The Dynamic Dimension of Language: The Role of Gestures

The common knowledge concerning the role of gesture in language is mainly brought to the scientific literature by the writings of the American psychologist David McNeill. Indeed, his many years of scientific research in the field of psycholinguistics focused on the relations between language, thought, and the gestures that accompany discourse. McNeill’s research is based on a key concept, the so-called “growth point”, or GP. The GP asserts the idea that language and gestures merge and should thus be analyzed as a single unit. The main point of McNeill’s research is, in fact, the study of language in its dynamic realization, as opposed to the “static” perspective on language (as maintained by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure) that dominated the 20th century. According to McNeill (2007, p. 65), language is “ripe for a new paradigm” meaning that, though not neglecting the static perspective, the new dynamic view should be implemented in the study of language, creating what Saussure (2002, p. 65) termed the “essential duality” of language, the distinction between the “synchronic”, or static, and the “diachronic”, or evolutionary, aspect of language. McNeill’s writings focus on the “moment-by-moment thinking that takes place as one speaks” (McNeill, 2007, p. 15), that is, “the microgenesis of utterances” (Duncan et al., 2007, p. 4) which “arise from a dialectic between two semiotic modes: imagery, embodied as gestures, and the lexicogrammatical categories of speech” (Duncan et al., 2007, p. 4). Such semiotic modes are considered “opposite modes of meaning capture – one global, synthetic, instantaneous, and noncombinatoric, and the other sequential, segmented, arbitrary and conventional.” Utterances microgenesis considers meaning as non-separated from thinking: McNeill (2007, p. 125) asserts that “It is not that one thinks first, then finds the language to express thought.” In this complex frame, gesture ends up representing the embodiment of one’s thinking in a specific moment.


typical italian gesture "mano a borsa"
Figure 1. The use of gesture in language is useful to enrich the discourse contents and make it more specific.

Language and gesture have been considered separate units for a long time, even if the relationship linking them to each other was already clear. One crucial statement to define the relations between gesture and language is the definition of these two terms. It is important to keep in mind that “gesture” is here considered in its most common meaning, which roughly refers to “a range of visible bodily actions that are, more or less, generally regarded as part of a person’s willing expression” (McNeill, 2000, p. 49). As for the definition of “language”, several academic views could be followed. For instance, following Saussure’s definition of language, gestures are considered to be “arbitrary form-meaning pairs differentiated in contrastive relationships and organized paradigmatically and syntagmatically” (McNeill, 2000, p. 47), thus being a form of language. On the other hand, Whitney defines language as “the means of expression of human thought” (1899, p. 1), including some instrumentalities through which humans represent their thought. This view would also include gestures as part of language, but the author gives specific prominence to spoken signs in his writings. Nonetheless, Whitney maintains that we make use of gestures:


“On the one hand for communication where the usual conventional means is of no avail [such as deaf people] and, on the other hand, for embellishing and explaining and enforcing our ordinary language: where it is of such power and value that no student of language can afford to overlook.” (p. 283)


Moreover, Leonard Bloomfield, one of the most influential linguists of the 20th century, in his famous work Language (1984), maintains that gesture always goes together with speech, thus constituting a social convention. In addition, according to the author, gestures are obvious in their functioning. Arguably, as sustained by Bolinger (1975, p. 18) “language is embedded in gesture.” Indeed, as it is also explained in McNeill (2000):


If language is a cognitive activity, and if, as is clear, gestural expression is intimately involved in acts of spoken linguistic expression, then it seems reasonable to look closely at gesture for the light it may throw on this cognitive activity. (p. 49).


A child points something for a toddler to see it
Figure 2. Gesture represents one pivotal attainment during the language acquisition process in toddlers, as it supports the use of a shared attention in conversational contexts.

Research in cognitive linguistics has also found that abstract or semantically void features of language (such as grammatical markers, processes, and structures) can convey a complex pattern of conceptualization (see Langacker 1987 and Lapaire 2008). Such patterns have a strong influence on grammar and its organization, explaining the underlying reason for embodied reasoning, which derives from the body-based interactions in the world (see Heine, 1997 and Lakoff and Johnson, 1999). The existence of what Harrison (2018) refers to as a “grammar-gesture nexus” — namely a “systematic binding of grammatical and gestural form” (p. 4) — questions the assumption according to which gestures are primarily spontaneous manifestations of human thought (McNeill, 1992).


In his Hand and Mind (1992), McNeill defines gestures as “idiosyncratic spontaneous movements of the hands and arms accompanying speech” (p. 37). Although this definition has constituted the foundation of our understanding of gesture, nonetheless it should be underlined that, as explained in Harrison (2018, p. 21), “the form and organization of gesture is highly systematic.” In fact, according to Kendon (2004), speakers share different gestural expressions conveying similar meanings with similar forms. Moreover, according to Ladewig (2014), speakers tend to reproduce similar gestures in similar contexts, thus giving credit to the idea that a mixture of systematicity and spontaneity in the production of gestures exists. Such a mixture, as maintained in Harrison (2018), is considered a consequence of “why, where and how people gesture when they speak.” Plausibly, linguistic constructs in speech may “cause, determine, and shape the impulse to gesture” (p. 22).


