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Overview


Gesturing is such an integral yet unconscious part of communication that we are mostly oblivious to it. But if you observe anyone in conversation, you are likely to see his or her fingers, hands, and arms in some form of spontaneous motion. Why? David McNeill, a pioneer in the ongoing study of the relationship between gesture and language, set about answering this question over twenty-five years ago. In Gesture and Thought he brings together years of this research, arguing that gesturing, an act which has been popularly understood as an accessory to speech, is actually a dialectical and integral component of language.
Gesture and Thought expands on McNeill’s acclaimed classic Hand and Mind. While that earlier work demonstrated what gestures reveal about thought, here gestures are shown to be active participants in both speaking and thinking. Expanding on an approach introduced by Lev Vygotsky in the 1930s, McNeill posits that gestures are key ingredients in an “imagery-language dialectic” that fuels both speech and thought. Gestures are both the “imagery” and components of “language.” The smallest element of this dialectic is the “growth point,” an “idea unit” of an utterance at its beginning psychological stage. Utilizing several innovative experiments he created and administered with subjects spanning several different age, gender, language, and neurological groups, McNeill shows how growth points organize themselves into utterances and extend to discourse at the moment of speaking.
An ambitious project in the ongoing study of the relationship of human communication and thought, Gesture and Thought is a work of such consequence that it will influence all subsequent theory on the subject.
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Editorial Reviews

Sherman Wilcox

“With Gesture and Thought, David McNeill again demonstrates his status as a pioneer in the field of cognitive psychology and linguistics. Here he has developed a new theory of language and gesture in which gesture is seen as integral to language. In doing so, he has not merely grafted gesture onto language, but has reexamined and redefined our understanding of language, thought, and gesture. Gesture and Thought is a book of profound importance, destined to change the way we think about human language, gesture, and thought.”
Rafael Nunez

“Expanding the field he helped create more than twenty years ago, David McNeill gives us, in Gesture and Thought, a deep and insightful account of how the mind is intrinsically embodied. Gestures—pervasive and dramatically ignored—are in themselves thoughts. If you still think that human minds can be emulated or even surpassed by computers, read this book! A must for anybody interested in language, thought, and the elusive intricacies of the mind-body problem.”--Rafael Núñez, University of California, San Diego

 

 

Cornelia Muller

“In this eagerly awaited book, David McNeill presents a unified theory of language, speech, gesture, and thought. Until this book, no one had ever attempted to formulate a theoretical framework to explain why gesture and speech appear so tightly linked, nor had anyone considered how an integration of gesture and speech might affect linguistic theory. Here, McNeill challenges traditional concepts in psychology and linguistics by arguing for the integration of body and mind and of dynamic and static aspects of language and thought—as opposed to separating them. This is a radically innovative work that will become a classic in psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, and anthropology. After having read it nobody will ever be able to think that the body and the mind are separate things again.”--Cornelia Müller, Free University of Berlin

 

 

Leonardo - Rudolf Arnheim

“David McNeill’s book is a momentous contribution to our understanding of kinetic and visual expression. . . . McNeill’s detailed descriptions of how gestures represent ideas contribute greatly to our understanding of images as carriers of abstractions.”
PsycCritiques - Theresa A. Thorkildsen

"By defending his reasons for studying gesture, offering a wide range of evidence to support conclusions about the imagery-language dialect, and illustrating how language is inextricably connected to social contexts, McNeill helps readers see why many scholars are no longer interested in parsing out the effects of nature and nurture on human functioning."
Gesture - Raymond W. Gibbs

"I am unable to adequately convey in words, or gesture, my admiration for this book, and generally believe that Gesture & Thought offers a major advancement in gesture studies with broad theoretical implications for comprehensive theories of embodied cognition and communication. . . . This is not just a book for gesture scholars, but one that all cognitive scientists would greatly benefit from reading. . . . A great example of interdisciplinary scholarship at its best, and [it] will undoubtedly stand the test of time as a classic in the study of human minds and communication."
Semoitica - Frank Nuessel

"The significance of this work cannot be overestimated. Gesture and Thought is McNeill's capstone work because it represents a synthesis of his highly regarded and outstanding research in gesture during the past quarter century. This volume needs to be an essential part of the library of anyone who wishes to know about the relationship of gesture, language, and thought."
Leonardo
David McNeill’s book is a momentous contribution to our understanding of kinetic and visual expression. . . . McNeill’s detailed descriptions of how gestures represent ideas contribute greatly to our understanding of images as carriers of abstractions.”

