For one, they can be remarkably durable over time. The gestures we inherited from the Greeks and Romans are much more immediately identifiable today than are the words we inherited from them. The digitus impudicus that Romans insulted each other with is the same digit we use for that purpose today (and while the phrase “digitus impudicus” takes some education and background to decipher, a display of the “impudent finger” does not).
Also, these quotable gestures—emblems, as Efron called them—function quite differently from words. They almost never play the role of nouns or verbs. There are gestures that seem like adjectives—the finger twirling at the temple for “crazy,” the fingertip kiss for “delicious”—however, they act not as descriptors, but as attitude-laden comments. Emblems don’t work like words so much as complete speech acts. They don’t say, they do. They request (come here!), admonish (shhh!) insult (up yours!), promise (cross my heart!), and compliment (delicious!).
Only in the case of full sign languages of the deaf do gestures take on all the properties of words. Sign languages have nouns and verbs and rules for how they fit into sentences. Signs can say, “rosemary really brings out the flavor in this roast” as well as “delicious!” Signs, like words, are composed out of a finite inventory of units that are defined with discrete boundaries. In American Sign Language, the position of the thumb in a fist—whether it lies next to the fingers, in front of the fingers, or inside the fingers—can make the difference between one meaning, another meaning, and nonsense, in the way that in speech, tiny alternations in vibration and airflow can make the difference between “pine” and “mine.” Gestures are wholes. Their internal parts aren’t important. When I punch my hand with a fist to tell you that I’m going to beat you up, it hardly matters what my thumb is doing.
The greater the burden of communication gestures have to carry, the more languagelike they become. But if we already have a full language to communicate, then why do we gesture? Clearly it’s useful for cases where we can’t or don’t want to speak. With gestures, baseball players exchange secrets on the open field, stock traders make deals in the noisy hubbub of the pit, scuba divers communicate through the barrier of water, and drivers make their frustration known to other drivers through the barrier of car windows.
These special cases don’t represent the bulk of gesturing we do. Most of our gestures happen while we can speak or are speaking. But the act of using language is ephemeral; words disappear as they are spoken. Of course, we’ve had the ability to preserve the words of the past ever since the invention of writing. But the solid, linear permanence of written language encourages the illusion that language is just an object, a container for thought. In fact, language is also a behavior, a laboratory for thought creation and negotiation. Gestures are thoughts, ideas, speech acts made tangible in the air. They can even, for a moment, outlive the speaker. Death-row inmates have been
executed with their middle fingers extended in a final gesture of defiance.
David McNeill, a psychologist who has spent his career studying gesture, first took notice of it watching two of his colleagues converse. They looked to him like “sculptors working in different media. One was always pounding and pushing some heavy blocklike stuff. I imagined that his medium was clay or marble. The other was drawing out and weaving some incredibly delicate, spidery stuff. His medium looked like strings or spiderwebs.” Research of the past few decades has shown that putting our thoughts in our hands can help us learn and remember better, can help us speak more fluently and find the right words.
When we speak, we shape our thoughts for language, and when we gesture, we shape them in the space in front of us. We may be different kinds of sculptors using different kinds of media, but our molding, weaving, and chiseling does us good.
Image: Eadweard Muybridge, Athletes. Posturing. Plate 115, 1879, from The Attitudes of Animals in Motion (1881). Albumen silver print. Courtesy Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
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