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Review of  Gesture

Reviewer: Hannah Sowden
Book Title: Gesture
Book Author: Adam Kendon
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
History of Linguistics
Issue Number: 16.966

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Date: Wed, 30 Mar 2005 14:12:18 +0100
From: H L Sowden
Subject: Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance

AUTHOR: Kendon, Adam
TITLE: Gesture
SUBTITLE: Visible Action as Utterance
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2004

Hannah Sowden, Department of Human Communication Sciences,
Sheffield University


This book is written by a well respected proponent of the field and is
set to become a definitive account of gesture. It is aimed at all with an
interest in human communication. The study of gesture falls at the
overlapping boundaries of many disciplines; the book draws upon
linguistics, anthropology, cognitive science and semiotics, providing a
linguistic and cultural approach to gesture. Well established
methodological alternatives such as neurological, psychological,
developmental and biological comparative approaches are excluded.


Chapter 1 provides an overview. It briefly defines gesture, then
introduces four themes: the interconnectivity of gesture and language,
the function of gesture in interaction and communication, gesture and
sign language, and gesture as a possible origin of language.

Chapter 2 provides an extended discussion of the nature of gesture.
A quick review concludes that gesture is an action which is evaluated
by the recipient for intentionality and expressiveness. By this means
gesture is fluid, context is crucial.

A sizable proportion of the book is devoted to the history of gesture
studies. This begins in Chapter 3 with a quick run down from ancient
Rome to the eighteenth century. The way that gesture studies have
been influenced by the concerns of the time is well drawn out, from
oratory through art to philosophy.

The nineteenth century is dealt with in Chapter 4. This chapter
discusses the work of four contributors; De Jorio, Tyler, Mallery and
Wundt. The discussion illustrates how each of these influenced the
anthropological approach to gesture.

Chapter 5 charts the fortunes of gesture studies throughout the
twentieth century. Initially unfashionable the turn to cognitive
processes resulted in a revival of interest in gesture. This chapter
ends with a succinct but informative review of current debates in the
newly risen gesture studies. Gesture and speech as the same
process is discussed, along with various processing models (e.g.
McNeill (2000), and de Rutier (2000)). Also included are the functions
of gesture, and gesture derived from manipulatory actions or visual

Chapter 6 initiates the link to the central part of the book by examining
various historical classifications systems. The influence of Efron
(1941 [1972]) and Ekman and Friesen (1969) are discussed. A
discussion of McNeill’s (1992) classification, perhaps one of the most
influential currently, concludes that such typologies are not possible.
The chapter ends with a discussion of Kendon’s own view and

Chapter 7 considers a gesture in more detail, introducing the concept
of gesture phase and unit. The book provides many examples, both
illustrated and with transcripts. The transcription system is clear and
informative without being cluttered.

The next chapter links gesture to speech. The examples show that
both speech and gesture can be manipulated to conform to the other.
Kendon uses these to argue against McNeill, favouring the less strong
claim that language and gesture are partners in the communication
act. Gesture is as deliberate as speech, not “a window into the mind”
as McNeill (1992) claims.

Chapter 9 discusses referential, modal and pragmatic gestures by
following a long transcript illustrating the various ways gesture can be
used, and the ability of communicators to slip between these
functions. The passage presented here shows different ways of
representing: either as modelling, enactment or depiction.

Chapter 10 is on gesture and referential meaning. It includes a
discussion of gestures with a “narrow gloss” (commonly
labelled “emblems”), leading on to a description of gesture used to
create objects, to show spatial relationships and to exemplify actions.
Gestures are shown to be closely linked to speech.

Chapter 11 is devoted to a description of pointing. Various hand
shapes are discussed with a view to the affect this has on the
meaning and function of the point. Some of these distinctions are
shown to be cultural.

Chapters 12 and 13 are both densely packed with information that
arguably forms the main content of the book. Chapter 12 begins with
a discussion of the functions of gesture, then goes on to illustrate
some of the pragmatic functions by using two “gesture families”, the
finger bunch (grappolo) and ring hand shape. The grappolo family is
claimed to relate to the essence, or core of an idea, whereas the ring
hand refers to the fact that something is being singled out or made

Chapter 13 continues with this detailed espousal of gestures by
looking at two more gesture families: that of “Open Hand Palm Down”,
and “Open Hand Palm Up”. Palm down gestures are claimed to have
a semantic theme of stopping or interrupting, whereas palm up
indicates a giving or offering function.

