EDITORS: Duncan, Susan D.; Cassell, Justine; Levy, Elena T.
TITLE: Gesture and the Dynamic Dimension of Language
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
Pentti Haddington, English Philology, Faculty of Humanities, University of Oulu,
Quite recently, there has been a sharp increase in the amount of research on the
complex relationship between gesture and language. Such fields as gesture
studies, interaction analysis and conversation analysis have contributed to our
understanding of this relationship in natural discourse. This new book edited by
Susan D. Duncan, Justine Cassell and Elena T. Levy provides an important and
versatile contribution to this fascinating research area. It is also the first
volume published in the new Gesture Studies series published by Benjamins. The
book is a festschrift honoring the research of David McNeill, whose work has
helped scholars around the world better understand the relationship between
gesture, language, cognition and interaction. As the editors note in the
introduction, these studies reflect McNeill's view of language as a dynamic
phenomenon with emergent structure, and his idea that gesture is part of
language and not an adjunct to it (4).
The book is composed of 21 articles. After the introductory section, the book is
divided into three sections: 1) Language and Cognition, 2) Environmental Context
and Sociality and 3) Atypical Minds and Bodies.
The book starts with the editors' brief introduction (pp. 3–11, ''Introduction:
The Dynamic Dimension of Language'') to the background of McNeill's theoretical
thinking and to some of his main theoretical notions.
The next article by Adam Kendon, ''On the Origins of Modern Gesture Studies'' (pp.
13–28), gives a detailed view of the historical development of gesture studies
from the Renaissance to the present. He connects the development of gesture
studies both to various historical events and to the historical development of
linguistics and anthropology, especially since the late 19th century. He
discusses the reasons why gesture studies has recently gained so much prominence
as a research field and why it has the status it now has.
Kendon's article is important and should be read by anyone who is planning to
teach a course on or study gesture. The article provides a view to various
historical approaches to the study of gestures and, moreover, to the historical
origins of research on the relationship between gesture and language. Kendon's
discussion of the historical development of gesture studies vis-à-vis
linguistics supports the overall theme of the book. Moreover, it makes one aware
that teaching and researching the history of linguistics could benefit greatly
from considering the history of gesture studies (and vice versa). Indeed,
further research on the influence that linguistics and gesture studies have had
on each other could provide new and fresh vantage points to the historical
understanding of both.
The first larger section contains nine articles, which primarily focus on the
relationship between language and gesture from a cognitive or ''intrapersonal''
vantage point. The first paper by Susan Goldin-Meadow, ''Gesture with Speech and
Without It'' (pp. 31–49), considers gesture from two perspectives: First, it
asks, when does gesture assume the full responsibility for communication? And
second, when is gesture used together with speech? Goldin-Meadow's article
provides an interesting insight into the relationship between gesture and
language structure in interaction. Her data are particularly interesting: she
has studied deaf children who have not been exposed to any language, but have
developed their own gestural system for communication (they use so-called
'homesigns'). Such a system is of course very different from the gestural system
that is used together with speech. Nevertheless, Goldin-Meadow is able to show
that deaf children who ''do not have'' a native language are, on the one hand,
capable communicators and, on the other hand, the structure of the homesign sign
language they use has properties that are strikingly similar with the syntax,
word order and pragmatics of spoken language.
Without going into great detail, her very interesting paper provides food for
thought in terms of understanding the origins of language, argument structure
(cf. Du Bois 2003), word order and social actions/activities.
Nini Hoiting and Dan I. Slobin's ''From Gestures to Signs in the Acquisition of
Sign Language'' (pp. 51–65) considers sign language acquisition and the
development of the use of gestures among signers. They also compare sign
language acquisition with spoken language acquisition. Their data were recorded
in the Netherlands and in them they have looked at 15–36-month old deaf
children. Their main question is: when does an iconic gesture become a symbol in
the acquisition of sign language? They suggest that there might be different
timetables and patterns as regards the acquisition of linguistic structures.