— Rudolf Arnheim

PsycCritiques
By defending his reasons for studying gesture, offering a wide range of evidence to support conclusions about the imagery-language dialect, and illustrating how language is inextricably connected to social contexts, McNeill helps readers see why many scholars are no longer interested in parsing out the effects of nature and nurture on human functioning.

— Theresa A. Thorkildsen

Gesture
I am unable to adequately convey in words, or gesture, my admiration for this book, and generally believe that Gesture & Thought offers a major advancement in gesture studies with broad theoretical implications for comprehensive theories of embodied cognition and communication. . . . This is not just a book for gesture scholars, but one that all cognitive scientists would greatly benefit from reading. . . . A great example of interdisciplinary scholarship at its best, and [it] will undoubtedly stand the test of time as a classic in the study of human minds and communication.

— Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr.

Semoitica
The significance of this work cannot be overestimated. Gesture and Thought is McNeill's capstone work because it represents a synthesis of his highly regarded and outstanding research in gesture during the past quarter century. This volume needs to be an essential part of the library of anyone who wishes to know about the relationship of gesture, language, and thought.

— Frank Nuessel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226514635
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 9/15/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 330
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

David McNeill is professor emeritus of linguistics and psychology at the University of Chicago and director of the Center for Gesture and Speech. He is the author of four previous books, including Hand and Mind, also published by the University of Chicago Press, and the editor of Language and Gesture. 

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Read an Excerpt


Gesture and Thought

By DAVID MCNEILL University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2005
The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-51462-8


Chapter One Why Gestures?

INTRODUCTION

This book is a companion to Hand and Mind, which appeared in 1992. The key ideas were planted in that earlier book and in numerous ways have been developed and extended in this one. In 1992 the emphasis was on how gestures reveal thought; now it is how gestures fuel thought and speech. The new step is to emphasize the 'dynamic dimension' of language-how linguistic forms and gestures participate in a real-time dialectic during discourse, and thus propel and shape speech and thought as they occur moment to moment. As in the earlier book, gestures, language, and thought are seen as different sides of a single mental/brain/action process. They are integrated on actional, cognitive, and ultimately biological levels. The difference is that now I present gestures as active participants in speaking and thinking. They are conceived of as ingredients in an imagery-language dialectic that fuels speech and thought.

The gestures I mean are everyday occurrences-the spontaneous, unwitting, and regular accompaniments of speech that we see in our moving fingers, hands, and arms. They are so much a part of speaking that one is often unaware of them, but if you look around and watch someone talking in informal terms you are likely to see the hands and arms in motion. Why? This is the question I propose to answer, ultimately in evolutionary terms.

To obtain an answer, in part, I carry forward an approach introduced by Vygotsky in the 1930s. Vygotsky is celebrated as an alternative to Piaget and, for many, as an antidote to a kind of sterile asocial cognitivism they imagine (not altogether inaccurately) dominates current linguistics and cognitive psychology. But Vygotsky had other themes. He argued for a different kind of psychology, one that is antireductionist, holistic, dialectical, and grounded in action and material experience. It is this sometimes overlooked Vygotsky that this book carries forward in ways that were not available in his day. Foremost among these is the systematic study of gesture and language as they occur spontaneously in daily speech.

