A Nice Gesture by Jeroen Arendsen

Various personal interests and public info, gesture, signs, language, social robotics, healthcare, innovation, music, publications, etc.

Category: Gesture Semiotics

Nelson Goodman on Labanotation

In his book (1ed. 1969) Languages of Art, Nelson Goodman treats Labanotation as the most important dance notation system. It gets a thorough examination based on Goodman’s theory of symbol sytems. All in all Goodman considers Labanotation a fairly succesfull notational system, comparable to a music score.

Unfortunately, the philosophical concepts Goodman uses in his book are often beyond my current comprehension (and I was not interested enough to dig further). Perhaps I will return to the book later, since it did seem to offer some solid ground.

He does not say much about gesture and nothing about sign language. The only bit I recall is about the use of stylized gestures and Mudras in dance, which are opposed to modern (disco) dancing which does not denote anything (but the rhythm of the music and prior performances of the moves?). Languages of Art is based on Goodman’s John Locke Lectures of 1961/62.

Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in ASL

I recently read (or glanced through parts) of the 2003 book by Scott K. Liddell: Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language

The main message of the book is one that I would have found trivial if I did not know anything about linguistics. It must take a linguist to surprise a linguist, I guess. Liddell basically points out that there is more to talking than just what is said. I wonder if there are really any structural linguisitic professors out there that would argue against this?

Using many examples he shows how in ASL there are many processes of meaning-making at work. And he suggests that the same is true for spoken languages. When we speak we use words and grammar, but we also use intonation, and we gesture, raise our eyebrows, roll our eyes, etc, etc. Not surprisingly, the same is true for American Sign Language, and undoubtedly for all spoken and signed languages across the globe. When we sign we also gesture, use space in different ways, raise our eyebrows in different flavours, and roll our eyes in all directions. Every language has lexical items (signs and words) and grammatical processes to combine and alter them, but there is always so much more going on when we express ourselves.

Deaf or Hearing?

Liddell is however probably now the first and foremost figure in the Sign Language research community to move to a new agenda. The old (or current) agenda is proving that Sign Language is at a par with spoken/written languages at all levels (such as categorical perception of phonological properties). Alongside runs research showing (dis)similarities in neurological processing between so-called non-linguistic gestures and linguistic gestures (further proof that sign language is like ‘real’ language and not like gesturing).

Signers or Talkers?

When I started reading about sign language and gestures I found it difficult to believe how little interaction there was between research on both topics. Gesture researchers were finding out that gestures and speech are not separated by a fence called ‘linguistic status’, while at the same time Sign Language researchers kept on proving the inferior nature of “gesticulation”. Did they choose to be blind to normal gestures of hearing people? Is there still fear of not being taken seriously? Perhaps there is, and I cannot fathom whether such fear is warranted nor whether ASL status still requires defence beyond reason.

ASL or English?

I heartily recommend Liddell’s book to anyone interested in the similarities between signed and spoken languages and the similarities between sign language and gestures. Rest assured that Liddell provides a score of wonderful material on ASL meaning-making mechanisms, which will clear anyone of the notion that it is a poor or primitive language. The richness he documents is testimony to what matter most: people´s enormous potential to communicate effectively with eachother, through any and all means available.

Two out of four of the above pictures contain people that are ‘signers’, the other are mere ‘talkers and gesturers’. Can you spot them?

Is sketching gesturing?

My brother in law Coen sent me a link to a YouTube video about a digital drawing board: It raises a nice question: Is sketching gesturing? Two easy answers: Yes, it falls under gesture because it is movement that is intended to communicate (or movement that expresses intention. No, it is different because it is not the movement itself but rather the result, the lines drawn, that convey the message. A few observations about sketching and gesturing: (1) If you would like to sketch but do not have pen and paper, you may very well revert to gesturing and ‘sketch in the air’. (2) If you explain a sketch it will often include gestures that enrich or clarify the message contained in the sketch. (3) There is style of drawing and painting that refers to gesture. It is called gesture drawing or action painting. The main idea is that the resulting art should capture or even show the original movements, for those are deemed an important expressive power. The Pirates (source) I am afraid I will leave the question unanswered for you for now. You are cordially invited to share your opinion. I will point you to an interesting book that, in my opinion is a must read to study the relation between gesturing and sketching: André Leroi-Gourhan (1964-65). Le geste et la parole, Paris, Albin Michel. (amazon.fr) English translation by AnnaBostock Berger, 1999: Gesture and Speech, MIT Press. An excellent review by Copple in Gesture. And to be frank, I did not read beyond Copple’s review yet, so I want to wait before making any sweeping statements on the issue. I do like the overall theory that both gesture and drawing are tied to our capacity for symbolic communication (but that is such a general remark it is almost trivial).

Pope’s Every Act Perceived as a Gesture

The Pope is visiting Turkey. I put together a fairly random collection of newsflashes from my newsreader to illustrate how his acts have an enormous communicative value. Everything he does is perceived as a gesture of some kind (which is perhaps the most common use of the word gesture, see examples here, here and more). And former cardinal Ratzinger seems to have gained considerable oratory skills, for he is using his gestural power to the max. He knows people will pick it up so he continuously produces small acts like shaking hands, reaching out, waving, smiling, saying nice things, refraining from criticism, and even waving a flag. The last one is hardly a little act, though, but of enormous symbolic value by itself.

