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Review of  The Anatomy of Meaning

Reviewer: Katharine Parton
Book Title: The Anatomy of Meaning
Book Author: Nicholas J. Enfield
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 24.2940

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This book analyzes utterances which occur using both speech and gesture. Enfield argues that speech and gesture can be, in his examples, understood as co-occurring signs which, in that co-occurrence, become composite utterances, and as such, carry new, composite meanings. Enfield explores this perspective on gesture and speech composite utterances through examples from speakers of Lao, focusing first on pointing gestures with speech, and then examining illustrative gestures with their co-occurring talk. He argues that in order to understand social interaction and the meanings that people create with and for one another in each interaction, it is the composite utterance (i.e. the gesture plus speech) that needs to form the basis of interactional analysis.

In the book’s opening chapter Enfield argues that meaning’s genesis, following a neo-Peircean semiotic and neo-Gricean pragmatic perspective, is not language. Rather, language forms one part of the complexity of signs that create meaning between people. Enfield first lays out examples of composite utterances across a variety of modalities. He posits that meaning across examples from artwork, such as paintings, requires an examination of visual aspects and titles of paintings to understand the meaning the artist intends. A photograph of a historically significant moment demonstrates that the meaning of the photographic semiotic whole only becomes apparent when the complexity of the photograph’s historical and social context is identified, and thus, that meaning itself is composite in nature. Enfield goes on to position his analysis of speech and gesture as signs within both gesture and semiotic research.

The remaining chapters are grouped into two parts: the first deals with deictic components of moves and the second with illustrative components of moves. Enfield examines demonstratives, lip-pointing and hand-pointing as deictic components and includes modeling, diagramming and editing in the illustrative moves he discusses.

Chapter 2, on demonstratives, uses data from video-recorded interactions between Lao speakers in a variety of face-to-face, naturally occurring situations, from market places to riverside discussions. Enfield focuses on the Lao system of spatial proximity description, arguing that, through an examination of the speaker’s gestures, the two-term system ‘nii4’ and ‘nan4’, previously defined as ‘proximal’ and ‘distal’, should be seen as context-dependent and descriptive of social interactional space relations rather than as a binary, static distinction. He argues that these demonstratives rely on both semantic and pragmatic meaning for interactional deployment, and as such, are composite utterances. Chapter 2 argues that the meaning of ‘nii4’ and ‘nan4’ can be seen as constructed by interactants, through the use of demonstratives, to create ‘engagement areas’ and ‘here-spaces’, which form the basis of Enfield’s analysis. He further argues that these areas/spaces and ‘co-constructing’ uses of ‘nii4’ and ‘nan4’ are conventionalized and predictable and that they are locally constructed with fluid meaning, depending on the interaction and interactional space.

In opening Chapter 3, Enfield problematizes the labeling of so-called ‘lip-pointing’. He shows that it is a widely occurring phenomenon studied in linguistics and gesture studies across a number of languages and geographical locations. Chapter 3 surveys a number of lip-pointing examples from a variety of languages, allowing Enfield to argue that lip-pointing rarely, if ever, involves only the lips. Interactions between Lao speakers are again shown using stills from video of speakers’ interactions, with a focus on the relationships between lip-pointing and co-occurring hand-pointing and gaze direction (both matched and mismatched with lip-pointing directionality). Enfield concludes that the lip-pointing practice in Lao is used to describe the location of referents, and, when combined with other deictic practices, can result in varying interactional purposes.

Following the chapter on lip-pointing, Chapter 4 provides an account of an empirical study of hand-pointing across Lao speakers. Here, the data comes from both Lao interactions and semi-structured interviews eliciting pointing gestures. Enfield argues that Big and Small (i.e. B-point and S-point) gestures have different functions within Lao social interactions, but that both types of gestures and the gestures’ co-occurring speech should be considered as fundamentally composite utterances.

