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Military air marshallers use hand and body gestures to direct flight operations aboard aircraft carriers.

A gesture is a form of non-verbal communication or non-vocal communication in which visible bodily actions communicate particular messages, either in place of, or in conjunction with, speech. Gestures include movement of the hands, face, or other parts of the body. Gestures differ from physical non-verbal communication that does not communicate specific messages, such as purely expressive displays, proxemics, or displays of joint attention.[1] Gestures allow individuals to communicate a variety of feelings and thoughts, from contempt and hostility to approval and affection, often together with body language in addition to words when they speak.

Gesture processing takes place in areas of the brain such as Broca's and Wernicke's areas, which are used by speech and sign language.[2] In fact, language is thought to have evolved from manual gestures.[3] The theory that language evolved from manual gestures, termed Gestural Theory, dates back to the work of 18th-century philosopher and priest Abbé de Condillac, and has been revived by contemporary anthropologist Gordon W. Hewes, in 1973, as part of a discussion on the origin of language.[4]

Study on gestures

Gestures have been studied throughout the centuries from different view points.[5] During the Roman Empire, Quintilian studied in his Institution Oratoria how gesture may be used in rhetorical discourse. Another broad study of gesture was published by John Bulwer in 1644. Bulwer analyzed dozens of gestures and provided a guide on how to use gestures to increase eloquence and clarity for public speaking.[6] Andrea De Jorio published an extensive account of gestural expression in 1832.[7]

Categories of gestures

Pointing at another person with an extended finger is considered rude or threatening in many cultures.

Main article: List of gestures

Although the study of gesture is still in its infancy, some broad categories of gestures have been identified by researchers. The most familiar are the so-called emblems or quotable gestures. These are conventional, culture-specific gestures that can be used as replacement for words, such as the handwave used in the US for "hello" and "goodbye". A single emblematic gesture can have a very different significance in different cultural contexts, ranging from complimentary to highly offensive [8] The page List of gestures discusses emblematic gestures made with one hand, two hands, hand and other body parts, and body and facial gestures.

Another broad category of gestures comprises those gestures used spontaneously when we speak. These gestures are closely coordinated with speech. The so-called beat gestures are used in conjunction with speech and keep time with the rhythm of speech to emphasize certain words or phrases. These types of gestures are integrally connected to speech and thought processes.[9] Other spontaneous gestures used during speech production are more full of content, and may echo, or elaborate, the meaning of the co-occurring speech. For example, a gesture that depicts the act of throwing may be synchronous with the utterance, "He threw the ball right into the window." [9] Such gestures that are used along with speech tend to be universal. For example, one describing that he/she is feeling cold due to a lack of proper clothing and/or a cold weather can accompany his/her verbal description with a visual one. This can be achieved through various gestures such as by demonstrating a shiver and/or by rubbing the hands together. In such cases, the language or verbal description of the person does not necessarily need to be understood as someone could at least take a hint at what's being communicated through the observation and interpretation of body language which serves as a gesture equivalent in meaning to what's being said through communicative speech.

Gestural languages such as American Sign Language and its regional siblings operate as complete natural languages that are gestural in modality. They should not be confused with finger spelling, in which a set of emblematic gestures are used to represent a written alphabet. American sign language is different from gesturing in that concepts are modeled by certain hand motions or expressions and has a specific established structure while gesturing is more malleable and has no specific structure rather it supplements speech. We should note, that before an established sign language was created in Nicaragua after the 1970s, deaf communities would use "home signs" in order to communicate with each other. These home signs were not part of a unified language but were still used as familiar motions and expressions used within their family—still closely related to language rather than gestures with no specific structure.[10] This is similar to what has been observed in the gestural actions of chimpanzees. Gestures are used by these animals in place of verbal language, which is restricted in animals due to their lacking certain physiological and articulatory abilities that humans have for speech. Corballis (2009) asserts that "our hominin ancestors were better pre-adapted to acquire language-like competence using manual gestures than using vocal sounds."[11] This leads to a debate about whether humans, too, looked to gestures first as their modality of language in the early existence of the species. The function of gestures may have been a significant player in the evolution of language.

