Various enterprises and personal interests, such as Man-Machine Interaction (MMI), gesture studies, signs, language, social robotics, healthcare, innovation, music, publications, etc.

Month: May 2007

Gesture as a Metaphor for Musical Expression

Talking about gesture and metaphor often gets me into a critical state. I am not sure I agree with McNeill’s idea of opposing iconic and metaphoric gestures (just because they refer to something concrete or abstract respectively). I was also somewhat puzzled by the MPI Lecure on Metonymy in Metaphoric Gestures by Cienki and Mueller. And that was the sort of talking over lunch just now. One of the professors here, Paul Hekkert, is also interested in metaphors. He gave a masterclass at a workshop at the university of Tilburg, as part of their Advanced Studies Initiative on MultiModal Metaphor. We talked a bit about metaphor and gesture, and then… It struck me that in the experience of music people often use the term Musical Gestures, which I think is actually a metaphoric use of the word gesture. As far as I can tell there is no actual gesturing involved, there are just musicians playing their instruments. But somehow, when they play the music in a certain and when the audience picks that up, people start to talk about musical gestures. That would mean that the music played is understood in terms of a gesture. What is a gesture then? Well, let us say now that gesture is the display, through any action, of an intention to communicate. Musical score
A dramatic gesture of “Maternal Love” ? (source)

Going back to the music, we can then say that with a musical ‘gesture’, the musician displays an intention to communicate (his feelings?) through his playing. I guess we should add: ‘beyond that which is displayed through the usual playing of music’. And maybe we should also add: ‘or at least insofar as such an intention is perceived by an audience’. Perhaps it would even be more accurate to add: ‘insofar as an audience chooses to project such intentions to communicate on the performance’. For as far as I can tell nothing is stopping people in the audience from projecting the grandest displays of feelings on the tiniest blowing of a flute. It actually does not matter whether the musical gestures are real (produced and perceived) or imaginary (projected but not actually produced). If I have paid 50 euro to attend a concert I have every right to experience the music in whatever way suits me best.

See also:
The Musical Gestures Project
Journal of Music and Meaning
Meaning in Music Gesture

Serbian Salute by Marija Šerifović

Marija Šerifović recently won the Eurovision Songfestival with a nice song called Prayer.

Marija during her performance
Marija Šerifović (photo by Indrek Galetin)

She is also the main character in a nice story about a gesture: the Serbian Three-finger Salute: The three-finger salute is a Serbian salute with the thumb, index, and middle fingers open.

The origin of this gesture is said to be the orthodox way of crossing yourself, with three fingers instead of the entire hand (referring to the Christian Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

That is not unlikely but the actual othodox crossing is done with three fingers together, not spread. The spreaded Serbian salute could however be seen as an exaggerated version of the hand used in crossing. It is as if the Serbs, in this gesture, stress their difference from people that cross themselves with the thumb touching the fingers in opposition (catholic Croats?).

The Serbian salute is made, for example, by fans and players to celebrate sport victories. Members of other ethnic groups, especially Bosniaks and Croats, are said to find it provocative. So, it is effectively a symbol of national and/or ethnic identity.

Now, if you rewatch the footage from songfestival, you can see Marija and other members from her group giving the salute regularly when they receive points, or when they are cheering after their win. The same goes for cheering crowds in Belgrade.

Serbs cheer Marija's victory with salutes

In a way I feel that this salute is similar to waving a little flag, which is not criticized among songfestival contenders. However, one specific occasion sparked a bit of commotion. After receiving 12 points from Bosnia Herzegovina Marija made the Serbian salute. Some people were offended because Serbian troops also flashed this gesture around on their military campaign there, reminding people of the atrocities commited there by the Serbs (and others).

More generally, the Serbian salute was often used as a nationalist sign before and during the Yugoslav wars.

When she was confronted about her salute Marija Šerifović was irritated and said she did not have to explain her behaviour. Serbian commenters on the web are also quick to make light of the matter or suggesting critics to go to hell. Is it justified that the criticism is so easily shrugged off? I think it is not justified. I think Marija and other Serbs are well aware that they offend people with the gesture.

Because it is not the first time this story was told. It all happened before in exactly the same way, in 2003, with a Serbian basketball player in the NBA called Vlade Divac. He also flashed the Serbian salute to cheer or greet his countrymen. And when he was confronted by critics he also downplayed it and shrugged it off, much like Marija now, although he seemed to be well aware of the meaning and use of the gesture in the wars.

Read the full story for a good background on how to interpret the modern use of the Serbian salute. It also gives a good impression of how it was used by the Serbian militia. Here is a paragraph that I think captures the essence:

The symbol is associated with the Serbian Orthodox Christian Church, and experts say it represents the Christian Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But, through decades of ethnic strife, the gesture took on a nationalist meaning. It is also associated with the “Three C’s” from the nationalist slogan “Only Unity Will Save the Serbs” (In the Serbian language, the words “unity” “save” and “Serb” all begin with the Cyrillic letter “c” the equivalent of “s”) It became used as a threatening weapon, an “in your face” gesture aimed at terrorizing non-Serbs.

So, are we to believe that people like Marija, who appears to be an intelligent, informed Serbian, are not aware they are causing offence with the Serbian salute? I find that very hard to believe. Sure, the songfestival stirs up feelings of national pride, and a lot of flags are waved. But this should be mixed with growing respect for eachother. That is the purpose of such events, much like the Olympics. I can only see this gesture as a childish boasting of her own Serbian identity mixed with a display of contempt for neighbouring peoples. Not illegal perhaps, but quite rude and highly offensive.