They also address an interesting cognitive aspect of sign language acquisition:
compared to hearing children, do deaf children have a different route to
learning signs, since they sometimes seem to accidentally use an appropriate
sign? Hearing children do not stumble across an appropriate phonological form by
All in all, the article raises some interesting questions regarding the
cognitive development and acquisition of linguistic phenomena between the deaf
and the hearing (how does it happen, when does it happen, and what happens?).
Similarly with Kendon's article, Hoiting and Slobin deal with a fundamental
question for linguists: what is language?
In their paper ''How does Spoken Language Shape Iconic Gestures'' (pp. 67–74)
Sotaro Kita and Asli Özyürek focus on the role of gesture as a component of
thinking and speaking. They also at how the gestures we use reflect the dynamic
relationship between imagery and language in our heads. The authors discuss
three hypotheses, of which one is their own, The Interface Hypothesis. They
examine how a language's lexical and syntactic structure influences the
speakers' use of iconic gestures. They focus on the construal of particular
motion events, and their findings - which are based on cross-linguistic data -
suggest that syntactic and gestural packaging of information are cognitively
What makes Kita's and Özyürek's research particularly interesting from a
linguistic perspective, is that it draws on and makes connections with Cognitive
Grammar and Construction Grammar.
By focusing on retellings of an episode of Sylvester the Cat and Tweety Bird,
Nobuhiro Furuyama and Kazuki Sekine (''Forgetful or Strategic? The Mystery of the
Systematic Avoidance of Reference in the Cartoon Story Narrative'', pp. 75–81)
argue that in the retellings of the cartoon, speakers tend to avoid telling a
particular piece of information (by addressing it in talk or gesture); namely
Sylvester's direction of motion in the punch-line of one of the episodes.
According to the authors, Sylvester's motion in the punch-line disrupts an
overall motion pattern in the cartoon. The authors argue that describing
direction per se is not something that is avoided, but that a piece of
information can be avoided in order to maintain narrative or discourse cohesion.
This is what the authors argue happens in the studied retellings as well:
narrating Sylvester's divergent movement would disrupt the cohesiveness of the
In ''Metagesture: An Analysis of Theoretical Discourse about Multimodal Language''
(pp. 83–89) Fay Parrill takes a metadiscursive view to a gesture that is
frequently used by McNeill himself: a gesture in which two hands form an almost
closed cup. This gesture metaphorically encloses a virtual object that is being
talked about. Parrill draws on several examples in which McNeill uses this
gesture. She argues that the gesture is used in similar discourse environments
and that it can, together with talk, express information that forms a conceptual
unit (i.e. a growth point). This argument is in line with McNeill's growth point
theory of the dialectic between ''the imagistic and linguistic aspects of the
language system'' (p. 86). Parrill concludes that the cupped gesture is an
example of a 'speaker-specific gesture' that 1) is generated on the basis of
imagery (i.e. it is not conventionalized) and 2) is routinized.
Evelyn McClave in an interesting paper ''Potential Cognitive Universals: Evidence
from Head Movements in Turkana'' (pp. 91–98) looks at three head movements that
recur in the discourse of speakers of genetically different languages. In her
own prior work and with her colleagues she has investigated head movements among
speakers of Arabic, Bulgarian, Korean and African-American Vernacular English.
In the paper published in this volume she has focused on recordings made of
Turkana people (northwestern Kenya) to see if similar head movements in similar
discursive contexts can be found in their talk. McClave admits that certain head
movements are naturally culture specific. However, in her data, she has found
three head movement types that occur across cultural and linguistic boundaries:
head movements that occur together with lists, head movements that accomplish
pointing and head movements that function as backchannel requests.
In ''Blending in Deception: Tracing Output Back to Its Source'' (pp. 99–108), Amy
Franklin looks at gesture-speech mismatches. According to Franklin (p. 99)
gesture-speech mismatches occur when people have several things in mind that
they want to express. Franklin looks at experimental situations in which
participants have watched a cartoon and are asked to misreport parts of the
cartoon to another person who has not seen it. She shows that in misreport
sequences that contain a mismatch between linguistic and embodied information,
the final output can be understood as a blend that reflects the different
strategies the speaker has (e.g. producing talk that is part fact, part
fiction). Franklin's findings empirically suggest that an embodied action or,
for example, a facial expression can give the speaker away if s/he is not
telling the right side of an issue.