Social significance

Gestures, commonly referred to as “body language,” play an important role in industry. Proper body language etiquette in business dealings can be crucial for success. However, gestures can have different meanings according to the country in which they are expressed. In an age of global business, diplomatic cultural sensitivity has become a necessity. Gestures that we take as innocent may be seen by someone else as deeply insulting.[12] The following gestures are examples of proper etiquette with respect to different countries’ customs on salutations: In the United States, “a firm handshake, accompanied by direct eye contact, is the standard greeting. Direct eye contact in both social and business situations is very important.” In the People’s Republic of China, “the Western custom of shaking a person's hand upon an introduction has become widespread throughout the country. However, oftentimes a nod of the head or a slight bow will suffice.” In Japan, “the act of presenting business cards is very important. When presenting, one holds the business card with both hands, grasping it between the thumbs and forefingers. The presentation is to be accompanied by a slight bow. The print on the card should point towards the person to which one is giving the card.” In Germany, “it is impolite to shake someone's hand with your other hand in your pocket. This is seen as a sign of disrespect” In France, “a light, quick handshake is common. To offer a strong, pumping handshake would be considered uncultured. When one enters a room, be sure to greet each person present. A woman in France will offer her hand first.” [13]

Vitarka mudra, Tarim Basin, 9th century.

Gestures are also a means to initiate a mating ritual. This may include elaborate dances and other movements. Gestures play a major role in many aspects of human life. Gesturing is probably universal; there has been no report of a community that does not gesture. Gestures are a crucial part of everyday conversation such as chatting, describing a route, negotiating prices on a market; they are ubiquitous. Additionally, when people use gestures, there is a certain shared background knowledge. We use similar gestures when talking about a specific action such as how we gesture the idea of drinking out of a cup. When an individual makes a gesture, another person can understand because of recognition of the actions/shapes.[14] Gestures have been documented in the arts such as in Greek vase paintings, Indian Miniatures or European paintings.

Gestures play a central role in religious or spiritual rituals such as the Christian sign of the cross. In Hinduism and Buddhism, a mudra (Sanskrit, literally "seal") is a symbolic gesture made with the hand or fingers. Each mudra has a specific meaning, playing a central role in Hindu and Buddhist iconography. An example is the Vitarka mudra, the gesture of discussion and transmission of Buddhist teaching. It is done by joining the tips of the thumb and the index together, while keeping the other fingers straight.


Gestures are processed in the same areas of the brain as speech and sign language such as the left inferior frontal gyrus (Broca's area) and the posterior middle temporal gyrus, posterior superior temporal sulcus and superior temporal gyrus (Wernicke's area).[2] It has been suggested that these parts of the brain originally supported the pairing of gesture and meaning and then were adapted in human evolution "for the comparable pairing of sound and meaning as voluntary control over the vocal apparatus was established and spoken language evolved".[2] As a result, it underlies both symbolic gesture and spoken language in the present human brain. Their common neurological basis also supports the idea that symbolic gesture and spoken language are two parts of a single fundamental semiotic system that underlies human discourse.[9] The linkage of hand and body gestures in conjunction with speech is further divulged through the observation of gesture use in blind individuals during conversation. This phenomenon uncovers a function of gesture that goes beyond portraying communicative content of language and extends David McNeill's view of the gesture-speech system. This suggests that gesture and speech work tightly together, and a disruption of one (speech or gesture) will cause a problem in the other. Studies have found strong evidence that speech and gesture are innately linked in the brain and work in an efficiently wired and choreographed system. McNeill's view of this linkage in the brain is just one of three currently up for debate; the others declaring gesture to be a "support system" of spoken language or a physical mechanism for lexical retrieval.[15]

Electronic interface

Main article: Gesture recognition

The movement of gestures can be used to interact with technology like computers, using touch or multi-touch popularised by the iPhone, physical movement detection and visual motion capture, used in video game consoles.

