McNeill, David, ed. (2000) Language and Gesture, Cambridge
University Press, 409 pp. ISBN 0 521 77166 8 (hardback)
0 521 77761 5 (paperback)
Reviewed by Nicla Rossini, Department of Linguistics,
University of Pavia, Italy.
The book is a collection of papers written after a conference
entitled "Gestures Compared Cross-Linguistically" held in 1995
in Albuquerque. Anyway, it is not a proceedings and all the
authors wrote their contributes between 1996 and 1997. It
covers a wide range of topics offering a strong
cross-linguistic and cross-cultural view of non verbal
The introduction (by David McNeill) zeroes in on the nature
of gesture and the necessity of distinguishing between
different kinds of movements we usually call with the same
name: on this purpose, he recalls Kendon (1982), who
singles out four relevant points - "gesticulation",
"pantomime", "emblem" and "sign language" - within the non
verbal phenomenon and continues on giving his own
interpretation of gesture focusing on its relationship to
speech, linguistic properties, convention and semiosis. Each
kind of relationship is a way to single out a continuum in
which gestures take place - in other words, a classification
Lastly, the editor gives an account of antecedents in the
study of gesture and points to the different approaches
(such as social interaction, cognitive psychology, modeling
and so on) that the book's structure is going to highlight.
Part One - Gesture in action
1. Pointing, gesture spaces, and mental maps (John Haviland)
We usually consider pointing gestures as an unproblematic
matter because of the objectivity of space and environment:
this chapter, on the contrary, claims that space is itself
a construction and, subsequently, different cultures may have
different space models.
The author describes in a close way the occurrences of
pointing gestures in the Mayan culture of Tzotzil and the
Australian Aborigine culture of Guugu Yimithirr to conclude
that gesture spaces are "complex constructions" implying
both geographic and social features.
2. Language and gesture: unity or duality? (Adam Kendon)
In this chapter, Kendon broaches a classical question in
gesture studies: should we consider gesture and language as
different and independent phenomena? Basing his own answer
on a good number of examples that show
different roles (such as pragmatic, contextualizing,
propositional, and so on) that co-verbal gesture may play in
communication, the author claims a "unity" for language and
gesture, since "gesture and speech, as used in conversation,
serve different but complementary roles".
3. The influence of addressee location on spatial language
and representational gestures of direction (Asli Oezyuerek)
A really interesting study on the ways in which language and
gesture achieve spatial reference: according to this author,
spatial language and gesture are motivated not only by
spatial reference, but also by social context.
The results of two studies on influence of addressee location
on spatial language and gesture have shown that it changed
gesture orientation but didn't change speech expression.
Gesture changing, however, is not simply related to addressee
location, but also, and more strongly, to the meanings
expressed in speech: the gesturer used the "shared space"
in a different way when he was expressing, for example,
"in", "out" or "across" motions.
These results imply that neither speech nor gesture alone
is sensitive to addressee location, but the whole process
of communication is made up of speech and gesture.
4. Gesture, aphasia, and interaction (Charles Goodwin)
It is a study on the way gestures vehicle their message:
should we argue that the only one hand movement is a
In order to give an answer to this question, Goodwin
considers the case of Chil, a seriously aphasic man who is
able to speak only three words (Yes, No, and And) because of
a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of his brain.
Chil, however, is able to communicate with his relatives
using limited gestures. Analyzing his strategies for
communication, the author focuses on the role of gestures
tying (in parallel with gesture-speech tying) in social
5. Gestural interaction between the instructor and the
learner in origami instruction (Nobuhiro Furuyama)
"Do people gesturally interact with each other?"
This is the question that the author tries to answer in this
chapter, in which an experiment on origami (the Japanese
paper-folding art) experience is reported: eighteen students
were divided in pairs where the more experienced one had to
instruct his colleague in the construction of an origami
balloon with no use of paper or any kind of utensils.
Of course, a great amount of gestures were performed, both
by the instructor and by the learner: of great interest,
learners' collaborative gestures (those which interacted
with the gesture of the partner, even manipulating parts of
6. Gestures, knowledge, and the world (Curtis Le Baron and
This chapter is intended to investigate the function of
social shared knowledge in gesture production by the analysis
of communication in "material-rich learning settings" such as
do-it-yourself of architecture classrooms.