Cornelia Müller's paper ''A Dynamic View of Metaphor, Gesture and Thought'' (pp.
109–116) discusses metaphors and draws on McNeill's theory to outline a dynamic
view of metaphor. With the help of an example from everyday interaction, she
studies a metaphor that draws on the source domain LOVE AS A JOURNEY. She
describes the role that gesture, head movement and language have in the
activation, foregrounding and expression of metaphoricity in spoken interaction,
and shows that interlocutors can use multiple modalities simultaneously to
express metaphors. Müller's paper is important for linguists interested in
metaphors, because it shows that metaphoricity is not only a linguistic phenomenon.
In the last paper of the first section, ''Second Language Acquisition from a
McNeillian Perspective'' (pp. 117–124), Gale A. Stam argues that rather than
focusing on learners' speech only, second language acquisition (SLA) research
would benefit from considering both speech and gesture, and how they figure in
SLA. Most of the paper reviews prior SLA research that has considered the role
of gesture in second/foreign language learning/teaching.
Stam's paper is indeed a good review paper for SLA scholars who are not familiar
with this particular area. Although space limitations perhaps did not allow
this, it would have been interesting, for instance, to see an analysis of the
role of gestures in language learning and how they reveal ''thinking for speaking''.
The second section, which contains eight articles, takes a more interactional or
'interpersonal' approach to the relationship between language and gesture. In
general, the papers in this section foreground the idea that language and the
use of gestures should be investigated in the social context in which they are
The first paper in this section is Janet Bavelas's ''Face-to-face Dialogue as a
Micro-social Context: The example of Motor-mimicry'' (pp. 127–146). The
phenomenon that she describes (motor-mimicry in interaction) is very
interesting. However, her paper also raises theoretical and research ethical
issues. First of all, 'motor-mimicry' is a phenomenon that all of us can relate
to. It refers, for instance, to a listener's embodied (wince) and/or spoken
action (''ouch'') that follows an incident - or an account of such incident - in
which someone is hurt. Based on her and her colleagues' prior research (Bavelas,
Black, Lemery and Mullett 1986), she shows that counter to the general belief
that such a mimic action is a cognitive reaction to stimulus that somehow
expresses the actor's internal state of mind, 'motor-mimicry' is designed to be
seen by the coparticipants and contingent upon, for example, whether the
participants' gaze meet.
By considering 'motor-mimicry' as a social, reciprocal and intersubjective
practice, Bavelas also makes an important theoretical argument. Her work
strongly supports the idea that individuals do not act in a vacuum; rather, the
micro-social context, with its variable semiotic resources and stimuli,
influences individuals and their actions in such fundamental ways that the
analytic starting point cannot be the individual. This argument diverges from
the general tendency in much research in linguistics and social psychology.
Next, Bavelas paper takes an interesting metalinguistic turn towards considering
research ethics. She takes a detailed view to how the above 1986 paper has been
cited. She shows that the original findings (see the argument above) have been
largely misunderstood and miscited. She points out (p. 140) that she does not
think that the miscitations are due to malevolence or deliberate behavior.
Rather, she thinks that ''the authors simply read our experiment as fitting a
familiar and expected pattern.'' The slight unconventionality of Bavelas's paper
provides an important and refreshing contribution to the book.
John B. Haviland's ''Master Speakers, Master Gesturers: A String Quartet Master
Class'' (pp. 147–172) is an ethnographic/anthropological study that draws on
McNeill's work and looks at gestures in a recording of string quarter 'Master
Class' at Reed College Music Department. The data are from a teaching situation.
