EDITORS: Liebal, Katja; Müller, Cornelia; Pika, Simone
TITLE: Gestural Communication in Nonhuman and Human Primates
SERIES TITLE: Benjamins Current Topics 10
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Anne Reboul, L2C2 CNRS UMR5230, Institute for Cognitive Sciences, Lyons, France
This book consists of an introduction, four parts and a book review ( of
Corballis' _From hand to mouth. The origins of language_). The Introduction, by
the three editors, is dedicated to ''Gestural communication in nonhuman and human
primates''. It advocates a multidisciplinary perspective, claims that gesture
''may develop into a full-fledged language under certain conditions'' (1) and give
a general outline of the book.
Part I (''Evolution of language and the role of gestural communication'') contains
a single chapter by Roy & Arbib, ''The syntactic motor system''. This chapter is
based on the idea that ''the most influential proposition [regarding syntax as a
by-product of other cognitive systems] is the determinant role of motor control
in the origin of language'' (7). After reviewing Liberman's motor theory of
speech perception, the authors center their paper on the Mirror System
Hypothesis (MSH). The Mirror System may well be considered as one of the most
popular discoveries of the last fifteen years in neuroscientific research:
Rizzolati's team in Parma discovered that certain neurons in the monkey's (i.e.
macaque) motor area react not only to action execution but also to the
perception of the same action by another agent. This discovery has led to many
proposals regarding imitation, theory of mind and evolution of language. The
authors of the present paper follow the last hypothesis, reasoning from the
so-called 'parity requirement': ''what counts for the speaker (or signer) must
count approximately the same for the hearer (or observer)'' (9). The MSH claims
that the very fact that Broca's area (one of the main brain areas for language)
evolved from the mirror system for grasping with mirror properties explains how
the parity requirement is met in language. This leads to a six-step hypothesis
on language evolution, according to which ''protosign built up vocabulary by
variations on moving hand-shapes along specific trajectories to meaningful
locations'' (10). The rest of the paper is dedicated to making good that
hypothesis as well as trying to articulate the view that syntax also has a motor
origin. The argument goes through ''fundamentals of 'language' in apes'',
commonalities of neural structure between motor and Broca's areas, to the
notions of trajectories from ''communicative goal to sentential form'' and from
''phonology to grammar''.
Part II is dedicated to ''Gestural communication in non-human primates''. It opens
with chapter 2 by Pika et al. on ''the gestural communication of apes''. The
authors begin by noting the absence in great apes of vocal alarm calls, which
are among the few signals in animal communicative systems which can be
considered as referential. By contrast with vocal communication, which is often
used for evolutionary important functions in primates and which also is
phylogenetically determined, gestural communication seems more flexible and
ontogenetically determined, but is usually neither symbolic nor referential. The
most frequent type of learning for gestures seems to be so-called ontogenetic
ritualization, which strongly depends on predictability: thus gesture is used to
control the behavioral response of the addressee. In chimpanzees, the same
gestures can be used in multiple contexts, suggesting some flexibility of use,
and with audience effects, suggesting behavior reading (though not mindreading).
A second sort of gestures are 'attractors' aimed at directing the attention of
the recipient to the actor in dyadic interactions. More generally, chimpanzee
gestures are imperative as opposed to descriptive (see below for the
pre-linguistic communication of human infants). The authors conclude by noting
that ''none of the [great ape] species seems to be using either gestural or vocal
symbols of the human kind'' (48).
The next chapter, by Maestripieri, deals with ''Gestural communication in three
species of macaques''. It begins by noting that species of macaques differ in
social organization and that one should expect differences in social
communication in relation to these organizational differences. Maestripieri
investigated the hypothesis through a study of groups of the three species held
in captivity at Yerkes (USA). He contrasted the frequency of occurrences of
fifteen gestures among the three species in different social contexts. He notes
that gestures among the three species occur most frequently in social contexts
where dominance issues are prominent. Affiliative communication is most frequent
in the more socially tolerant species. In conclusion, the similarities and
differences between the gestural repertoire of the three species seem closely
related to their intragroup social dynamics as well as evolutionary history.
This is followed by ''Multimodal concomitants of manual gesture by chimpanzees
(_Pan troglodytes_): influence of food size and distance'', by Leavens & Hopkins.