The main theme of this book is that language is inseparable from imagery, a statement from Damasio (1994, 1999) somewhere. The imagery in question is embodied in the gestures that universally and automatically occur with speech. Speech and gesture occupy the same time slices when they share meanings and have the same relationships to context. It is profoundly an error to think of gesture as a code or 'body language', separate from spoken language. One message of this book is that gestures are part of language. It makes no more sense to treat gestures in isolation from speech than to read a book by looking only at the 'g's. It is also an error, in fact the same error, to think of speech as separate from gesture-as if to focus on just the 's's. The aim of the book is to present in full the arguments for the inseparability of language/speech and imagery/gesture, and to seek explanations for why this arrangement should be so. A précis of the book is given at the end of this chapter.

I suggest that language has two dimensions, static and dynamic, that combine in every speech event via the above-mentioned dialectic. This imagery-language dialectic (materialized in gesture and speech) is an interaction between unlike modes of thinking. The disparity of these modes is the 'fuel' that propels thought and language; the dialectic is the point at which the two dimensions intersect. The central part of the book describes how this dialectic takes form, how it propels thought and speech, and what must take place to resolve the tension between these unlike modes of cognition over the very brief intervals of time (just seconds) during which utterances are conceived and produced.

I should also stress what the book is not. It is not a comprehensive review of current gesture work, and it is not a commentary on all that has been discovered about gestures, which is by now a great deal. In particular, I say little about so-called emblems, or 'quotable' gestures as Adam Kendon has termed them, the very gestures that many people think of when they hear the word "gesture." Although I cover ample ground, I have kept my goal clearly in mind, and this has guided me in what to include and what not. It is accordingly a good idea to start by distinguishing among different kinds of occurrences that can be called "gestures," and to specify the kinds that are in focus.

WHICH GESTURES? A CONTINUUM

Adam Kendon (1988a) once distinguished gestures of different kinds. I then arranged these along a continuum that I named "Kendon's continuum" in his honor (McNeill 1992). The gestures we are primarily concerned with are the 'gesticulations'.

'Gesticulation' is motion that embodies a meaning relatable to the accompanying speech. (The nature of this relationship is analyzed in Chapter 2.) Gesticulation is by far the most frequent type of gesture in daily use, and it covers many variants and usages. It is made chiefly with the arms and hands but is not restricted to these body parts-the head can take over as a kind of third hand if the anatomical hands are immobilized or otherwise engaged, and the legs and feet too can move in a gesture mode (cf. McClave 2000).

'Speech-linked gestures' are parts of sentences themselves. Such gestures occupy a grammatical slot in a sentence-"Sylvester went [gesture of an object flying out laterally]," where the gesture completes the sentence structure.

'Emblems' are conventionalized signs, such as thumbs-up or the ring (first finger and thumb tips touching, other fingers extended) for "OK."

'Pantomime' is dumb show, a gesture or sequence of gestures conveying a narrative line, with a story to tell, produced without speech.

At the other extreme of the continuum, 'signs' are lexical words in a sign language (typically for the deaf) such as ASL. Sign languages have their own linguistic structures, including grammatical patterns, stores of words, morphological patterns, etc. The linguistic code of ASL is quite unlike that of English. Sign languages have evolved without the requirement of being coordinated with speech. In fact, hearing signers find that producing speech and signs simultaneously is disruptive to both.

As one moves along Kendon's continuum, two kinds of reciprocal changes occur. First, the degree to which speech is an obligatory accompaniment of gesture decreases from gesticulation to signs. Second, the degree to which gesture shows the properties of a language increases. Gesticulations are obligatorily accompanied by speech but have properties unlike language. Speech-linked gestures are also obligatorily performed with speech, but relate to speech in a different manner-sequentially rather than concurrently and in a specific linguistic role (standing in for a complement of the verb, for example). Signs are obligatorily not accompanied by speech and have the essential properties of a language. Clearly, therefore, gesticulations (but not the other points along Kendon's continuum) combine properties that are unalike, and this combination occupies the same psychological instant. A combination of unalikes at the same time is a framework for an imagery-language dialectic.

FROM CONTINUUM TO CONTINUA

On reflection, however, we can see that Kendon's continuum is actually a complex of separate continua, each based on an analytically distinct dimension along which the types of gestures (gesticulation, emblems, etc.) can be differentiated. I shall explain the points along the continua by reference to Figure 1.1.

