At a 1998 conference called Oralité et gestualite (ORAGE 98). Communication multimodale, interaction. Actes du colloque. Cornelia Mueller presented a paper on Iconicity and Gesture (1998). The ideas already present in this paper about how the hands construct iconicity were important in the lecture she gave last week together with Alan Cienki on Metonymy in Metaphoric Gestures.

Abstract Müller 1998: Iconicity is thought of as a natural property of gesture and is considered to require no further investigation. I will show that iconicity in gesture is achieved and how it is achieved. I will specify four different modes of representation which make clear how iconicity in gesture is constructed. On the basis of ethnographic descriptions and semiotic analyses of gestures in sequences of Spanish and German dyadic conversations, different forms of semiosis are distingished. It is shown that gesturing is based, on the one hand, on a diverse set of everyday practical activities such as opening doors, driving cars, and giving or taking objects. On the other hand, various cultural representation practices such as moulding and drawing are employed. Occasionally, the hand portrays the object itself, for example, a flat hand is used to portray a piece of paper. It is concluded that iconicity in gesture is not restricted to ‘iconic’ gesture, but is one of the most powerful means of constructing gestural meaning in general.

During the lecture slightly different terminology was used for the different modes of representation: * Hand acts (imitates) * Hand models (moulds) * Hand draws (tracing) * Hand embodies (portrays)

Hand that moulds

The hands that mould? (source)

The picture above is a joke at first sight of course, but just imagine how you would explain the procedure to someone else without the equipment or the material. I think there will be a lot of enacting, modeling, and tracing involved. It seems to me to be a very useful way of looking at gestures. I do think that conventions are also used and may lead to more arbitrary non-iconic gestures. I think that it is also possible, or even in some cases desirable to avoid iconicity during sign formation. Consider, for example, more or less secret gesture systems (e.g. the signs made by a baseball coach to the players, which should not be understood by opponents). But in general, the principles can be applied fruitfully is my intuition.

At the talk it was suggested that the above 4 modes of representation are all cases of metonymy. It was argued that only a part of what was represented could be enacted, embodied, modeled or drawn (because the hands are not the thing). It seemed a somewhat trivial statement though, with little to offer for a deeper understanding. But the concept of metonymy might harbour more than meets the metaphoric eye? Going a bit deeper into the matter: How are these specific modes of representation perceived in case of unknown meanings? Are people able to observe and understand gestures whereby the hand enacts, embodies, models or draws without (much) contextual clues? If so, then this could perhaps explain the universal ease of communicating gesturally with foreigners.

Let me set up a little theory:

1) Hands that act can be understood because mirror-neurons (if we know the action) provide us an association with the referent action
2) Hands that embody, model or trace can be understood because the share perceptual similarities (disregarding philosophical objections, like Eco’s for the moment) with their referents
3) These are universal capabilities of humans
4) If we see an unfamiliar gesture we try to apply the strategies above to understand it

Now, if you encounter a foreigner and wish to communicate you may both assume that the other will use the same modes of representation and start gesturing. Chances are, you will work out what the other guy or girl means if your intentions are good.

Norsemen meet native american indians

Odin, please don’t let me be misunderstood. (source)

The argument could be expanded to include movement more generally. If we look at fidgeting for example I would argue that to a certain extent the physical forms of fidgeting are determined biologically and are therefore candidates for universality. So, we know those movements if we see someone else make them and we can understand that there was no communicative intent. If there happens to be a movement that we are unfamiliar with then we can try to understand it as a practical action (by looking at the result of the action and the maker’s response to that result) or as a gesture. If we try to understand an unfamiliar movement as a gesture we may follow the strategies suggested above:

* We can evaluate our embodied cognition (mirror neurons) for any associations with familiar actions (“ah, he’s making a swimming motion”).
* We can try to project a certain object into the shape and path of the hands (“he’s modeling a boat”), into the outline drawn by the hands (“he’s drawing a fish”), or into the hands themselves (“he’s pointing a gun”).

If these attempts fail we may be unable to understand the other. We may assume he refers to unknown actions or objects and try to witness or inspect the actual thing referred to itself.

Or we may just nod and smile. That usually works, too.