Part II of “The Anatomy of Meaning” focuses on the illustrative components of moves using longer extracts of interaction (again, video-recorded) along with transcriptions, including images taken from the recordings. The examples in Chapter 5 are descriptions of the fishing equipment used locally and the examples in Chapter 7 are explanations of kinship systems and marriage practices within those kinship systems. Chapter 6 uses both kinship and fishing examples.

In Chapter 5, Enfield discusses examples of descriptions of fishing equipment, showing that the gestures which co-occur with the verbal descriptions model the actual, physical equipment and its use. Supporting one of the main thrusts of the book, the verbal description alone is insufficient to understand the appearance and functionality of the fishing equipment, and therefore, the speech and gesture must be understood, Enfield argues, as composite to access the full meaning of the utterance. Further, he shows that these modeling gestures are both combinatoric and linear in interactional uses. He argues for a predominance of two handed symmetry in the first stage of the gesture sequence, followed by one hand taking over the representation of the first stage, while the other hand is able to manipulate what the first hand is now ‘standing for’. As such, Enfield argues that meaning from the composite utterance is built over several gestural moves in a linear fashion.

Enfield builds on the modeling examples to put forward an argument that Lao speakers use the body and gestures as cognitive artifacts. In Chapter 6, he first gives a comprehensive overview of Lao kinship systems and the rules governing marriage within that community. He then uses the examples of kinship diagramming over both speech and gesture to argue that not only are the bodies and gestures cognitive artifacts, but that they are, in fact, separate cognitive artifacts because the gestures have existence, in these examples, which outlasts their physical performance.

An argument Enfield continues in the next chapter (Chapter 7), on ‘Editing’, is that the gesturers can return to the site of earlier gestures in order to manipulate the diagrams as they were ‘drawn’. Enfield gives a limited typology of the types of editing that gesturers perform (p. 220) and calls for further research on the editing practices of gestures that interact with gestural diagrams in this way.


Enfield’s book positions itself as research on meaning, specifically, the ‘unification of meaning’, and he argues for understanding component signs within interactional moves as parts of wholes which must taken together when analyzing interaction. As such, “The Anatomy of Meaning” is an invaluable resource for anyone working on how interactants create, maintain or change and transmit meaning within interactions, whether these are face-to-face, heavily gestural, or otherwise. However, given the book’s focus on the gestural, it would potentially be helpful to readers of this research if videos of the interactions analyzed were made available by the publishers, perhaps online, to complement the transcriptions and images in the printed book.

Enfield’s book has obvious relevance for gesture studies as a whole; first, because it argues for the importance of gesture in any interactional analysis, and second, because of the specific types of gestures described and analyzed across several chapters. The chapters on diagramming and editing hold particular interest for researchers in cognition, whether it be from a social or distributed perspective. The in-depth analysis of the previously-called proximal/distal ‘nii4’ and ‘nan4’ system shows a fascinating insight into how descriptive linguistics could use gesture to more accurately delve into the meanings of various linguistic features in all languages.

Obviously, “The Anatomy of Meaning” gives significant insight into Lao speakers’ cultural practices in its discussion of kinship and fishing practices, and as such, would be of great relevance to anthropologists and linguists working in that area. Its focus on kinship diagramming opens a line of inquiry into the describing of kinship practices across linguistic (and cultural) variation, which should be of interest to anyone studying kinship terms, organization, and marriage practices, both within communities of Lao speakers and cross-culturally.

Enfield’s book calls for further research on a number of points he raises within his analysis and argumentation and this call needs to be answered from researchers across semiotics and meaning, gesture studies, anthropology, typology and descriptive linguistics, as well as those engaging in the study of interaction and cognition.
Katharine Parton is a PhD candidate in the School of Languages & Linguistics at the University of Melbourne. Her research examines interaction in orchestral rehearsal, focussing on gesture. Her broader research interests include epistemics, social cognition, gesture and social interaction.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781107407756
Prices: U.S. $ 35.99
U.K. £ 22.99