The study shows how gestures acquire gradually independent
meanings to a specific community.
Part Two - Gesture in thought
7. Growth points in thinking-for-speaking (David McNeill and
Susan D. Duncan)
In this chapter, McNeill's Growth points theory (see also
McNeill, 1992) is explained.
The authors begin their work with a short presentation of
gesture's own semiotic properties, and, afterwards, with
a careful outline of growth points that they consider, following
Vygotsky (1987), as the minimal psychological units.
The final aim is to consider the function of co-verbal
gestures in three languages (namely, English, Spanish, and
Chinese) focusing on the semantic domain of motion.
The moral is that different languages create different modes
of thinking-for-speaking and, subsequently, different
strategies for meaning representations in speech and gesture.
8. How representational gestures help speaking (Sotaro Kita)
The aim of this chapter is to discuss the cognitive function
of representational gestures (that McNeill, 1992, divides
into "iconic" and "abstract deictic" gestures): do they help
lexical retrieval (see the Lexical Retrieval Hypothesis -
see Rauscher et al. 1996), or maintaining an image
(see Freedman 1977)?
All of these hypotheses is based on a reasonable number of
examples from human speaking behavior, so, the author
suggests an alternative view of the phenomenon, namely, the
Information Packaging Hypothesis, based on the interaction of
spatio-motoric thinking and analytic thinking.
The production of representational gestures would help
speakers in organizing spatio-motoric information into
suitable packages for linguistic expression.
9.Where do most spontaneous representational gestures
actually occur with respect to speech? (Shuici Nobe)
An interesting research on a classic of gesture studies:
are we able to determine a kind of regularity in
speech-gesture timing? And, if yes, what kind of regularity?
Nobe's study focuses on representational gestures: according
to Nobe's experiment results, most of that kind of gestures
would initiate during speech articulation and not during
silent pauses (as in Beattie and Aboudan, 1994).
10. Gesture production during stuttered speech: insights into
the nature of gesture-speech integration (Rachel I. Mayberry
and Joselynne Jaques)
One of the mostly widespread assumptions about non verbal
communication is that of a larger gestural production in
case of speech lexical retrieval difficulty.
This chapter is going to prove this is not true in case of
stuttering: gesture, on the contrary, is co-produced with
fluent speech but not with disfluent one.
What's more, only speech related gestures are disrupted by
stuttering: in fact, stuttering affected subjects were asked
to perform some manual tasks while speaking, and all of them
were able to perform his task even during stuttering attack.
These data suggest a common deep principle of co-expression
for speech and co-verbal gestures.
11. The role of gestures and other graded language forms in
the grounding of reference in perception (Elena T. Levy and
Carol A. Fowler)
This chapter points out to the pragmatic perspective of nonverbal
communication: its aim is to demonstrate that there is no
arbitrary relation between meanings and communicative
Readers' attention is driven towards some basic concepts,
such as reference, origo, topic structure (see Buehler
1990), and metanarrative statements (McNeill, 1992) in which
an origo shifting usually occurs.
During metanarrative statements (and subsequent topic shift)
"energy peaks" (in the speech flow as well as in gesturing)
would occur, in order to help addressee's comprehension task
with respect to new referents to be introduced in narration.
The question is whether listeners make use of this kind of
redundant information to reduce their dependence on lexical
and grammatical forms conveying the same pieces of information.
12. Gesture and the transition from one-to two-word speech:
when hand and mouth come together (Cynthia Butcher and Susan
A study on children gesture-speech combination to determine
whether gesture and speech form an integrated system: in this
perspective, an experiment on six children is made.
The children are video-taped in their homes for months: the
videotaping begins when they are in the one-word period of
language development and continues until they produce two
In one-word period gestures appear not to be perfectly
integrated with speech and gestures are sometimes produced
without speech: even in gesture-speech combinations, gesture
was initially not synchronous with speech. Next, gesture and
speech become more fully integrated. This would suggest that
gestural communication evolves together with speech: another
likely proof of a gesture-speech common psycho-motoric origin.
