Monday, September 1st, 2014
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Body Language

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Two Jews and an Englishman are crossing the ocean on a ship. The Jews, who can’t swim, start arguing with each other about what they should do if it sinks. As they argue, they gesticulate with such vigor that the Englishman backs away to avoid injury. Suddenly, the boat begins to sink. All the passengers except for the Jews, who are too wrapped up in their argument to notice, jump overboard. After a long, exhausting swim, the Englishman finally reaches the shore. He is amazed to find the two Jews there, happily waving him in. Astonished, he asks them how they got there. “We have no idea,” says one of them. “We just kept on talking in the water.”

A version of this joke appears in a 1941 dissertation on “the gestural behavior of eastern Jews and southern Italians in New York City, living under similar as well as different environmental conditions.” The study was written by David Efron, who grew up in an orthodox Jewish home in Argentina and arrived in New York for graduate study in the 1930s. By his own account, when he spoke Spanish, he gestured with “the effervescence and fluidity of those of a good many Argentinians.” When he spoke Yiddish, his gestures were more “tense, jerky, and confined.” He sometimes combined the two styles, as when “discussing a Jewish matter in Spanish, and vice versa.” After living in the United States for a few years, he found his gestures becoming “in general less expansive, even when speaking in his native tongue.” His gestural identity was further complicated by the “symbolic Italian movements” he had picked up from Argentine-Italians and reinforced on a trip through Italy. But no matter what language he spoke, he proved to be “an adroit table-pounder.”

Efron was one of the last students of the famous anthropologist Franz Boas. Boas spent his career arguing that it was culture and environment, not biological race, that accounted for differences in how groups of people behaved. Efron’s study was designed as a challenge to the impressionistic explanations of gesture that the race theorists of the 1930s were passing off as science. One claimed that Jews of mixed race who no longer had other Jewish physical traits could still be identified by their gestures. Another categorized gesture by race: Nordic gestures were restrained; Mediterranean gestures were playful; the gestures of the Phalic race (as in the German region of Westphalia) reminded one of a fleeing chicken; Italian gestures were explained with reference to hot blood, light bones, and poor impulse control.

Efron observed the conversations of 1,250 Lithuanian and Polish Jews and 1,100 Italians from Naples and Sicily in and around New York City. In each group, about half were recent immigrants and half were “assimilated.” They were observed in a range of settings: parks, markets, social clubs, schools, universities, Catskills resorts, Adirondack hotels, and the Saratoga racetrack. He recorded five thousand feet of film and, with an artist, produced two thousand sketches of spontaneous gestures.

The results paint a picture of a stereotype, but a lovingly detailed and specific one. According to Efron, Jews used a limited range of motion, mostly from the elbow. Their movements were more angular, jabbing, intricate, and vertical than those of the Italians, who used larger, smoother, more curved lateral gestures which pivoted from the shoulder. Jews tended to use one hand, Italians both. Italians touched their own bodies, Jews touched the bodies of their conversational partners. Efron describes with delight an episode he witnessed where one man grabbed the arm of his interlocutor and started gesturing with it. That man, becoming annoyed, finally grabbed the first man’s wrist in retaliation and “started admonishing him back with his own…hand.” Jews also did more gesturing with objects such as pencils or, in one case, a meatball on the end of a fork. Italians used less finger and wrist movement but more repetition. They also had a vocabulary of symbolic gestures with standard meanings—from “I know more than you think I do” to “I’ll sew your lips together” to “I’ll poke your eyes out”—that could be understood without any speech at all.

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  • I think there is some connection between our hands and brain.There is one hypothesis that our unconscious thoughts reflected on line and mounts of our palms.Expert palmist can read our future accurately or rudimentary.I experiences myself.One palmist accurately told me my future and that happened. How can palmist read accurately my future? recent research in neuroscience proved that 99 p.c. our unconscious mind governed on our conscious mind .We have no freewill.We choose our carrier, lover, our way of life each and every decision we take by instruction of our unconscious mind. What our unconscious mind decide our future plan reflected on our palm`s lines and mounts.This clue I want put before neuroscientist they to do future research

    Posted by Ramesh Raghuvanshi on Sat 12 May 2012

  • I'm rather worried about the thumbs-up meaing 'up yours'. I've been living in India for some years, and have naturally picked up its vocabulary of gestures, but haven't made any enemies that I know of, so for all I know India may share this gesture with Iran. I hope not, because there's a street vendor near my house who for years has shouted at me every day as I walk home, and to whose presumably friendly greeting I have generally responded with the thumbs-up. Maybe it isn't a friendly greeting... anymore.

    Posted by Phillip on Mon 14 May 2012

  • The fascinating book "The Hand" by Frank Wilson M.D. examines brain/hand connections. And the memoir "Rascal" by Sterlin North touches briefly on this topic.

    Posted by Bob on Mon 14 May 2012

  • Another fascinating side to the story is how gesture-as-language is different from simply 'movements'. A long time ago I read Oliver Sacks' 'Seeing Voices', which (other things) talked about sign languages of the deaf, which depend on gesture. In some cases (I'm digging back here, so I hope my memory's correct), sign-speakers who couldn't move part of their face involuntarily after a stroke, COULD move it when that movement was required for speech; ie. the same 'movement' was controlled by different parts of the brain when it was used for speech (and therefore was not the same movement at all). I don't know if that holds for 'non-sign' gestures, but in this case, the 'meaning' of a gesture, its role AS language, is demonstrated right down to the neurological level.

    Posted by Mamat on Tue 15 May 2012

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About the Author

Arika Okrent is the author of In the Land of Invented Languages. She lives in Philadelphia.

Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story. That story can be an improbable one, but it should never be banal. It must be dramatic and human. What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out?
Alfred Hitchcock, 1962
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