ISSN: 1139-8736
Depósito Legal: B-48039-2000

3.4. Gestures

Gesticulations that accompany oral language constitute the last body of evidence that will be presented in favor of Talmy’s typology. David McNeill from the University of Chicago argues that nonverbal gestures are an integral part of language. He maintains that they are components of speaking itself. He has presented his case quite convincingly in McNeill (1992). In the last years he has been studying the gestures English and Spanish speakers produce in synchrony with directed motion sentences. He has reported his findings in McNeill (1997a, and 1997b).1

McNeill (1997b) distinguishes gesticulations, or ‘speech-synchronized gestures’, from other types of gestures, such as rhetorical gestures or ‘emblems’ and linguistic indexing or ‘language-like’ gestures. Emblems are not synchronized with speech. They span speech and silence and even speaker turns. As examples he offers the ‘thumbs-up’ gesture and the gesture for ‘OK’. For linguistic indexing he gives as an example a sentence like it was this big followed by a gesture that tries to convey the size. In this type of gesture the timing is such that it follows the index (this in the case of the example cited).

The last type, gesticulations, is very different from the others, given that the gesture and the co-expressive speech are synchronous. He illustrates it with the following example:

(3.60) he grabs a big [oak tree and bends it way back] ...
‘right hand rises up and moves to the front, palm turned to face the right; it waits; it moves back and down; it waits again; the gesture ends’
The following quotation is McNeill’s account of this example. His formatting options to mark the boundaries of the gesture and its parts will be used in the examples that follow:
The brackets show when the hand was in motion; the boldface shows the stroke—the meaningful part of the movement performed with ‘effort’ or purpose; underlining shows holds—momentary cessations of movement to guarantee synchrony, the hand held in midair prior to and just after the stroke (Kita 1993). The stroke was executed precisely with the semantically co-expressive speech content, ‘bends it’.
The pre-stroke hold is the crucial part of this example. The speaker’s hand rose upward and forward during the preparation phase (the left bracket) for no other reason than to position it for the stroke. Yet the hand waited to start this stroke while the discourse marker, the conjunction and (meaning here that the following continues what came before), was uttered. Then, with this linkage to the discourse encoded, and only then, the stroke occurred. In other words, the speaker withheld the stroke until it could synchronize with its co-expressive speech. Such close synchrony strongly suggests the existence of a single integrated meaning process that has two components, the linguistic categorial (found in words) and imagery (realized in gesture). (The post-stroke hold has a different meaning: that the content of the gesture was still valid during the word back, even though the movement of the arm had ceased.)
This example also demonstrates that gestures are not semantic imitations of speech—they are ‘co-expressive’ rather than redundant. The gesture showed that the speaker visualized the object being bent back as fastened at one end. In speech the verb phrase bends it way back could ambiguously describe bending an object held at both ends. The adverb way may have as an implicature that the object was fastened at one end; but this is implicature, not direct demonstration, as in the gesture. Speech and gesture typically express different aspects of the same meaning unit and comprise together a more complete meaning unit than either does alone. The gesture stroke went beyond speech to provide an imagistic representation of the event.
Gestures, then, are more than just an expressive concomitant to speech. They are part of language broadly understood, and as such should be studied on a par with words and sentences and should be taken into consideration when studying the meaning that linguistic expressions convey.
In his research about the gestures that accompany motion sentences in English and Spanish, McNeill’s has confirmed that the two languages differ in fundamental ways. In order to collect his data he showed his subjects a 7 minute Tweety and Sylvester cartoon and asked them to retell the story to a listener of the same age and language. In the following sections, his findings on gestures for path and manner will be considered separately.


1   No page numbers will be provided for the examples and quotations from these papers, since they have been received directly from the author as manuscripts. McNeill (1997a) is just an outline of a paper he presented at the 1997 meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, where he gave preliminary results from a developmental study.

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ISSN: 1139-8736
Depósito Legal: B-48039-2000