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  • Linguistics isn't just the study of words or sounds: it's the study of all the parts of conversation.

  • That includes gesture analysis, which looks at "co-speech gestures". Not posture or gaze, but winking, or sticking out your tongue, or how arms and hands move alongside speech.

  • Just to be clear, this isn't about sign languages. Those are systematic and rule-governed with elaborate syntax and vocabulary.

  • Signed languages are language, but gestures are "paralinguistic"; they accompany language.

  • Gesture analysts make their job easier by talking about different categories of gestures, which explain how they relate to meaning.

  • And those are:

  • Number one: Iconic. These gestures represent a literal object, like a flat surface, or a car weaving through traffic.

  • Number two: Metaphoric. Gestures that symbolize an abstract concept, like "before" and "after", or "working together".

  • I do that a lot, and on this greenscreen those metaphoric gestures become a bit more literal with the help of graphics.

  • Apologies to my animator.

  • Three: Deictic. That's pointing to things, positioning yourself to people, or places or things like pointing behind the camera or "over there".

  • Number four: Pragmatic. Like offering the floor to someone, or "don't bother me right now".

  • And finally, Beat. The rhythm of gestures alongside the natural stress patterns of speech.

  • All these categories — I'm, I'm really self-conscious about every move I'm making now.

  • These categories can coexist as well. Often gestures that are performed "on beat" also fit into another category.

  • There's one more type of gesture that serves a slightly different purpose: emblems.

  • Emblems are named gestures that don't have to occur alongside speech to have meaning, like "thumbs up".

  • It has a meaning outside of the context of speech. In a lot of the world, you can flash someone the thumbs up,

  • and they'll almost certainly understand that you're signalling approval, or that everything's okay.

  • But if you swap the fingers, it doesn't have the same meaning.

  • And even If I stick with the thumb, if I change angle and arm position, I'm trying to hitch-hike.

  • The form of the gesture is tied to the established meaning. It Is an emblem.

  • Which means it's not universal. The meaning is learned, and context can change it.

  • That thumbs up? In some countries, it used to be rude, but because of globalization, that's no longer the common reading there.

  • Although there will be people who remember its rude history, and could still interpret it that way.

  • Emblems can change definition over time, they can be created, they can be forgotten.

  • I would demonstrate that by dabbing, but I don't want a GIF of that to haunt me for the rest of my life.

  • So why do we do it? What does gesturing actually accomplish?

  • Well, first: redundancy for decoding and encoding errors.

  • Languages have agreement all over the place. There's redundancy baked into everything.

  • Spoken language is ephemeral. Once something is said, it's gone.

  • Those sound waves have moved on and they are not coming back.

  • Gesture is another form of redundancy. It doesn't matter if a loud [engine noise] drove by at just the wrong timeyou may have figured out a vague idea of what was being said.

  • Next, you can show emphasis and importance.

  • Or if you're explaining an abstract concept, using metaphoric gestures to visibly explain things can help make it cleareither to your conversation partner, or just in your own head.

  • And sometimes, it is so much easier and clearer just to point.

  • Gestures are important to communication, and so important that if our hands and arms are unavailable, we will use our head, our eyes, our other limbs to compensate.

  • Gestures can also show understanding of social norms.

  • If you're embarrassed to say something, you can make that clear by covering your face or your eyes,

  • or by doing the move that looks like "There are no paper towels or hand dryers in this bathroom so I guess I'll just shake it off".

  • Or if you want to distance yourself from what you're saying you can use scare quotes, or you can put a boundary around yourself.

  • Gestures also seem to help us get the words out in the first place.

  • That's why people gesture even when they're on the phone, and why people who have been blind since birth gesture.

  • Gesture is intrinsic to language.

  • It helps us communicate more effectively and more elaborately, and to pass on information and feelings that are difficult to put into words.

  • Gestures are basically emoji for the real world.

  • One of my co-authors, Gretchen McCulloch, has a book called Because Internet, all about internet language.

  • You can find out more at the links in the description.

Linguistics isn't just the study of words or sounds: it's the study of all the parts of conversation.

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Why Do We Move Our Hands When We Talk?

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    Jeff Chiao posted on 2022/03/26
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