McNeill, David, ed. (2000) Language and Gesture. Cambridge
University Press, hardback ISBN: 0-521-77166-8, ix+409pp.
Reviewed by Peter Schulz, Faculty of Communication Sciences, University of
This collection of articles addresses the role of gestures in relation to
speech and thought. The contributions were written after a conference
("Gestures Compared Cross-Linguistically") held in 1995 in Albuquerque. Its
18 chapters cover a wide range of topics and different approaches with
interesting theoretical tensions between them.
The volume is divided into four sections, each filled with respective
contributions in the form of individual chapters (their brief descriptions
can be found below): Part I considers the function of gestures in contexts
of social interaction, part II presents detailed investigations into
gestures and their interrelations with thoughts, part III deals with
computational models of gesture-speech performance, while the final part
describes ways to make the transition from gesticulation to sign.
The short introduction by the editor is crucial for at least two reasons:
David McNeill presents a classification model of gesture which helps to
distinguish movements that are equally well called "gestures". Refering to
Kendon (1982), who singles out four points "gesticulation," "pantomime,"
"emblem," and "sign language", McNeill develops this continuum, focusing on
gesture's relationship to speech, linguistic properties, conventions, and
semiosis. Furthermore, the editor briefly surveys antecedents on the subject
and establishes the links between the chapters.
Part One - Gesture in action
1. Pointing, gesture spaces, and mental maps (John Haviland) The author
examines the occurences of pointing gestures in two different cultures - the
Mayan culture of the Tzotzil, and the Australian Aborigine culture of the
Guugu Yimithirr. Although the respective language codes offer almost
opposite resources for how they describe orientations in space, the pointing
gestures are quite similar. Hence Haviland claims that space is a tool that
makes cognition interactively available, even interactively constructed.
2. Language and gesture: unity or duality? (Adam Kendon) Within the
classical controversy about the relationship between 'Language' and
'gesture' Kendom emphasizes that gestures and speech, used in conversation,
serve different but complementary roles. The author illustrates the diverse
ways in which gesture may participate in the construction of the utterance's
meaning with a good number of examples taken from the Neapolitan culture.
Taking into consideration the different roles of gesture (e.g.
contextualizing the spoken expressions, adding to the propositional content
of the utterance, expressing the speech-act status of the utterance), Kendon
argues that gestures are an integral part of the communication process.
3. The influence of addressee location on spatial language and
representational gestures of direction (Asli Oezyuerek). The aim of this
chapter is to test the hypothesis that gestures are themselves shaped by the
social interactive context. We usually assume that speaker's verbal and
gestural expressions of space represent or encode the spatial relations as
experienced. Instead of this assumption Oezyuerek argues that reference by
spatial language and gestures has to be explained in relation to the social
and spatial context in which they are produced. He shows, how speaker's
memory and thought are altered by changes in addressee location.
4. Gesture, aphasia, and interaction (Charles Goodwin). The author of this
chapter provides an exploration of the communicative solution invented by a
patient, Chil, suffering seriously aphasia and his conversational
co-participants. Chil is able to speak only three words (Yes, No, and And).
However, he is able to communicate with his relatives using limited
gestures. Goodwin's study allows to look in detail at a range of different
kinds of meaning-making practices that are relevant to the organization of
5. Gestural interaction between the instructor and the learner in origami
instruction (Nobuhiro Furuyama) In this chapter, Furuyama documents the role
of gestures in the interactive context of instruction. The author reports
the results of an experiment on origami (the Japanese paper-folding art).
Eighteen students were divided in pairs, in which the more experienced one
had to instruct his fellow student in the construction of an origami balloon
without any verbal description. Furuyama describes listener gestures and
listener co-manipulation of speaker gestures.
6. Gestures, knowledge, and the world (Curtis Le Baron and Juergen Streeck)
Aim of this chapter is to describe the different roles hand gestures play in
the formation and distribution of knowledge within specific 'communities of
practice' (Lave 1991). By analyzing examples from 'material-rich learning
setting' the authors provide evidence for the foundations of symbolic
gestures in "practical, instrumental, non-symbolic action and experience".
