CHICAGO (Reuters) – Scientists reported on Friday what they said was the first scientific evidence that people unconsciously gesture with their voices. What a world of assumptions lies hidden beneath this innocent looking pool of semiotic quicksand.

What did Howard Nusbaum, Hadas Shintel, and Arika Okrent do? They let people look at dots and then say whether they went up or down. Separately, people read “It is going up” or “It is going down”. If the dots went up, their pitch rose. It lowered when the dots went down. This also happened when the sentences were read. This is the ‘unconscious gesturing’ mentioned in the title.

Look, the dots are going up (say in a rising pitch)

First of all, the people did not ‘gesture’ with their voice, they modulated the fundamental frequency (F-0) of their speech signal to a higher frequency, or you could say they shortened its wavelength. If we assume the term gesture to form a pair with voice to encompass Man’s communicative behaviour, surely intonation (and all other prosody) falls under voice. Why would it be useful to shove intonation under gesture? And in fact Nusbaum et al. talk about analog acoustic expression at first and only compare these to gestures. Do they mean gestures are analog? And if so, what are their digital counterparts? Sign language signs? I think this is what they have in mind.

(More on this? Read Scott K. Liddell, Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language. But in general I disagree with this presentation of gesture. I think even co-speech gesturing is a mix of ‘analog’ and ‘digital’ encoding of meaning. People simply have many strategies for semiosis which can be employed in just about any modality.)

Second, talking about a pitch going ‘up’ or ‘down’ is a convention. There is nothing natural about it as such. On a piano it goes from left to right.

Is praying to the Lord above simply a natural, analog manual expression? (Image by OYBB)

Third, why would the intonation be any more or less ‘conscious’ than the words themselves?