Those readers (including me) who are not familiar with music teaching, musical
notation or the musical world may find Haviland's paper challenging, but that is
exactly the article's point. Haviland shows that in a
playing-learning-teaching-music context, the challenge for the participants is
to understand the ''big picture'' while taking care of one's own part. This
context is extremely complicated because the participants have to manage and
coordinate their actions in the emerging intersubjective and reciprocal
environment. Haviland points out that the use of gestures, talk (and grammar)
and other ''external'' material resources (such as musical scores) are carefully
coordinated, as the musicians interact with each other during the production of
music. The gist of the paper is provided in the last section where he - based on
his data and analysis - argues that in the analysis of discourse, contrary to
many theoretical and methodological trends, gesture should not be considered
separate from speech.
Haviland's paper and the points he raises have interesting parallels with the
research done in Mediated Discourse Analysis (cf. Scollon and Scollon 2003;
Scott K. Liddell and Marit Vogt-Svendsen (''Constructing Spatial
Conceptualizations from Limited Input: Evidence from Norwegian Sign Language'',
pp. 173–194) look at Norwegian sign language. They compare different uses of
space for conceptualizing meanings and doing referencing in a short narrative
sequence when the referents are not present. They further look at how signers
use these spatial conceptualizations as resources for further signing.
Liddell and Vogt-Svendsen's article provides an illustrative description of the
nature of signing. Especially the descriptions of how signers use the space in
front of them (whether real or event space), how different signers do this in
different ways, and how it still has to be conceptualized in order to be
understood correctly, provide an interesting read.
In the next paper, Charles Goodwin looks at ''Environmentally Coupled Gestures''
(pp. 195–212). These are gestures ''that cannot be understood by participants
without taking into account structure in the environment to which they are tied''
(195). By drawing on data in which researchers are working at an archaeological
excavation, he shows that meaning-making is a product of multimodality; i.e. it
is a product of the use of and close interconnection between language, gestures
and the relevant features of the environment. For linguists this is particularly
interesting, because it complicates the general picture of how meaning-making is
accomplished. In addition, Goodwin connects meaning (perhaps more than the other
papers in this book) explicitly to the sequentially unfolding social actions and
the meanings interlocutors understand them to have in particular moments in
interaction. Goodwin's paper shows how talk and gesture, together with the
semiotic resources in the surround, can all become relevant in the organization
of meaning-making and action in social interaction. For example, he describes
the structure of so-called 'hybrid utterances' (200) which are grammatically
incomplete (e.g. lacking a predicate noun phrase), but completed with gesture
and the material structure available for the participants in the surround.
Irene Kimbara's article ''Indexing Locations in Gesture: Recalled Stimulus Image
and Interspeaker Coordination as Factors Influencing Gesture Form'' (pp. 213–220)
is an interesting experimental study that investigates whether humans in a
dyadic interactional situation form gestures that originate from a visual image
they have seen previously or whether they coordinate their gestures with those
of their co-participants. The experiment was done by showing the same cartoon to
a pair. However, without the subjects knowing it, the version of the cartoon
that was seen by one subject was a mirror-image of the one seen by the other.
After seeing the cartoon, the participants described the cartoon first in a
monologue and then to each other. The descriptions were recorded. The study
showed that when narrating the cartoon in a monologue the cartoon images
strongly influenced the subjects' gesture trajectories. As for the dyadic
situations, Kimbara's findings suggest that in general the participants'
gestures followed the images they had seen in the cartoon, and thus were not so
much influenced by their pair's gesturing. However, when the participants'
gestures overlapped the number of conflicting gestures decreased by half. This
suggests that when interlocutors gesture together, they are likely to coordinate
their gestures with each other, irrespective of the original ''input''. This last
finding may have interesting parallels with current neurolinguistic research on
imitation, gestures and mirror neurons (e.g. Arbib 2005).
Geoffrey Beattie and Heather Shovelton's article ''The Role of Iconic Gestures in
Semantic Communication and Its Theoretical and Practical Implications'' (pp.