Part Two - Gesture in Thought
7. Growth points in thinking-for-speaking (David McNeill and Susan D.
Duncan). This chapter is intended to develop and justify a rationale for
viewing speech-synchronized gestures as "enhanced windows"into the process
of thinking and speaking. McNeill and Duncan present an elaborated version
of the Growth points theory (preliminary version in McNeill 1992). The
growth point, the name that the authors give to an analytic unit combining
imagery and linguistic categorical content, are "inferred from the totality
of communicative events with special focus on speech-gesture synchrony and
co-expressivity' (144). With the growth point framework the authors consider
the function of co-verbal gestures in three languages (English, Spanish, and
Chinese) focusing on the semantic domain of motion. They present evidence
that different languages create different modes of thinking-for-speaking as
well as different strategies for meaning representations in speech and
8. How representational gestures help speaking (Sotaro Kita)
What is 'the speaker-internal motivation to produce representational
gestures'? This is the question that the author tries to answer in this
chapter. Kita's thesis is that the cognitive function of representational
gestures could be described by means of the Information Packaging
Hypothesis. According to that hypothesis representational gestures help
speakers in organizing spatio-motoric information into packages suitable for
linguistic expression. Moreover, spatio-motoric thinking would help speaking
'by providing an alternative informational organization that is not readily
accessible to analytic thinking' (163).
9. Where do most spontaneous representational gestures actually occur with
respect to speech? (Shuichi Nobe)
This chapter discusses first different types of models concerning the
temporal relationship between gestures and speech. According to Nobe it is
misleading to state a contradiction between the two models of McNeill (1985)
and Butterworth & Hadar (1989), as Beattie & Aboudan (1994) suggest.
Furthermore, Nobe presents the findings of an experiment for his thesis that
the onsets of most spontaneous representational gestures occur during speech
articulation, disproving the assumption that they start during silent pauses
in fluent phases.
10. Gesture production during stuttered speech: insights into the nature of
gesture-speech integration (Rachel I. Mayberry and Joselynne Jaques)
In this chapter the authors present findings of two studies on the
gesture-speech relationship in individuals with chronic stuttering.
According to Mayberry and Jaques, the results suggest that gesture and
speech are planned and integrated by the central nervous system "at some
point prior to their actual physical execution"(208). Moreover, their
findings and observations indicate a higher probability of what the authors,
following Kendon (1980) and McNeill (1985), call the 'integrated system
framework': that is that gesture and speech together form an integrated
communication system for the single purpose of linguistic expression.
11. The role of gestures and other graded language forms in the grounding of
reference in perception (Elena T. Levy and Carol A. Flowler)
This chapter deals with some pragmatic aspects of nonverbal communication.
Levy and Flowler are demonstrating that there is a non-arbitrary relation
between some properties of communicative activities and the messages that
the activities convey. In particular, the authors study the role of
metanarrative statements (McNeill:1992) in which an origo (Buehler:1990
) shifting normally occurs. Furthermore, the study presents evidence
for 'an association between the occurence of metanarrative statements and
the use of longer, more transparent referring expressions [...] and of
12. Gesture and the transition from one- to two-word speech: when hand and
mouth come together (Cynthia Butcher and Susan Goldin-Meadow)
This chapter deals with the relationship between communicative symbolic
gesture and speech in young children. An experiment with six children,
video-taped in their homes, is made. Videotaping started when each child was
in the one-word period of language development, and continued until they
produced two-word combinations. During the first period, the gestures were
not synchronous with speech sounds of any sort (meaningful or not). In the
next period, gesture and speech become more fully integrated. According to
the authors, these findings reinmforces McNeill's (1992) view, that gesture
and speech form an integrated system in terms of temporal synchrony as well
as in terms of semantic coherence.
Part Three - Modeling Gesture performance
13. Lexical gestures and lexical access: a process model (Robert M. Krauss,
Yihsiu Chen and Rebecca F. Gottesman)
The authors describe a new model of the process by which lexical gestures
are produced. Reader's attention is first driven towards the different
gesture typologies and functions. Relatively uncontroversial are the three
gesture categories (1) Symbolic gestures, (2) Deictic gestures, and (3)
Motor gestures. Less easy to define is the fourth major category, what the
authors call the 'lexical gestures', also called "representational gestures"
(McNeill, Cassell & McCullough 1994) or "illustrators" (Ekman & Friesen
1972). The model of Kraus, Chen and Gottesman propose a way to add gesture
to the Speaking model presented by Levelt in 1989. Levelt refers to the
three stages for the speaking process as "conceptualizing", "formulating",
and "articulating". According to the authors of this chapter, the model of
Levelt provides a partial answer to the question of the origin and function
of lexical gestures. The origin of the gesture would correspond with the
stage of "conceptualizing".
14. The production of gesture and speech (Jan Peter de Ruiter)
Similar to the former chapter, also De Ruiter presents a general processing
architecture for gesture production as an extension of Levelt's (1989) model
for speech production. But in several details de Ruiter's socalled "Sketch
Model" is quite different. First of all, "Sketch Model" aims to consider and
explain different gesture types with a modular Information Processing Model.
Furthermore, within the Sketch Model gestures are produced in three stages:
(1) the selection of the information to be expressed in gesture; (2) the
generation of a motor program and (3) the execution of it. Last, but not
least: predictions can be generated by the Sketch Model.