The speaker was saying, "he grabs a big o[ak tree and he bends it way back]," with his hand moving through an arc, as shown. His hand rose from the armrest of the chair as he said "oak" (left bracket), reached its apex with "he," at which moment there was a brief prestroke hold (underlining); the hand then moved downward and to the side during the boldface section (the stroke-the part of the gesture depicting the actual 'bending back': the phase shown). At this point there was a poststroke hold and a new gesture began (not shown). Gesture transcription is explained in detail in the appendix.

During the stroke phase, the hand appeared to grasp and bend back an object with some thickness. Such a gesture has clear iconicity-the movement and the handgrip; also a locus (starting high and ending low)-all creating imagery that is analogous to the event being described in speech at the same time (a comic book character bending back an oak tree).

Continuum 1: relationship to speech

Gesticulation -> Emblems -> Pantomime -> Sign Language

Obligatory presence Optional presence Obligatory absence The same of speech of speech of speech

The first continuum controls the occurrence of gesture with speech. The bends-it-back gesture is meaningful only in conjunction with the utterance of "bends it back." An OK emblem can be made with speech or not. Pantomime, by definition, does not accompany speech (lack of speech is therefore trivial). With sign language, while it is possible to produce signs and speak simultaneously, doing so has a disruptive effect on both speech and sign. Speech becomes hesitant and sign performance is disrupted at the level of the main grammatical mechanisms of the language that utilize space rather than time for encoding meanings (Nelson et al. 1993).

Associated with the speech continuum is another continuum that reflects the presence vs. absence of the characteristic semiotic properties of a linguistic system. This is a second continuum on which gesticulation and sign language hold down the extremes, while pantomime and emblem have exchanged places:

Continuum 2: relationship to linguistic properties

Gesticulation -> Pantomime -> Emblems -> Sign Language

Linguistic The same Some linguistic Linguistic properties properties properties absent present present

The bends-it-back gesture lacks all linguistic properties. It was nonmorphemic, not realized through a system of phonological form constraints, and had no potential for syntactic combination with other gestures. We can demonstrate the inapplicability of linguistic properties through a thought experiment. Imagine another person saying the same thing but with "it" meaning the corner of a sheet of paper. Then, rather than the hand opening into a grip, the thumb and forefinger would come together in a pinch; rather than the arm moving forward and slightly up, the pinching hand would be held slightly forward and down; and rather than pull the arm back, the pinching hand would rotate outward or inward. Also, this gesture would naturally be performed with two hands, the second hand 'holding' the paper that is being bent back. That is, none of the form properties of the first gesture would be present in the second gesture, bends-it-back though it is. Neither gesture in fact obeys constraints within a system of forms; there are only constraints that emerge from the imagery of bending itself-an oak tree versus a tab of paper. The handshape and position are creations of the moment and reflect the speaker's imagery-of a character from a story reaching up and forward to pull back a tree, of someone turning down the corner of piece of paper.

The ASL sign TREE (shown in Figure 1.2) in contrast is constrained by the phonological properties of the ASL language system. The 5 handshape is a standard one of the language; the sign could not be formed and remain intelligible with a handshape that is not part of the language. While the 5 handshape has recognizable iconicity, it is a standardized selection of iconic features that other sign languages, with signs equally iconic, do not use (Danish Sign Language, for example, traces an outline of a tree). And the sign is what Okrent calls 'nonspecific' in that it is used equally well for all kinds of trees and tree shapes, not just trees with long bare trunks and fluttering leaves.

Pantomime, like gesticulation, does not seem to obey any system constraints (not considering theatrical pantomime, which does have its own traditional forms and rules; see Fischer-Lichte 1992). For example, showing what a vortex is with pantomime could be done by twirling a finger or by rotating the whole hand, and neither version would be unintelligible or seem to be a violation of a system constraint.