Chimpanzees have a vocalization signaling the discovery of food to group
members, but that vocalization depends on the quantity and divisibility of the
food. The choice of vocal vs. gestural communication depends on the attentional
status of the audience (facing toward the signaler vs. facing away from the
signaler).Thus, ''apes adjust the modality of their communication in accordance
with the attentional status on an observer'' (70). The authors investigated these
issues by experimentally manipulating size and distance (reachable or not) of
food. They found that the three modalities (gesture, vocalization, gaze
alternation) were more frequent when more food was available, though gaze
alternation with the experimenter was more frequent when the food was
unreachable and less visible.
Gomez is the author of the next chapter, ''Requesting gestures in captive
monkeys and apes''. His query is whether begging and requesting gestures in apes
qualify as referential. He begins with two criteria, derived from developmental
studies on human infants, for communicative status, i.e. schematization of
action and looking at the audience's face. He notes that the second criterion is
met by begging gestures in a gorilla, though the evidence is more mixed in
monkey species. He then reviews experimental tests in chimpanzees, concluding
that ''current evidence offers a complex landscape of results consistent and
inconsistent with apes and monkeys understanding of gestures as referential''
(91). He discusses the confusion which may be involved by confounding two
dimensions of attention manipulation in requests: getting attention and
directing attention to a 'third' object (triangulation as in joint attention).
Though primates may manifest both dimensions, it is not clear that they
understand the role of joint attention in such interactions.
Chalcraft & Gardner discuss how ''Cross-fostered chimpanzees modulate signs of
American Sign Language''. They review the evidence from an experimental study of
Tatu, a female chimpanzee, outlining similarities with human signers, arguing
more generally that ''it seems unlikely that a phenomenon as rich as language
could be based on an isolated, unitary biological trait'' (115).
Part III, dedicated to ''Gestural communication in human primates'', opens with a
chapter by Lisekowski on ''Human 12-month-olds point cooperatively to share
interest with and helpfully provide information for a communicative partner''.
Having defined pointing as a cooperative activity in a broadly Gricean sense, he
insists on the necessity of contextual interpretation in the interpretation of
pointing. Relying on Bates et al. (1975) distinction between 'proto-imperative'
and 'proto-declarative' pointing, he describes experiments which show, according
to him, that ''pointing at 12 months already is an inherently social
The second chapter in part III, by Carpici et al., investigates, in a
longitudinal perspective, how the child passes ''From action to language through
gesture'', by examining the co-occurrence of gesture and words, as well as
combinations in both modalities. The first finding is that, though multimodal
combinations did occur, gestural combinations were fairly rare. Gestures could
be referential as well as deictic and, though gestural communication was used in
the pre-linguistic period, it was replaced by vocal communication, when
Pizzuto & Capobianco discuss ''The link and differences between deixis and
symbols in children's early gestural-vocal system''. The difference between
deixis and symbols rests on the differential involvement of context in the
interpretation of the first (context-dependent) relative to that of the second
(context-independent). In the course of development (from 15 months on) vocal
representational elements predominated over gestural ones, though deictic
gestures were more important in the earlier period.
The next chapter, by Blake et al., is dedicated to ''A cross-cultural comparison
of communicative gestures in human infants during the transition to language''.
It concludes that there are great similarities in the different groups
(English-Canadian, French, Italian-Canadian, Japanese) regarding the use of
communicative gestures and that some of these gestures support verbal language
Özyurek et al. discuss ''How does linguistic framing of events influence
co-speech gestures? Insights from crosslinguistic variations and similarities''.
It questions ''whether iconic gestures are influenced by the semantic and
syntactic encoding of aspects of events during online speaking and how such
influence is realized'' (201). The main finding is that gesture is often
redundant with linguistic communication, duplicating the linguistically encoded
aspect (e.g. manner or path), regardless of the language (Turkish or English)
Goldin-Meadow describes ''The two faces of gesture: language and thought''. She
begins by noting that gesture is quite different when it merely accompanies
language from what it is when it is the only means of communication. She shows
that the spontaneous gestural communication of deaf children of speaking parents
(i.e. deaf children not in contact with sign language) has a lot in common with
language incorporating a morphological and combinatory system and grammatical
category, which does not seem to derive from their parents' gestural
communication. By contrast, the gestures which accompany speech in hearing
speakers are non combinatorial and synthetic and can be informative (i.e.
non-redundant with speech). Goldin-Meadow argues that this mismatch between
gestures and speech can be highly relevant in learning contexts.