15. Catchments and contexts: non-modular factors in speech and gesture
production (David McNeill)
This chapter joins the previous by McNeill & Duncan to state the concept of
a growth point. McNeill shows how the growth point theory is suitable for
explaining the communicative dynamism, especially because it considers the
context as a fundamental component of thinking-for-speaking. The context
incorporation makes the growth point theory more adapted than other
information-processing models, where context is inevitably excluded.
Part Four - From gesture to sign
16. Blended spaces and deixis in sign language discourse (Scott K. Liddell)
Liddell presents an analysis of space use in American Sign Language.
Focusing on deictic gestures, he argues that the use of space in sign
languages is carried out through a combination of linguistic features and
Particulary interesting is the concept of a grounded mental space (see
Liddell 1995), a term which Liddell uses to label a mental space "whose
entities are conceived of as present in the immediate environment"(342).
Refering to the fact, that both speakers and signers need to make clear to
their addressees that elements of a grounded space are in discussion, the
author claims, that the difference between spoken and signed languages is
not be as great as it appears. "The need to gesture toward elements of
grounded mental space is met in the case of sign languages by creating
classes of signs which combine sign and gesture" (354).
17. Gestural precursors to linguistic constructs: how input shapes the form
of language (Jill P. Morford and Judy A. Kegl)
In this chapter Morford and Kegl describe the remarkable situation of deaf
people in Nicaragua since the Sandinista Revolution. The people who
previously had been isolated were brought together for the first time. In
this manner a new-born signed language has emerged. The authors show how
much idiosyncratic gestures (homesigns) shaped this new language.
18. Gesture to sign (language) (William C. Stokoe)
Stokoe deals in this chapter with the ancient idea, that language may have
begun with gestural expression. Enriching this idea with data about
evolution and human physiology and cognitive functioning, he comes to some
new hypothesis: Instrumental manual actions may have been transformed in
symbolic gestures; Motoric expression and visual reception of connected
thought and emotion would have been the key of language evolution; Finally,
language would be a natural consequence of the evolving body, senses and
cognitive powers, "requiring no extraordinary intervention" by the new genus
I would like to advice strongly anyone interested not only in gesture but in
the relation between gesture and language to read this book. It does not
merely give a panoramic, state-of-the-art account of research in the
important work realized on gesture in the past, and pointers toward future
research in the same direction (e.g. McNeill's Growth points theory; the
question, whether synchronous speech-gestures combinations comprise single
idea units or not). What's more, it also provides some fascinating
discussions on classical questions in gesture studies (e.g. Should we
consider gesture and language as different and independent phenomena, or are
they two modalities of an integrated system? What about the origin and
function of gesture?, etc.) as well as on modeling gesture performance. We
cannot conclude but that this is a considerable achievement.
Beattie, G. & Aboudan, R. 1994. Gestures, pauses and speech: an experimental
investigation of the effects of changing social context on their precise
temporal relationships. Semiotica 99:239-272.
Buehler, K. 1990. Theory of Language: The Representational Function of
Language, trans. D.F.Goodwin. Amsterdam: Benjamins. (Originally published
Butterworth, B. & Hadar, U. 1989. Gesture, speech, and computational stages:
a reply to McNeill. Psychological Review 96:168-174.
Ekman, P. & Friesen, W.V. 1972. Hand movements. Journal of Communication
Levelt, W.J.M. 1989. Speaking: From Intention to Articulation. Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press.
Liddell, S. K. 1995. Real, surrogate, and token space: grammatical
consequences in ASL. In: Emmorey, K. & J. Reilly (eds.) Sign, Gesture, and
Space. Hillsdale, NJ:Erlbaum, pp. 19-41.
McNeill, D. 1985. So you think gestures are nonverbal? Psychological Review
McNeill, D. 1992. Hand in Mind: What Gestures Reveal about Thought. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
McNeill, D., Cassell, J. & McCullough, K.-E. 1994. Communicative effects of
speech-mismatched gestures. Language and Social Interaction 27:223-237.
Kendon, A. 1980. Gesticulation and speech: two aspects of the processes of
utterance. In M.R.Key (ed.). The Relation between Verbal and Nonverbal
Communication. The Hague: Mouton, pp. 207-227.
Kendon, A. 1982. The study of gesture: some remarks on its history. Semiotic
Lave, J. 1991. Situating learning in communities of practice. In Resnick,
Levine & Teasley (eds.), pp. 63-83.
About the reviewer: Peter J. Schulz teaches semiotics at the Faculty of
Communication Sciences at the University of Lugano, Switzerland. His
research interests include theories of linguistic signs, subjectivity and
intersubjectivity in a semiotic perspective. He is the Executive Editor of
the journal Studies in Communication Sciences.