Chapter 14 changes the topic to a review of gesture and sign
language. The chapter begins with a discussion of the creation of
stable gesture systems, including “homesign”; gestural systems
devised by isolated deaf, and the growth of Nicaraguan sign
language. The second part of this chapter gives a brief description of
gestural systems used by crane operators, saw mill workers, monks,
Native American and central Australian Aboriginal sign languages.
Factors controlling the growth of complexity and the acceptance of
these systems are traced throughout each description.

Chapter 15 draws parallels between gesture and sign language in
three main areas: phonology developing from iconicity, the use of
space to organise discourse elements and the use of classifiers. It is
argued that gesture and sign are not discrete, but are related through
the kinesic medium.

Chapter 16 discusses gesture through cultural aspects. Initially
showing this through an historical perspective the chapter moves on
to a detailed discussion of Efron’s (1941) research which first explored
the cultural differences between Jewish, Italian and American
gestures. The stability of gestural forms is compared to the fluid
nature of words. “Quotable gestures” (emblems) are discussed in
terms of universality and geographical distribution. Speculative ideas
concerning the type of culture where gestures can flourish are

Chapter 17 summarises and the main themes and content of the
book. Also included are two appendices, the first dealing with
transcription conventions, the second giving brief details of the
recordings containing the examples used in the book.


This book is a welcome and valuable addition to the current literature
on gesture. It deals comprehensively with the historical aspects of
gestures, the relationship of gesture and sign language as well as a
detailed discussion of the functional use of gesture. It is a
methodological alternative to McNeill’s (1992) work, and will, without
doubt, be as influential. It is clearly written, and contains many
illustrations and pared down transcriptions, allowing for ease of
reading and interpretation. Within his own set limits Kendon has
produced a book, the majority of which is an enjoyable read, but which
also functions as an extremely authoritative reference work.

There are a few niggles. Whilst the review chapters provide an
excellent introduction to the field, the chapters in the middle of the
book are densely written and require some work on the part of the
reader to pick out the theoretical framework being presented. This is
especially true of chapters 12 and 13 where the driving arguments are
sometimes lost in the wealth of detail. A clear overview, or even
diagrammatic form of the framework, would greatly help the reader, as
this has to be pieced together from different discussions in various
parts of the book.

The central chapters abound with original and relatively complex
notation, again there is no reference grid provided. This problem can
be illustrated by the apparent equivalence of the terms “Open Hand
Supine” and “Open Hand Palm Up”, used interchangeably for some
gestures. This problem is exacerbated by the illustrations on page
206. Both illustrations E and G are labelled “Open Hand Prone”,
although illustration E also has “palm up” in parenthesis, indicating
perhaps that this should be labelled “Open Hand Supine”? Also it is
difficult to tell from these illustrations the difference between E “Open
Hand Prone (palm up)” and F “Open Hand Oblique (palm oblique)”.

In conclusion the book is well written, comprehensive and thought
provoking. The review chapters appearing at the beginning and end
of the book are easier to follow on a first read than the densely
packed middle section, but a little perseverance and dedication is
amply rewarded by the detail presented within them. This book is not
an overview of the current state of the field of gesture studies, but is
an insightful anthropological and cultural study of gesture.


de Ruiter, J. 2000. The production of gesture and speech. In
Language and Gesture, ed. D McNeill. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Efron, David. 1941 [1972]. Gesture and Environment. New York:
King's Crown Press. [Reprinted in Gesture, Race and Culture.
Approaches to Semiotics No. 9. The Hague, Mouton].

Ekman, P, and Friesen, Wallace V. 1969. The repertoire of nonverbal
behaviour: categories, origins, usage and coding. Semiotica 1:49-98.

McNeill, D. 1992. Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal About
Thought. London: The University of Chicago Press.

McNeill, D. 2000. Catchements and contexts: non-modular factors in
speech and gesture. In Language and Gesture, ed. D McNeill.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Hannah Sowden is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the
department of Human Communication Sciences at Sheffield
University. Her research is focused on the early development of
language and gesture in children with autism.

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