See also


  1. Kendon, Adam. (2004) Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-83525-9
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Xu J, Gannon PJ, Emmorey K, Smith JF, Braun AR. (2009). Symbolic gestures and spoken language are processed by a common neural system. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 106:20664–20669. DOI:10.1073/pnas.0909197106 PMID 19923436
  3. Corballis, Michael (January/February 2010). The gestural origins of language. WIREs Cognitive Science 1.
  4. Corballis, Michael. (January/February 2010). "The gestural origins of language." © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. WIREs Cogn Sci 2010 1 2–7
  5. Kendon, A (1982). The study of gesture: Some observations on its history. Recherches Sémiotiques/Semiotic Inquiry 2 (1): 45–62.
  6. [[John Bulwer|Bulwer, J]] (1644). Chirologia: or the Naturall Language of the Hand.
  7. de Jorio, A (1832/2002). Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity, Indiana University Press.
  8. Morris, Desmond, Collett, Peter, Marsh, Peter, O'Shaughnessy, Marie. 1979. Gestures, their origins and distribution. London. Cape
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 McNeill (1992). Hand and Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  10. Fernandez, Eva M. (2011). Fundamentals of Psycholinguistics, Wiley-Blackwell.
  11. Corballis, M. C. (2010), The gestural origins of language. WIREs Cogn Sci, 1: 2–7. doi: 10.1002/wcs.2
  12. Axtell, R. (1993). Do's and taboos around the world. (3rd ed., p. 116). Wiley. Retrieved from Gibson/Sph 106/taboos0001.pdf
  13. Axtell, R. (1993). Worldsmart: Gestures around the world. World Smart Resource Center, Retrieved from
  14. VASC, Dermina, and Thea IONESCU. "Embodying Cognition: Gestures And Their Role In The Development Of Thinking." Cognitie, Creier, Comportament/Cognition, Brain, Behavior 17.2 (2013): 149-150. Academic Search Complete. Web.
  15. Iverson, Jana M., Esther Thelen (2005). Hand, Mouth and Brain. Journal of Consciousness Studies.
  • Bulwer, John (1644). "Chirologia: or the Naturall Language of the Hand" (London,1644)
  • Goldin-Meadow, Susan (2003). The resilience of language: What gesture creation in deaf children can tell us about how all children learn language. In the Essays in Developmental Psychologyseries (J. Werker & H. Wellman, Eds.). New York: Psychology Press.
  • Goldin-Meadow, Susan (2003). Hearing gesture: How our hands help us think. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Johns, C. (1982). Sex or Symbol. Erotic Images of Greece and Rome. London: British Museum Publications.
  • Kendon, Adam (ed.) (1981). Nonverbal Communication, Interaction and Gesture: Selections from Semiotica (Vol.41, Approaches to Semiotics). The Hague: Mouton and Co. [Includes as an Introduction by Kendon an extended critical survey of methodological and theoretical issues in the field].
  • Kendon, Adam (1997). Annual Review of Anthropology. 26: 109-128.
  • Kendon, Adam (2000). Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity. An English translation, with an Introductory Essay and Notes of La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire Napoletano ('Gestural expression of the ancients in the light of neapolitan gesturing') by Andrea de Jorio (1832). Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
  • Kendon, Adam (2004). Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • McNeill, David (1992). Hand and Mind. What Gestures Reveal about Thought. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • McNeill, David (2005). Gesture and Thought. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • Kita, S. (ed.) (2003). Pointing: Where Language, Culture and Cognition Meet. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, ISBN 0-8058-4014-1.

External links

Look up gesture in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
  • International Society for Gesture Studies(ISGS) is an international scholarly association devoted to the study of human gesture. The ISGS organizes conferences and supports the Journal GESTURE.
  • McNeill Lab Center for Gesture and Speech Research David McNeill's Lab homepage: The Center for Gesture and Speech Research at the University of Chicago studies speech and gesture from a psycholinguistic perspective. The page provides lots of useful information about gesture analysis.
  • The Goldin-Meadow Lab Susan Goldin-Meadow's Lab homepage. The lab is composed of graduate students and researchers pursuing independent topics related to cognition, development, education, linguistics, and various other fields, but interrelated by the lab's main focus - the study of non-verbal communication, specifically gestures.
  • The Nijmegen Gesture Center (NGC) at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics studies the role of gestures in psycholinguistic processing, communication and interaction, acquisition, cognition, and neurocognition.
  • Journal GESTURE is a scholarly Journal that publishes articles reporting original research, as well as survey and review articles, on all aspects of gesture.
  • Publications by Adam Kendon (field data, research techniques and theory of gesture and sign languages)
  • A Nice Gesture Many stories and anecdotes on gestures.
  • A Repertoire of South African Quotable Gestures, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology.
  • Handspeak Sign languages, gestures, body languages, Baby Sign, International Sign, and more. Paid site with limited content for free.

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