Part Three - Modeling gesture performance
13. Lexical gestures and lexical access: a process model
(Robert M. Krauss, Yihsiu Chen, and Rebecca F. Gottesman)
This chapter offers a new model for gesture interpretation:
the first claim is that, instead of considering the
communicative value of gesture (this kind of view have
provided only partial answers to our questions),
we should assume that different kinds of gestures have
different origins and play different roles.
The authors' attention is focused on a specific kind of gestures,
namely lexical gestures, also called "representational gestures"
(see McNeill, Cassell and McCullough 1994).
In outlining their model, they follow Levelt's one (1989) for
speech production: Levelt singles out three stages
for the speaking process, namely, "conceptualizing",
"formulating", and "articulating".
According to the authors of this chapter, gesture origin
would be at the conceptualizing stage, namely, the speaker's
working memory would originate the representations to be
reflected in lexical gestures.
Thus, lexical gestures would reflect representations in
14. The production of gesture and speech (Jan Peter de Ruiter)
Another model for gestures' origin and functions understanding,
in this case, using the Information Processing Approach.
Even in this case, the author bases his model on Levelt's
The author assumes that gesture is a communicative device from
the speaker's point of view (in other words, gesture is seen
as an extremely communicative act, no matter of the real
effectiveness of gestural communication).
Afterwards, the Sketch Model Approach is outlined:
once again, the conceptualizer is seen as responsible for
gesturing process initiation.
Sketch is the selection of pieces of information to be
expressed in gesture; then a motor program is generated and
is, lastly, executed.
Obviously, the generation of gestures is closely related
(say "coupled") with speech generation: the generation of
gestures is implied by the creation of a preverbal sketch
The Sketch Model, lastly, is an attempt to consider and
explain many findings in gesture-speech area with a modular
Information Processing Model.
15. Catchments and contexts: non-modular factors in speech
and gestures production (David McNeill)
This chapter joins chapter number seven to present the
concept of growing points. In this case a comparison with
Information Processing models is made. Growth points theory
is claimed to be more helpful in gestures interpretation due
to its capability of including context as a component of
speaking. It also predicts speech-gesture timing based
on the content of utterances. Modular models, on the contrary
don't seem to be sufficiently flexible for gesture
Part Four - From gesture to sign
16. Blended spaces and deixis in sign language discourse
(Scott K. Liddell)
It's the analysis of space use in American Sign Language.
As we know, signs are produced in a certain location in
space: a few classes of signs can be performed in an unlimited
number of locations (the meaning remains the same
notwithstanding the sign's direction in space), but, for a
great number of signs, spatially direction is meaningful.
Starting from Klima and Bellugi's theory, which he calls
"Horizontal Plane Theory" and considers not so precise in
signs direction's analysis, the author continues on
introducing new concepts, such as "surrogates" and "tokens":
a surrogate is meant to be an entity imagined to be present;
whereas a token (see Liddell 1994) - thus representing an
entity too - is more likely a shapeless area ahead of the
signer. While tokens' size is usually small, a surrogate can
be "full-sized", and, what's more, while one could talk about
tokens, but not to them, surrogates may play the
During speech-gesture performance, tokens and surrogates
- that are part of the signer's mental space - can be mapped
onto Real Space to create a blended Real Space.
17. Gestural precursors to linguistic constructs: how input
shapes the form of language (Jill P. Morford and Judy A. Kegl)
It's a study on deaf children first language acquisition, with
special regard for the role of input: deaf children, in fact,
can be exposed to different kind of input in visual modality,
namely, to gesture, homesign, non native signing, and native
signing, different kinds of input being crucial - together
with children's age - to determine a good (or bad) language
An interesting study on Idioma de Senas de Nicaragua is also
proposed, in order to determine how much idiosyncratic
gestures (homesigns) shaped the new-born signed language.
18. Gesture to sign (language) (William C. Stokoe)
This chapter proposes a new kind of interpretation of language
origin: language may have begun with gestural expression.