Emblems, on the other hand, do show system constraints. There are differences between well-formed and not-well-formed ways of making the gesture. Placing the middle finger on the thumb results in a gesture with some kind of precision meaning, but is not recognizable as the OK sign. The OK gesture, like a word, is constrained to assume a certain 'phonological' shape. Yet these constraints are limited and don't by any means amount to a full language. There is no way to reliably reverse the OK sign, for example. Forming it and waving it back and forth laterally (another emblem that, on its own, conveys negation) might convey "not OK," but it also might be seen as meaning the opposite of negation-waving the hand could call attention to the OK sign, or to suggest that many different things are OK-a flexibility that is basically not linguistic in character.

Comparing Continuum 1, 'relationship to speech', to Continuum 2, 'relationship to linguistic properties', we see one of the basic facts of gesture life: the gesticulations, with which speech is obligatorily present, are the least languagelike; the signs, from which speech is obligatorily absent, have linguistic properties of their own. This is not so paradoxical as it may seem. It reveals that 'gesture' has the potential to take on the traits of a linguistic system, but as it does so it ceases to be a component of the spoken language system. This is the conclusion of thirty years of investigation of the sign languages of the deaf (see, for example, the collection of papers in Emmorey & Reilly 1995; Liddell 2003a,b). It is also the conclusion of research on the deaf children of hearing, nonsigning parents. These children are exposed to neither a sign language nor speech (in that they cannot hear the speech their caretakers produce) and they develop their own means of gestural communication, termed 'home signs', that manifest a number of important linguistic properties, such as a lexicon and basic syntax (Goldin-Meadow & Mylander 1984; home signs and cultural sign languages in general are discussed in Chapter 4.3). In effect, their gestures move to the right of the continuum. The conclusion is that nothing about the visual-manual modality per se is incompatible with the presence of linguistic properties. Yet gestures combined with speech lack linguistic properties.

The comparison of the first and second continua thus shows that when the vocal modality has linguistic system properties, gesture, the manual modality, does not take on these properties. And when it does not, speech tends to be obligatory with gesture. This is certainly one of the more interesting facts of gesture. It implies that speech and gesture combine into a system of their own in which each modality performs its own functions, the two modalities supporting one another. This book operates upon this premise.

Continuum 3: relationship to conventions

Gesticulation -> Pantomime -> Emblems -> Sign Language

Not The same Partly Fully conventionalized conventionalized conventionalized

Convention means that the forms of gestures and the meanings with which they are paired meet some kind of socially constituted or collective standard. It is because the gesture is ruled by convention that only forefinger and thumb contact are recognizable as OK. At the gesticulation end, in contrast, a lack of convention is a sine qua non. The bends-it-back gesture is conventional only in the broadest sense (e.g., that gesturing is acceptable in storytelling contexts). There are no conventions telling the speaker what form bending back is to take. The TREE sign, however, is constrained by the conventions of ASL. It must meet form standards according to which only an upright arm with a 5 handshape is TREE.

The fourth continuum concerns the semiotic differences between gesticulation and linguistic codes of all kinds (spoken as well as signed). This dimension further shows the richness that can emerge from combining gesticulation with speech in a unified speech-gesture system, a system that places contrasting kinds of semiotic properties into one vessel (in what sense sign-gesture systems might also exist is a topic of much current interest; see Liddell 2000, 2003a,b, and the discussion in Chapter 4.3).

(Continues...)




Excerpted from Gesture and Thought by DAVID MCNEILL Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments....................ix
PART 1. PRELIMINARIES 1 Why Gestures?....................3
2 How Gestures Carry Meaning....................22
PART 2. DIALECTIC 3 Two Dimensions....................63
4 Imagery-Language Dialectic....................87
4.1 Dialectic and Material Carriers....................89
4.2 The Growth Point....................105
4.3 Extensions of GP....................128
4.4 Social-Interactive Context....................151
5 Discourse....................164
6 Children and Whorf....................180
PART 3. BRAIN AND ORIGINS 7 Neurogesture....................211
8 The Thought-Language-Hand Link and Language Origins....................233
Appendix. Methods of Gesture Recording and Transcription, Including New Semi-Automated Methods, Plus 'The Growth Point'-a Poem....................259
References....................289
Index....................309
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