221–241) provides a brief and good review of prior linguistic and psychological
research on the relationship between language and gesture. It also provides a
short but illustrative description of the central points in McNeill's work.
Their actual study looks at whether there is a difference in the amount of
information listeners receive when just speech is available and when both speech
and gesture are available. In general, their findings strongly suggest that
iconic and metaphoric gestures are very effective in conveying semantic
information. For linguists, an interesting finding - which supports McNeill's
claims - is that there seems to be a connection between the
transitivity/intransitivity of a clause and the gesture it accompanies
(230–231). In the last part of the paper, they discuss the possibilities of
applying the McNeillian theory for improving knowledge of TV advertising.
Beattie's and Shovelton's paper is interesting, although it would have been even
better if it had included pictures or illustrations of the examples.
Mika Ishino's article ''Intersubjectivity in Gestures: The Speaker's Perspectives
toward the addressee'' (pp. 243–250) continues the theme of the previous paper.
However, it focuses more on how speakers use gestures by specifically taking the
addressee into account. She shows how the use of gestures arises from the needs
of the interactional situation and how the use of the gestures can be influenced
by the intersubjective dynamics of the spatial and interactional situation.
Starkey Duncan Jr.'s paper ''An Integrated Approach to the Study of Convention,
Conflict, and Compliance in Interaction'' (pp. 251–266) is published
posthumously. He died in May 2007 at the age of 71. Although he studied the
interaction between verbal and non-verbal communication, his paper differs from
the other papers in the book in that it does not mention gestures at all.
Rather, it attempts to construct a structural framework for understanding and
describing face-to-face-interaction. He argues that interaction is convention
based and rule governed. Many of the claims that he makes in the paper are
similar to findings made in Conversation Analysis. For example, his notions of
'conflict' and 'compliance' seem to have close connections with 'preference
structure' and 'repair'.
The final section is the shortest one. It includes three papers on language and
gesture with aphasic patients, autistic children and artificial humans.
The first paper, Susan Duncan's and Laura Pedelty's ''Discourse Focus, Gesture,
and Disfluent Aphasia'' (pp. 269–283), uses the McNeillian method to investigate
the tendency of people suffering from Broca's aphasia to omit or nominalize
verbs in talk. They study this phenomenon by comparing cross-linguistic embodied
interaction of non-aphasic speakers to that of a person suffering from Broca's
aphasia. For their argument, it is important to see that the discourse focus in
an utterance is not necessarily on the verb. (This finding has interesting
parallels with many cross-linguistic discourse-functional and interactional
linguistic studies on transitivity (Hopper and Thompson 1980; Thompson and
Hopper 2001) and argument structure (Du Bois 2003).) The authors argue that
aphasic speakers' gesture-speech utterances highlight similar (discourse-focal)
constituents as non-aphasic speakers' utterances. As the authors argue, this
finding ''is suggestive of the possibility that a disfluent aphasic attempts
utterance production on the basis of discourse model similar to that of the
non-aphasic speaker.'' (280). This finding also supports, as the authors note,
Charles Goodwin's work (Goodwin 1995; Goodwin, Goodwin and Olsher 2002; Goodwin
2003) in that it shows that people suffering from aphasia have the means to
construct meaningful action in discourse; meaning does not just arise from language.
Elena Levy's ''The Construction of a Temporally Coherent Narrative by an Autistic
Adolescent: Co-contributions of Speech, Enactment and Gesture'' (pp. 285–301)
reports a study in which an autistic adolescent was asked to retell a story of a
film (_The Red Balloon_) on three consecutive days. She shows that the
adolescent's embodied actions changed significantly during these three days, so
that compared to the first session when he produced mostly elicited talk with
little gesturing, in the following session he enacted the story, and on the last
day his speech-movement combinations had developed so that they were adult-like
and he seemed to rely on his own earlier discourse while doing the retelling.
Levy then connects her findings to McNeill's work on 'catchments', to the
coherence-creating function of gestures and to ontogenesis.
