The main result, the one the study was designed to find, was that as the Jews and Italians assimilated, they began to gesture alike. When Efron tested a group of students at a high school in Little Italy on the meanings of the symbolic gestures used by the unassimilated Italians, less than half of their judgments were correct. He came to the anticipated conclusion: as Jews and Italians became American, so did their gestures.
The conclusion was unsurprising; it was Efron’s method that made his study important. In order to make his study empirical, Efron had to develop a way to break gestures down into countable units so that he could explain differences with respect to those units. There were “emblems” that could be understood without speech, those of the Italian “I’ll poke your eyes out” variety. There were also gestures that had no meaning independent from speech: “physiographics” and “kinetographics” that trace out the objects or actions under discussion, “ideographics” that trace out the metaphorical pathways of the speaker’s thoughts, and “batons” that beat out the rhythm of speech.
The gestures of the subjects that Efron observed didn’t differ only by the qualities of how they moved or how many hands they used or who they touched. They also seemed functionally different. Italians used emblems; Jews didn’t. Italians sometimes used physiographics, depicting the size and shape of the things they talked about; Jews used ideographics, depicting features of the discourse itself. When Jews pointed a thumb toward the ground and then scooped it upward quickly, they were highlighting the crux of the discourse, physically and metaphorically digging it out for consideration. When they traced an angular zigzag with a finger, they were outlining the back and forth of an argument, linking one salient bit to the next.
After he published his study on the gestures of New York immigrants, Efron left academia for a career advocating for workers’ rights at the UN’s International Labor Organization. But his dissertation went on to become a foundation for the field of “gesture studies”—a label applied to the activities of various psychologists, anthropologists, and linguists who look at the things people do with their hands while they speak. Efron not only laid the groundwork for a more systematic method of studying gestures, he introduced the idea that gesture was not a companion to speaking, but a product of it.
In his Institutes of Oratory, the first-century rhetorician Quintilian says the hands “almost equal in expression the powers of language itself,” and he praises them for all the things they can do:
With our hands we ask, promise, call persons to us and send them away, threaten, supplicate, intimate dislike or fear; with our hands we signify joy, grief, doubt, acknowledgment, penitence, and indicate measure, quantity, number, and time. Have not our hands the power of inciting, of restraining, of beseeching, of testifying approbation, admiration, and shame? Do they not, in pointing out places and persons, discharge the duty of adverbs and pronouns? So that, amidst the great diversity of tongues pervading all nations and people, the language of the hands appears to be a language common to all men.
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