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

Month: October 2007

A Case of Co-Speech Gestures

A wonderfull new video on YouTube of two guys (programmers, it says) talking and ‘co-speech-gesturing’ (is that a verb?).

“Real programmers use sign language” (by ekabanov)

I think it is safe to assume that it is for real. Their whole behaviour looks too natural and wacky to be scripted.

I also think this is a great case study to spend some time on while discussing some of the ideas of David McNeill. Because what we have here is what his theories and ideas are concerned with. There is (of course) no sign language nor did I spot any other ’emblematic gesture’ (those vulgar things you get fined or jailed for or the goofy ones that seem to be must-haves for ad campaigns). I also do not see any pantomime. No, this is the stuff they like in Chicago: Co-speech gestures. An episode full of deictics, beats, iconic and metaphoric gestures, right?

From the McNeill lab: A misconception has arisen about the nature of the gesture categories described in Hand and Mind, to wit, that they are mutually exclusive bins into which gestures should be dumped. In fact, pretty much any gesture is going to involve more than one category. Take a classic upward path gesture of the sort that many speakers produce when they describe the event of the cat climbing up the pipe in our cartoon stimulus. This gesture involves an iconic path-for-path mapping, but is also deictic, in that the gesture is made with respect to an origo –that is, it is situated within a deictic field. Even “simple” beats are often made in a particular location which the speaker has given further structure (e.g. by setting up an entity there and repeatedly referring to it in that spatial location). Metaphoric gestures are de facto iconic gestures, given that metaphor entails iconicity. The notion of a type, therefore, should be considered as a continuum –with a given gesture having more or less iconicity, metaphoricity, etc.

Wrong! Apparently the main problems of McNeill’s typology of gestures, that has sent many an engineer on a wild goose hunt for iconic gestures, are now even recognized at the source (McNeill, 1992). It is not mutually exclusive but rather an index of the functioning of a gesture (‘as a beat’ – ‘through spatial reference (deictic)’ – ‘referring thorugh iconicity to something concrete’ – ‘referring via iconicity first to something concrete and second through metaphor to something abstract’). Good. I never liked ‘beats’ for example. I don’t think I ever saw one. But to say that it was a misconception… I vaguely recall an annotation procedure called the ‘beat filter’ that begs to differ.

Anyway, at least this clears up the discussions regarding ‘metaphoric gestures’ considerably [they are de facto also iconic, the metaphor functions on another level]. And it also clears the way for an annotation of this video. Any volunteers? Well, you would have to get a decent file of the movie instead of the YouTube flash stuff anyway, so let’s forget about it.

McNeill wrote a new book recently (2005) which is mostly about growth points. But before you read the summary by McNeill you might want to check Kendon’s brilliant poem called ‘The Growth Point‘, which he delivered at McNeill’s festen. I find it neatly captures my feelings towards growth points (and more that is beyond my grasp). I am at once awed, baffled, and stupefied when I read about growth points and catchments.

And so it goes. Again I tried to get it. Again I failed to learn anything from reading about growth points. One thing only. If David McNeill (or Susan Duncan) is right, then annotating gestures in episodes like this will be eternal hell 🙂 And without the speech it will not work. Thank God. I can go to bed with a clear conscience.

McNeill, D. (Fall 2005) Gesture and Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McNeill, D. (2000) (Ed.). Language and Gesture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McNeill, D. (1992). Hand and Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gesture Definitions

I am going to try and coin some definitions regarding gestures.

A gesture is any act, except speech, by which we intend to communicate something beyond the act itself

This definition includes all normal gestures, that have meaning (the message that was communicated intentionally) because of cultural conventions (including languages) or iconicity, and all such acts (like giving flowers) that serve, mostly through context, as bearers of an additional meaning (like an apology). Speech is viewed as basically the same type of behavior (it fits the definition), but speech is given an exceptional status because of its importance and because it has certain characteristics that set it apart from other gestures. Excluded are all acts which either do not communicate anything (for example because the actor is not aware of an observer) or which only communicate themselves to an observer (”[look at me,] I am fishing/reading/sleeping/walking”).

I further wish to emphase the difference between normal, straightforward gestures and those acts that serve some other purpose in the first instance and only serve as gestures (or rather ‘gestures of something‘) in the second instance like the example of giving flowers to apologize. If I wish to distinguish between these different gestures I will add the term ’simple’ to the first category and ‘complex’ to the second category.

A gesture-simple is a gesture where the (sole) purpose of the act is to communicate

A gesture-complex is first some action but communicates an additional message in the second instance

I tried to find better words to express what I mean, but it’s the best I could come up with so far (it has been brewing for about a year, see one of my first posts).

