Quintilian implies, like many after him, that gesture is some kind of universal natural language. It was a language, however, that needed to be cultivated and practiced. Since gesture represented thoughts, or, as Cicero said, “the motions of the soul,” orators had to learn how to marshal their gestures to put their thoughts in the best light. Quintilian laid out specific dos and don’ts. He tells us, for example, that when “the middle finger is drawn in toward the thumb, the other three fingers being open,” this is an appropriate gesture to use during the introduction to a speech, provided it is “moderately exerted and with a gentle movement of the hand in either direction.” It can add confirmation when stating the facts if the movement is “somewhat more decided,” but “in invective and refutation, it must be spirited and impressive.” It should never, however, be aimed sideways so that the middle finger points toward the left shoulder.
For centuries, discussion of gesture was couched in terms of what was proper or effective. There were guides for orators, preachers, and actors, and rulebooks for courtly behavior that laid down standards for gesture. In the seventeenth century there were even dictionaries of gesture: Giovanni Bonifacio’s The Art of Signs (1616) and John Bulwer’s Chirologia and Chironomia (1644) list hundreds of gestures, citing passages from the classics on their meanings. According to Bulwer, we know that “to smite suddenly on the left hand with the right” signifies anger because Seneca used it in a description of an angry man.
Most guides to gesture advised against mere mimicry or acting out the content of the speech they accompanied. Quintilian believed the gestures of an orator “should be suited rather to his sense than to his words.” The purpose of gesture was not to repeat information, but to add it. Indeed this is how even those untrained in oratorical gesture seem to use it. We use gestures to show how the events we narrate happened, and to point to the particular things or people we talk about. The gestures of the Italians Efron studied added information about the physical qualities of the things they talked about as well as their attitudes toward them. The gestures of the Jews he studied illustrated the connections they were making between ideas and their relative importance. Gesture can communicate a layer of meaning missing from the speech.
But it would be wrong to say that the reason we gesture is to communicate. Almost anything can communicate—the clothes you wear, the flowers you send, the way you flutter your fan or fold your handkerchief. Gestures communicate too, but they are much more intimately tied to the act of speaking. They are not a language in themselves, but they are a complement to language, a partner with language, a byproduct of language. Subsequent research in the field that Efron founded has failed to find a culture that does not gesture during speech. Not everyone does it as colorfully as the Italians and Jews, but everyone does it, even Englishmen. While aspects of the way we do it are learned or culturally conditioned, and while some of our gestures are intentionally formed with the goal of communication in mind, imitation can’t explain why congenitally blind people gesture, especially when they know they’re speaking to other blind people, and communicative intent can’t explain why people gesture when they’re on the phone. Gesture is simply a part of language use. When we form our thoughts into speech, some of it leaks through our hands.
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