Yahoo News

Pope’s trip to Turkey starts on conciliatory note ANKARA (AFP) – Pope Benedict XVI began a delicate mission to Turkey, trading conciliatory gestures with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as both sought to calm the storm unleashed when the pontiff appeared to link Islam to violence.


Pope makes further Muslim-Christian gesture EFES, Turkey (Reuters) – Turkey on Wednesday praised the conciliatory tone of Pope Benedict during his visit to the predominantly Muslim country and his apparent new support for Ankara’s bid to join the European Union.

Turks.US Daily News

Gestures of Goodwill from the Pope in Izmir, Turkey. [..] Pope Benedict XVI visited the Virgin Mary’s house in Ephesus, which is considered sacred by Christians, and presided over mass [..] and waved the Turkish flag given to him at the end the mass. Upon his arrival in Ankara, the pope had hinted that the Vatican supported Turkey’s membership to the European Union, and such gestures of goodwill continued during the mass.

Gulf Times (Qatar)

Benedict XVI makes further Muslim-Christian gestures EFES, Turkey: Turkey yesterday praised the conciliatory tone of Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the predominantly Muslim country and his apparent new support for Ankara’s bid to join the European Union. 

Sunday Times (ZA)

Pope “wins Turkey’s heart” ISTANBUL – A picture of Pope Benedict XVI waving a Turkish flag was on the front pages of nearly all Turkish newspapers as the pontiff won more praise for his conciliatory gestures during his first trip to a Muslim country.

Catholic Online

Benedict XVI’s ‘Gesture of Love’ ROME, NOV. 30, 2006 (Zenit) – The exchange of visits between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is a “gesture of love,” says Father Giovanni Cereti, Professor of Ecumenical Theology

Look at me, I am thinking

Here is a nice Garfield comic (always a good source for gestures, see here and here). It illustrates how a bit of fidgeting (thoughtful lip-touching) can be turned into a pose. Suddenly Jon displays a gesture of thoughtfulness instead of actually being lost in thought.


Did my nephew just fidget or gesture?

Sometimes science is what happens while you are making research plans. One of my favorite topics for research plans is what makes a gesture a gesture. I ask myself if gestures are always clearly visible? And if so, is that universally true or culture-specific? What is the influence of context? Which circumstances increase the chance that a movement will be seen as a gesture? What role does the sensitivity of onlookers play in their own perception but also in the production of gesturers? To my surprise my 1 year old nephew Marco, visiting the Dutch family with his Italian mama and Dutch papa, answered my unspoken questions. What did he do? He twisted his finger in his ear during lunch with a big smile. Although you may find his action a bit uncivilized let me rush to his defence. At first I just saw his action, and barely noticed it. I had discarded it as just fidgeting. But then his mother remarked ‘ah, you like it, yes?’. Suddenly it dawned on me. It was a cheek screw! But little Marco did not make it exactly right. He screwed his ear instead of his cheek. His mom told me later this happens often.

The cheek screw meaning 'Good', as portrayed in Desmond Morris: Gestures (1979)
What does this mean for a boy from Palermo? (source Gestures, their origins and distribution. Desmond Morris, 1979)

I was forced to go over my own perception of this event. For me, the cheek screw is a gesture (meaning ‘Good’ or praise) that I only knew from reading. The Dutch do not use it. Perhaps I would have seen it immediately if I was Italian? In all likelyhood, Marco’s cheek screw is part of little rituals of communication with his mom and dad. He is learning, practising and his family is alert and responsive to his behaviour. My own involvement, as an uncle at a distance, is much smaller, though I try to interact with him as much as possible.

Let us return to the questions at the beginning with this case in mind to see the answers it may give. This cheek screw gesture was not clearly visible. It is a culture-specific gesture which may explain partly my inability to see it at first. The context of eating and Marco’s interaction with his mom made me see the gesture for what it was: an reasonably succesful attempt at a cheek screw to indicate he liked the food. The circumstances of his age and stage of development of his communication skills work to increase my sensitivity (I pay more attention) and tolerance (I try to understand what he intends to communicate). That is true for my interaction with my own children as well. Does this mean that seeing a gesture in a movement always requires the right context and the right cultural knowledge? No, it is just one case of a small kid growing up, a cheek screw, a mother and an uncle. Or in other words, for fans of human universals: It may well be that all little kids in all cultures learn to make gestures in ways that are so similar (universal) that when they are a bit older their distant uncles will always see their nephews’ intention to communicate, even if their exact meaning may escape those uncles. At the same time little kids gesturing can rely on several things. They operate within their parents’ culture. Mom and dad pay attention to their communicative attempts and are tolerant about mistakes. Furthermore they usually understand the needs of the situation.

From kids it is a small step to adults. We all may rely on exactly the same things. A gesture for a cultural insider who is paying attention can be made with just a subtle movement. If the context is clear the gesture will be perceived without problems. Conversely, if the context is ambiguous (not a shared understanding), two people from different cultures may well have more difficulties. In a way, strangers should act towards each other as a parent to a child: Use whatever clues you can to understand the needs of the situation, pay attention to communicative attempts and tolerate mistakes. Such goodwill gestures will surely be appreciated.

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