Part IV, ''Future directions'', opens with a chapter by Müller on ''Gestures in
human and nonhuman primates: why we need a comparative view''. The author argues
that comparative studies should illuminate the nature of gestures in humans, as
well as identifying evolutionarily ancient forms of gestures. She describes the
methodological constraints on such studies and defines the very notion of
gesture as embodying ''three formal properties: the voluntary execution of the
movement, its address and its sequential position within the flow of surrounding
activities'' (243). She then turns to the semiotic characteristics of gesture
(iconicity, deixis), to their structural properties (simultaneity, linearity),
to their etiology (conventionalization or ritualization), their contexts of use
and functions (expression, representation and appeal).
The book unconventionally ends with a book review, a departure from the usual
conclusion, which is self-explanatory when one considers that the book in
question is Corballis (2002). As is well-known, Corballis has been one of the
foremost and earliest advocates of the theory that language evolved from
gesture. As the review (by Copple) notes, Corbalis' main contention is that
''gesture is a natural adaptation, and speech is a cultural invention'' (275) and
his book is thus a major contribution to the foundations of the view that
language is, somehow or other, gesture-based.
There is no doubt that the view that language, or at least its evolution, is
intimately linked to gesture has gained a central position in the past ten
years. There are a few reasons for that: the indubitable fact that Broca's area
overlaps with the motor areas in humans; the discovery of the mirror neuron
system in monkeys and the (strongly supported) evidence for a similar system in
humans; and finally the coexistence in modern humans of paraverbal and
linguistic communication, simultaneously produced. Thus the hypothesis is far
from being a mere fantasy and should be investigated.
A different question is whether the different papers in the book really support
the hypothesis and there the conclusion is less obvious: the opening paper, by
Roy and Arbib, supporting the hypothesis, though interesting and well-argued,
remains nevertheless very speculative, each specific hypothesis being justified
by another hypothesis rather than by hard fact. Strictly speaking the existence
of a mirror system in both human and nonhuman primates, given that the second do
not speak or imitate, does not strongly support the hypothesis of a central role
for the motor system in the evolution of language, in the absence of
confirmatory data. The second part, on gestural communication in nonhuman
primates makes rather evident the fact that gestural communication in nonhuman
primates is rather different from linguistic communication in humans. In the
same way, the papers in the third part, whether they are concerned with the
prelinguistic gestural communication of prelinguistic infants, the role of
gestures in linguistic acquisition, the paraverbal gestural communication in
adult speakers or the spontaneous gestural sign language of deaf children, do
not seem to support the view: gestures in young children do not seem to combine
as do linguistic words and their frequency strongly declines with the
development of spoken language; paraverbal communication in adult speakers does
not seem to convey information, given that it is redundant with the spoken
utterance; and, finally, the spontaneous signed language of deaf children is
very similar to spoken language in its structural aspects, but, equally, it is
highly dissimilar from the gestures currently used by hearing speakers
simultaneously with speech production.
Thus, the book does not in and off itself support the view that language has its
origins in gesture - as a proto-linguistic system - or in the motor system (two
hypotheses which are not clearly distinguished in the introduction of the book
but which are nevertheless different in as much as one of them could be true and
the other false). However, it gives a highly interesting and detailed panorama
of current research on communicative gestures and is thus an important
contribution to the debate. Additionally, the comparative perspective is
interesting in its own right, as is each individual paper. Notably, all of the
papers in the book are of a high quality. So this is a book well worth reading!
Bates, E. et al. (1975) ''The acquisition of performatives prior to speech'',
_Merrill-Palmer Quarterly_ 21(3), 205-226.
Corballis, M.C. (2002) _From Hand to Mouth. The origins of language_.
Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Anne Reboul is a Senior Researcher at the French Center for Scientific Research
(CNRS) in France. She has a Ph.D. in Linguistics (EHESS, Paris) and a Ph.D. in
philosophy (University of Geneva, Switzerland). She has written some books,
among which IS an _Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Pragmatics_, and quite a few
papers in French and English, on pragmatics and/or philosophical subjects. She
has developed an interest in recent years in both language evolution and animal
cognition and communication. She has recently published a book on _Language and