The sense that gesture is a language of its own is even more pronounced in those cases where it seems to replace speaking entirely. In the nineteenth century, visitors came back from Italy with news of an exotic “gesture language” that was spoken without words at all. After the discovery of the archaeological sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the eighteenth century, Naples had become a can’t-miss stop on the grand tour. Letters home and travelogues in magazines told tales of complete conversations silently conducted between balconies, gossip and treachery performed by hand alone, and love affairs arranged without a word spoken. In one apocryphal anecdote, a young swain woos his beauty over the course of months, without discovery by her father, through gestures and looks exchanged from street to balcony. When he finally arrives at the decided meeting place to run away with her, he hears in the darkness an abrasive squawk asking, “are you there?” Realizing it’s the voice of his love, which he has never heard before, he runs the other way.
For the benefit of these foreigners “who had been born in distant regions and who, on account of their cool and sluggish temperament are rather unsuited to gesturing,” Andrea de Jorio, an archaeologist at the Royal Borbonic Museum in Naples, produced one of the only works before Efron’s to look at gestures as they were used rather than as they ought to be used, an 1832 study that catalogued hundreds of gestures used in the streets of Naples.
De Jorio provides an alphabetized index of gesture meanings for everything from “abbondanza” (abundance) to “uomo panciuto” (paunchy man). He not only describes what the gestures look like—the tips of the index finger and thumb joined together facing one another, and then separated by the index finder of the other hand means “I am not friends with you anymore”—he gives little scenarios of the gestures used in context, showing some of the varying shades of meaning they can acquire. In one example, he tells the story of “a certain count, noting that someone he did not know had joined the conversation, and who made a somewhat bad impression, asked his friends, in gesture, who this person was.” The first man responded by placing the outside of his thumb at his ear, with the palm facing downward, “thus declaring him to be an ass.” The second friend made the same gesture, but with both hands at his ears, “meaning the fellow was more than an ass.” The third friend placed the tips of his extended thumbs on his temples with the other fingers wide open and oscillating, confirming that the poor fellow was “not just a fool, he was positively asinine.”
Despite stereotypes, the Italians have never had a monopoly on the wordless gesture. Even the most sluggish-armed among us can get all kinds of messages across without saying a word: “come here,” “he’s crazy,” “check her out,” “yes,” “no,” “I don’t know,” “peace,” “it’s a secret,” “I’m thinking,” “wait a minute,” “stop right there,” “something stinks,” “I’m not listening,” “screw you,” “check, please.” These gestures aren’t exotic to us because they’re the ones we use. They seem somehow to belong to the language “common to all men” that Quintilian was talking about.
But of course, they aren’t common to all men, as anyone who’s ever looked at a travel guidebook can tell you. Remember to avoid the “okay” sign in Brazil, where it means “asshole.” Watch out in Bulgaria, where a head nod means “no” and a head shake means “yes.” Don’t give the thumbs up in Iran unless you mean to say “up yours.” Many of the gestures we use in place of speech aren’t transparent at all. Their forms are arbitrary and need to be translated just like words.
It is in this silent use of gesture, where the gestures become like words—quotable, conventionally defined, intentionally produced, and meant to communicate—that gesture really does start to look like a language. But looked at more closely, these gestures distinguish themselves from words in interesting ways.
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