The only justification that could be made is that history is not as we think we know it, that the Serbs were actually also victims of the war, that this should be acknowledged, and more of such excuses. But even such a view (which I do not share) does not take away the childishness and rudeness of the act. It just hurts the eyes. Elsewhere: Samaha

Workshop on Visual Prosody in Language Communication

I will be at the MPI in Nijmegen Thursday May 10 en Friday May 11. There is an international Workshop on Visual Prosody in Language Communication, organized by Alexandra Jesse and others (program). I am giving a talk called when does sign recognition start? on friday around 10.30u.

Maybe I will see you there?

Royal Points Finger at Sarkozy

Sunday the French will cast their final votes and get a new president: either Sarkozy or Royal. On the big final TV debate there was one ‘gesture’ that received considerable attention. Segolene pointed her finger repeatedly at Sarkozy while accusing him of something.

Watch out for the scene that starts around 4:00 in this video and lasts for a couple of minutes (or at 6:50 in case of counting back in time). In her main accusation Mme Royal first points her finger about 14 times, then makes a wave-away gesture three times and continues with another 5 or 6 angry points.

MSN: The highlight came as Ms Royal said it was scandalous that Mr Sarkozy could talk with a tear in his eye of giving handicapped children an enforceable right to schooling, when his government had scrapped a similar measure she had introduced as schools minister. The centre-right favourite replied: “Calm down. Don’t point your finger at me like that. I don’t know why Ms Royal, usually so calm, has lost her nerve…You have shown how easily you get angry. But to be president of the republic carries heavy responsibilities.” Ms Royal hit back, saying: “Not when there is injustice. There is some anger that is perfectly healthy.”

A more literal translation for good measure:

CNN: Highlights from the showdown: SARKOZY: “Calm down, don’t point at me with your finger like that.” … ROYAL: “No, I won’t calm down.” SARKOZY: “To be president you have to be calm.” ROYAL: “Not when there is injustice. There is anger that is perfectly healthy… I won’t allow the immorality of political speeches to gain the upper hand.” SARKOZY: “I don’t know why Madame Royal, who is usually calm, has lost her cool.” ROYAL: “I have not lost my cool, I’m angry. It’s not the same, don’t be contemptuous, Mr Sarkozy.” … SARKOZY: “I am not calling into question your sincerity, Madame Royal, don’t call into question my morality. And with that, Madame, the dignity of the presidential debate will be preserved. “But at least it’s served one purpose, which is to show that you get angry very quickly, you go off the rails very easily, Madame. A president is someone who has important responsibilities.”

I saw an old debate between Francois Mitterand and Giscard d’Estaing on TV in 1981. A similar situation arose. The socialist claimed the moral high ground and the conservative said that Mitterand did not have the monopoly on compassion: “Vous n’avez pas le monopole du coeur”. It was an important moment. Maybe this small scene will be remembered as well?

Bonobo Co-Scream Gestures and Protolanguage Bonobos and chimps ‘speak’ with gestures.


Abstract: Human spoken language may have evolved from a currency of hand and arm gestures, not simply through improvements in the basic vocalisations made by primates. This “gesture theory” of language evolution has been given weight by new findings showing that the meaning of a primate’s gesture depends on the context in which it is used, and on what other signals are being given at the same time. Gesture is used more flexibly than vocalised communication in nonhuman primates, the researchers found. A proto-language using a combination of gesture and vocalisation is therefore more likely to have given rise to human language, than simply an improvement in the often involuntary vocalisations that primates make, they say. Amy Pollick and Frans de Waal at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, US, tested the idea by looking at how strongly gesture and vocal signals are tied to context in our closest primate relatives – chimpanzees and bonobos.

A nice article for those who are not offended by the topic of the origin of language, and especially the theory of the Gestural Origins of Language (as recently put forward most comprehensively by Michael C. Corballis, but there is a long tradition going back to the 18th century).

Although the matter is still largely speculative, many believe that all the ‘evidence’ that is being found in neuroscience, ape-watching, child development, or elsewhere is pointing in the same direction: The path to our modern language capability is easier to imagine going through advancing use of gestures, in combination with vocalisations or facial expressions, then through advancing vocalisations only. Put in that way, I do not think many would disagree. But as I read in Ray Jackendoff’s Foundations of Language the gestural origins theory does not really explain the extent of our language capability.

The truly interesting things in our language capacity are described in terms of our (possible innate) Universal Grammar (Chomsky’s theory that Jackendoff defends and polishes), in the way we use syntax, and all sorts of other formational rules in speech. The ‘language’ of apes, bees, or imagined gestural protolanguages are simply not very interesting in the company of such wondrous human capacities. Which is of course where the ape-watchers by definition disagree.

Essentially, I think both sides of the story simply treat different aspects of language origin. The gestural origins theory is useful to think about the first steps to advanced communication of intentions and meanings in our ape-ancestors. It does not readily explain our current language capacity. But some argue that there is anough evidence through sign language research to go that extra mile.

Language in Hand
(Gallaudet Press)

Shortly before he died, sign language research legend William C. Stokoe wrote a book called Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech, which is the most comprehensive account of the available knowledge on sign languages that is relevant to the gestural origins of language. Stokoe argues that the first languages must have been sign languages. For details, read the summary or get the book.

Blogs: World-ScienceScientific BloggingM1K3¥’s BlogHarvard U. PressMonkeys in the NewsLiveJournal AnthropologistAurariaMr.VerbNY TimesLanguage Log (recommended)BBCTerra Daily No lack of attention for Frans de Waal and Amy Pollick 🙂

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