Kendon (2004) made a detailed analysis of the gesture families of the Open Hand, observing that people usually use a gesture where the palm is open and turned downward, and the forearm is prone and moved rapidly on the horizontal axis. This specific gesture is recognized to be the expression of negation, corresponding to the same message as “no”, “never”, “not”, or to negative affixes such as “n’t”, “un”, “non”. According to the same author, the Horizontal Open Palm movement is linked with the meaning of negation on a linguistic, semantic, and discursive level and this relationship is confirmed in several different cultures. Regularity can thus be identified in people’s practice of gestures, which is not necessarily dependent on the context: as explained in Bressem et al. (2013) “gestures often constitute re-enactments of basic mundane actions, grounding the gestures’ communicative actions in real-world actions” (p. 1106).



man and woman with closed eyes kiss on each other's hand
Figure 3. In order to fully understand its use, gesture needs to be considered as part of language, and as a social convention as well.

Gesture displays a mixture of regularity and idiosyncrasy, just like language. Accordingly, it is crucial to know that gestures have a specific regularity that is governed by a mechanism that current research individuates as “grammar-gesture nexus”, i.e., the binding that exists between the grammatical and gestural forms of certain meanings. Such nexus stems from spoken language and constitutes an established and well-known social convention (such as the one for negation). Gestures usually reflect manual everyday actions, thus representing a strong example of the embodiment of communication and cognition. Consequently, it seems reasonable to consider gestures as part of language, as they are capable of conveying (or reinforcing) even subtle variations in the linguistic content they accompany. Indeed, as maintained in Harrison (2018) gestures vary “in terms of timing and kinesic variation ­(amplitude, speed, extent, etc.)" (p. 45).


Speakers shape their conceptual space linguistically, but they also do that gesturally. People tend to gesture to construe the meaning they want to convey in a particular way. Such gestures have the power to enrich the meaning in multiple ways, as demonstrated by Streeck (2009), who distinguishes between a “thematic construal” (i.e., when gestures are used to encode emotions, ideas, and feelings) and “meta-pragmatic construal” (i.e., when gestures “embody and visualize (and potentially enact) a communicative function or illocutionary force that is simultaneously performed by the spoken utterance that they accompany”). In conclusion, the use of gestures in physical space gives information on how the speaker is shaping the conceptual space.


Bibliographical References

Bloomfield, L. (1984). Language (Reprint ed.). University of Chicago Press.


Bolinger, D. (1975). Aspects of Language (2nd ed.). Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich.

Bressem, J., Ladewig, S. H., & Müller, C. (2013). 71. Linguistic Annotation System for Gestures. In C. Müller, A. Cienki, E. Fricke, S. Ladewig, D. McNeill, and J. Bressem (Eds.), Body – Language – Communication: An international handbook on multi-modality in human interaction (pp. 1098-1124). De Gruyter Mouton.

Duncan, S. D., Cassell, J., & Levy, E. T. (2007). Gesture and the Dynamic Dimension of Language: Essays in Honor of David McNeill (Gesture Studies). John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Kendon, A. (2004). Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance (Illustrated ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Harrison, S. (2018). The Impulse to Gesture: Where Language, Minds, and Bodies Intersect. Cambridge University Press.

Heine, B. (1997). Cognitive Foundations of Grammar (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind & its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books.

Ladewig, S. H. (2014). 118. Recurrent gestures. In C. Müller, A. Cienki, E. Fricke, S. Ladewig, D. McNeill, and J. Bressem (Eds.), Body – Language – Communication: An international handbook on multi-modality in human interaction (pp. 1558-1574). De Gruyter Mouton.

Langacker, R. W. (1987). Foundations of cognitive grammar. Indiana University Linguistics Club.

Lapaire, J. R. (2008). The meaning of meaningless grams - or emptiness revisited. In Oleksy, W. and Stalmaszczyk, P. (Eds.). Cognitive approaches to language and linguistic data. (241-58) Lodz Studies in Language. Peter Lang. ⟨hal-02652826⟩

McNeill, D. (1992). Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal about Thought (1st ed.). University of Chicago Press.

McNeill, D. (2000). Language and Gesture (Language Culture and Cognition, Series Number 2) (Illustrated ed.). Cambridge University Press.

McNeill, D. (2007). Gesture and Thought (1st ed.). University of Chicago Press.

McNeill, D. (2012). How Language Began: Gesture and Speech in Human Evolution (Approaches to the Evolution of Language) (Illustrated ed.). Cambridge University Press.

McNeill, D. (2016). Why We Gesture: The Surprising Role of Hand Movements in Communication. Cambridge University Press.

Saussure, F. de (2002). Écrits de linguistique générale. Engler, R., Bouquet, S. (Eds.). (0 ed.). Gallimard.

Streeck, J. (2009). Gesturecraft (Gesture Studies) (UK ed.). John Benjamins Publishing Company.


Whitney, W. D. (1899). The life and growth of language: an outline of linguistic science. D. Appleton and Company (Originally published 1875).


Visual sources

Figure 1. devonn. (n.d.). Main italienne (blanc et noir) [Digital illustration]. Retrieved from https://ih1.redbubble.net/image.942376927.0266/pp,840x830-pad,1000x1000,f8f8f8.jpg


Figure 2. Slobin D.I. (2007). Angled point at object with gaze at addressee (age 2;8). [Digital illustration]. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/figure/b-Angled-point-at-object-with-gaze-at-addressee-age-28_fig3_254248100


Figure 3. Wang J. (2019). John and Mary kiss each other. [Digital illustration]. Retrieved from https://news.uchicago.edu/story/what-nearly-all-languages-have-common-whether-you-speak-or-sign


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Antonio Verolino

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