reservations I expressed in a previous edit, I think I have found one (there may be a few others, but not many, I don't think).

This is the text of Ṛg-Veda 5.63.5:

रथं॑ युञ्जते म॒रुत॑ः शु॒भे सु॒खं शूरो॒ न मि॑त्रावरुणा॒ गवि॑ष्टिषु ।
रजां॑सि चि॒त्रा वि च॑रन्ति त॒न्यवो॑ दि॒वः स॑म्राजा॒ पय॑सा न उक्षतम् ॥ ५ ॥

5. Ráthaṃ yuñjate marútaḥ śubhé sukháṃ śū́ro ná mitrāvaruṇā gáviṣṭiṣu;
Rájāṃsi citrā́ ví caranti tanyávo diváḥ samrājā páyasā na ukṣatam.

I've added an image because it'll probably look awful in your browser:

enter image description here

The eminent Sanskritisit Ralph Griffith translates this verse:

  1. The Maruts yoke their easy car for victory, O Mitra-Varuna, as a hero in the wars.
    The thunderers roam through regions varied in their hues. Imperial Kings, bedew us with the milk of heaven.

Link to a pdf. Follow the link and go to page 210. It's verse 5 of "[05-063] HYMN LXIII. Mitra-Varuna."

Śū́ro means "hero", means "like, as", mitrāvaruṇā can be translated "O Mitra-Varuṇa" (these are two Vedic deities and "together they uphold and rule the earth and sky, together they guard the world, together they promote religious rites, avenge sin, and are the lords of truth and light" to quote Monier-Williams) and, all in all, I think "in the wars" is shaping up to be a pretty good translation of gáviṣṭiṣu. Gáviṣṭiṣu is a "locative plural" form of gáviṣṭi- so it means "in the gáviṣṭi-s", whatever gáviṣṭi- means, and I think it's probably "war".

It may not be obvious here, the Maruts are "storm-gods" and the image, as is made apparent by the rest of the hymn, seems to be that of storm-gods hitching up their chariot (which I suppose is a cloud/the clouds, but I'm not an expert on Vedic religion), as a hero in the wars, and pulling it across the sky, to send rain down on the Earth, so long as Mitra and Varuṇa will it.

The only trouble is that the renowned Sanskrit commentator on the Ṛg-Veda Sāyaṇācārya seems to me to be reading गविष्टि gáviṣṭi- as simply "desiring cows", however, I'm very bad with commentaries, so I may be wrong.


TL;DR

So it's a bit of a stretch. It really does look like गविष्टि gáviṣṭi- can have the meaning "war", but it's not an obvious choice. Certainly, गविष्टि gáviṣṭi- is (by my lights) a poor translation for "war" in the general case. Which is to say, if you asked a Sanskrit teacher, how do you say "war" in Sanskrit, and they said gáviṣṭi-, I would be surprised. It would be like somebody asking you how to say 'baldness' and you offering up 'glabriety', which I'm told means "baldness". The point being, it seems contrived, the word was chosen because it made for a fun scene in the film, rather than because it was the natural choice. What's more, I haven't a clue where the potential meaning "discussion" comes from. But then I did fail two of my exams....

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    Very nice. Yeah, I did find some of this around, but I figured other people could explain what the issue with that scene was better than I could (having nearly no knowledge of Sanskrit). – Adamant Jan 5 '17 at 0:19

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