Note that any gesture-simple may also be a gesture-complex (even a speech act can be a gesture-complex). I tried to explain this with this example of Pee Wee Reese standing by Jackie Robinson in the face of racist fan-abuse. The shoulder embrace was both a gesture-simple and a gesture-complex.

Pee Wee Rise
The gesture that touched a nation (source)

There are important reasons for making these distinctions (but I forgot them :-) ). Well, at least it will allow me (and maybe you) to better analyze observations of gesture. And perhaps it is necessary to be precise if you want to make statements about gestures. For example, I think that people can typically see that a movement is a gesture-simple from just its appearance but this is not true for a gesture-complex. I think that people easily miss that an action was intended as a gesture-complex or, vice versa, see/read too much in what was just some action, for example in this cartoon from Garfield:

Jon misreads Garfield's intentions
Jon mistakes Garfield’s intentions (source)

Let us see how far these definitions can take us.
Or does anyone have better suggestions?

And a final wild speculation: Women are not able to see a man’s action as just that action but are always convinced it is some gesture-complex (if we do not bring flowers we do not care, if we do bring flowers we have something to apologize for [but we just thought they would be nice on the table]). Men conversely tend to miss most of the complex gestures made by women (when they wear something nice and new to show their appreciation of some event for example). Any takers?

In Memoriam: Marcel Marceau, silent yet eloquent

Hero of the ‘once nearly lost art of pantomime’, Marcel Marceau (images), has recently died at the age of 84.

A nice tribute (proceed to many others at YouTube at your leisure)

Mime Marceau was born as Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg, France. He died on September 22 this year. From what I gather of the many tributes and obituaries he was an exceptional mime artist. He is often said to have revitalized the art (even singlehandedly :-) ). That he enjoyed world wide recognition is illustrated by an older movie from a trip to Japan, where he is warmly received. Or possibly the Japanese are simply very fond of pantomime?

It is strange how this art, which is so cherished and admired by some, is unappreciated by others. The wikipedia says: “Of [Marceau’s] summation of the ages of man in the famous Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death, one critic said: “He accomplishes in less than two minutes what most novelists cannot do in volumes.”.

But if you read research on gesture or sign language, pantomime is often what the writers set themselves off against. It is often used to make distinctions between that which is studied (linguistic or at least semiotic systems) and that which is not studied (mere pantomime). There are also those who seek to distinguish different gestural mechanism in signed discourse (where signers may alternate pantomimic and lexical/grammatical strategies to convey meaning) who talk about ‘gesture versus sign’. To me that is a strange distinction, for even ‘frozen’ (in the sense of Cuxac and Sallandre) lexical signs are gestures in my definition. What would be more appropriate is to label it ‘pantomime versus sign language’, if you wish to indicate a difference in level of conventionality.

I think it could be very productive to study the mechanisms by which mime artists create meaning or express themselves. In countless gesture studies the iconic nature of gesture has been treated (from Tyler (1870) to Mueller (1998)). Each time the same mechanism emerge: meaning is created through imitation of acts, through embodiment, and through molding and sketching in the air. The same appears to be true of pantomime. At least those strategies are certainly used. But there may be more.

Poetry pushes the boundaries of what can be done with spoken or written language. Perhaps mime as an art form pushes the boundaries of what can be done with gesture? I believe sign language poetry and pantomime are brothers in arms. Not only is beauty thus created, but people are shown new ways to express themselves more eloquently in gesture.

Obituaries (among many others) in The Times, and on BBC News.

Update October 2: There is a hilarious Dutch parody of a meeting between Marceau and Ivo Niehe, from Koefnoen (video).

Buckingham Palace Plonker

There is a funny little gesture story in the news these days. It is about a guard who is making little gestures (and doing a little dance) while he is supposed to be standing very still.

Buckingham Palace Plonker
The peak of the stroke of a wanker gesture? (source)

On the YouTube: Buckingham Palace Plonker. “Shocking behavior by one of the Queen’s Guards in front of Buckingham Palace. Exclusive footage never seen before in front of Buckingham Palace.” (little dancechecking time)

Elsewhere the Telegraph reports: “The video clip shows him turning his head – apparently to catch the attention of a colleague – before shaking his right fist up and down. Perhaps realizing that he is being watched, he quickly morphs the gesture into a more typical if slightly camp wave, before resuming his sentry duty.”

That is a nice and detailed analysis of the gesture that the Foot Guard is making. A wanker gesture that is camouflaged by morphing it into a wave. I concur. And whoever made the analysis, please keep up the good work.

Update 1 hour later: It could also be a combination of ‘wanker’ and ‘hurry up’, possibly sending a message like ‘hey wanker, hurry up”. Maybe his colleague was slow on his routine? (see the comments in the Sun)

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