In the last paper of the book, ''The Body in Communication: Lessons from the
Near-Human'' (pp. 303–322), Justine Cassell describes the challenges in her work
of trying to teach virtual humans to do and say things the way humans do. She
argues that through such an enterprise one can really begin to understand how
intricate, complex and emergent human embodied behavior is, and to learn what we
yet do not know about it. Cassell's interesting paper proposes a simple, but
nice, idea: building a perfect virtual human is not the ultimate goal; the
ultimate goal is to try to learn something about humans from the imperfect
This is a paper that scholars working in the interdisciplinary space between
technological sciences / information engineering / computer sciences and
linguistics (on artificial intelligence, for example) should read.
The research presented in the book describes work that has been going on for
some time. What is important, however, is that this body of research is now
available between single covers. It is therefore a great book for introducing
oneself to gesture studies. The studies in the volume represent a wide array of
research that focuses on the relationship between language, gesture (embodiment)
and speech. Reading this book made me realize how little we (as linguists) in
fact know about the cognitive and interactional aspects of gestures, and their
relationship with talk and language. A great deal of linguistic research is done
with invented examples, written-language corpora or spoken-language corpora, but
without video. Still, it is quite possible that by using multimodal data
linguists may learn new aspects of even the very fundamental linguistic notions,
like Goodwin (Goodwin 1979) and Lerner (Lerner 1991) have shown with respect to
'sentence'. For linguists especially, the basic presupposition in McNeill's work
is that language is emergent and dynamic and, moreover, that gesture is part of
language, not a separate element. This view is relatively unfamiliar in
''mainstream'' linguistics, but can have profound consequences for understanding
the origins of language and language evolution, language structure, grammar,
language in use, and so on and so forth. The papers in this book show that the
relationship between interaction, embodiment and language is much more complex
than is generally assumed and recognized. Especially the studies in the second
part of the book, which primarily consists of sequential and multimodal analyses
of language and interaction show that we are dealing with extremely complex
Some of the papers are very short and thus scratch only the surface of the
phenomena they describe. However, it is difficult to see this as a demerit,
because - as I see it - the articles function as introductions or references to
research described in detail elsewhere. This is a benefit for those who want to
get a broad view of gesture studies in general, but brief glances at individual
research topics. I would recommend the book to students and other scholars who
want to become acquainted with the research done on the relationship between
gesture and language. Those who are more familiar with gesture research will
still find research topics and findings of which they perhaps have not read or
heard of before.
My guess is that the linguistic audience in general is quite unfamiliar with
gesture studies and its possible connections to linguistic research. I am sure
that this book can raise some interesting questions to linguists. At times, it
can also be quite thought-provoking, because it raises issues that challenge
many traditional theoretical views about for example language and cognition.
Nevertheless, there are many important messages that this book conveys to
linguists. One general point concerns the importance of considering embodied
practices, gestures and social interaction together when we investigate language
and linguistics structures. Moreover, this book shows that it is important to
consider gestures and embodiment in order to better understanding where language
comes from and what the importance of multimodal data is for understanding
language. The book also raises big issues that are important for understanding
grammar (syntax, pragmatics and semantics). It opens up new horizons for
linguistic research by challenging and renegotiating many generally held
assumptions about the nature of language.
There are few glitches in the book. One thing I would like to mention, though,
regards the editorial work. There are quite a few misspellings and incoherent
sentences, as well as some editorial errors. For example Figure 5b in Hoiting's
and Slobin's article seems to be the wrong picture. In addition, some of the
reported findings would have greatly benefited from evidence in the form of
drawings or illustrations. Unfortunately, such evidence is often missing, which
occasionally makes it quit difficult to understand an argument. When
illustrations are used, sometimes they are too small and dark.
In sum, this is a great book.
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Pentti Haddington is a post-doc researcher at the University of Oulu, Finland.
He has recently done research in interactional linguistics, discourse-functional
linguistics and conversation analysis. His recent work includes research on
stance taking in news interviews and the use of the body in interaction. He is
currently working in the Talk&Drive project, which investigates interaction in