Instrumental manual actions may have been transformed in
symbolic gestures, and Vision would have been the key of
language evolution: humans would have begun to represent
the world they would see (namely, things and actions) by
their own means.
Vision would have been the key for syntax to slowly come up
because of its great capability of parallel processing.
The book offers a wide range of arguments for discussion and
future studies: due to the structure itself, it may result
somewhat unsystematic, although contents turn out to be a
precious contribution to our field. In fact, it provides a
good global view of the main questions that scholars have
been asking themselves in these years, namely:
- what's the psychological origin of gesture?
- which are its functions within speech interaction?
- is gesture performed in order to help listener's
comprehension, or may it also help speaker's task?
The answers to these questions are still controversial:
even the nature of gesture itself is argument of discussion.
This book chooses a view of gesture as fully joined with
verbal communication, even bearing the same psychological
origin and complementary functions with respect to speech
flow, but not all of scholars are convinced of this thesis:
I could cite, for example, Butterworth & Hadar (1989),
or Feyereisen and Seron (1982), who consider gesture production
as accessory with respect to speech flow.
Anyway, I think the greater part of researchers agree with
the kind of model here proposed.
As regards the problems related to the function of gesture in
communication, I agree with de Ruiter's assumption that
gestures, though not maintaining the same communicative
efficacy under all circumstances, must be held as a
strictly communicative device from the speaker's point
of view: I would even add that the real nature of gesture
becomes fully comprehensible only if we consider it as
an inseparable part of a process - that I call "oral
communication" - which is solely intentional, and
consequently, strictly communicative.
As for the rest, I particularly appreciated the constant
attempt to focus on the social aspect of non verbal
communication which is not - as it may seem - a homogeneous
and objective phenomenon.
I also found some chapters really original and interesting,
like Oezyuerek's or Furuyama's ones, for example, and wish
I could be able to read something more about their current
studies: the greatest limit of this book is, in fact, its
fragmentation into several topics (each one nearly covering
a one chapter space), which may also be considered its best
Beattie, G. and Aboudan, R. 1994. Gestures, pauses and speech:
an experimental investigation of the effects of changing
social context on their precise temporal relationships.
Butterworth, B. and Hadar, U. 1989. Gesture, speech, and
computational stages: a reply to McNeill. Psychological
Review, 96 I:168-174.
Buehler, K. 1990. Theory of Language: The Representational
Function of Language. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Feyereisen, P. e Seron, X.
'Nonverbal Communication and Aphasia: a Review. II.
Expression'. Brain and Language,16:213-236.
Freedman, N. 1977. Hands, words, and mind: on the
structuralization of body movements during discourse
and the capacity for verbal representation. In Freedman,
N. and Grand, S. (eds.) 1977. Communicative Structures
and Psychic Structures: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of
Communication. New York: Plenum.
Kendon, A. 1982. The study of gesture: some remarks on its
history. Semiotic Inquiry 2:45-62.
Levelt, W. J. M. 1989. Speaking: From Intention to Articulation.
Cambridge, MA: MIT press.
Liddell, S. K. 1994. Tokens and surrogates. In Ahlgren, I.,
Bergman, B. and Brennan, M. (eds.) 1994. Perspectives on
Sign Language Research. Vol. I. University of Durham:
International Sign Linguistics Association.
McNeill, D. 1992. Hand and Mind: what gestures reveal about
thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McNeill, D., Cassell, J. and McCullough, K.-E. 1994.
Communicative effects of speech-mismatched gestures.
Language and Social Interaction 27:223-237.
Rauscher, F. H., Krauss, R. M. and Chen, Y. 1996. Gesture,
speech, and lexical access: the role of lexical movements
in speech production. Psychological Science, 7:226-230.
Vygotsky, L. S. 1987. Thinking and speech. Ed. R. W. Rieber
and A. S. Carton. In the collected works of L. S. Vygotsky,
vol. I: Problems of General Psychology, pp. 39-285.
The reviewer: Nicla Rossini, a Ph.D. student in Linguistics
at the Department of Linguistics, University of Pavia, Italy.
I'm working on gesture's cognitive origin by the analysis of
deaf and hearing people's non verbal communication.