Special focus on the Anthropology of Gesture

Organised by Heather Brookes, Oliver Le Guen, Michael Lempert and Kira Hall

With support from the Wenner Gren Foundation

Scholars working in gesture recognize the relevance of examining how interactive social practices and bodily action in interaction within the material environment shape gestural systems and practices in different ways. Those working from linguistic and psychological perspectives increasingly consider interactionist and ethnographic approaches important for gesture, but there has not yet been a serious and sustained engagement with anthropological theory and method. The subfield of linguistic anthropology, with its focus on discourse-in-context, has--with some exceptions--largely neglected gesture. And although sociocultural anthropology has often appreciated the importance of topics such as embodiment and performance, its research has not been extensively informed by specialist, empirical research on gesture and embodied communication.
This special focus on the anthropology of gesture will be an opportunity for scholars from different disciplines working on gesture to have a sustained intellectual exchange over three and a half days on the contribution of anthropological theories and approaches to the study of gesture. Some of the themes to be addressed are: gesture, body and meaning; gesture and performance; multimodality in verbal arts; gesture, interaction and emerging sign languages; gesture, cognition and culture; and gesture, interaction and environment.

Please see our anthropological keynotes below.

Augustine Agwuele

Gestures across Africa

The quest for the recovery of Indigenous Knowledge mainly focuses on technology involved in agriculture and health practices of indigenous people. Nonverbal communicative gestures are rich well of information on a people’s indigenous knowledge that has accounted for the continuity of the people as well as the organization of their society.

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Jennifer Green

Action matters: Visible representation of kinship in Central and Northern Australia.

Many of us now take it for granted that human interaction is essentially multimodal. As well as speaking or using a sign language, people point, manipulate objects with their hands, and create maps, diagrams and other graphic traces on a range of surfaces.

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John Haviland

Talking with the face only: multifunctional gaze in speech and sign in highland Chiapas

In the first-generation sign language, dubbed Z, developing in a single extended family including three deaf siblings in a rural indigenous village in Chiapas, Mexico, gaze is central to the morphology of a variety of grammatical devices, serving aspects of utterance construction ranging from reference and argument structure to clause parsing, turn selection, and recipiency (see [1-2]), as it does in other sign languages (see, for example, [3-6]).

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Kensy Cooperrider

Natural conventions: Gestural diversity and its limits

Anthropologists, linguists, psychologists, and other scholars of human communication often align with one of two poles: the universalist position that communicative forms and structures are rooted in our species-typical brains and bodies and are thus broadly similar everywhere; or the relativist position that communication is a product of culture and thus varies prismatically from one group to the next.

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Mark Dingemanse

Multimodal acts of depiction: gestural productions of hand and mouth in folk definitions of ideophones

Studies of multimodal language often assume that speech and gesture play complementary roles, with speech providing propositional content and iconic gestures supplying more imagistic, gradient information (McNeill 1992; Goldin-Meadow 2016). However, this division of labour is not set in stone: there are word-like gestures and gesture-like words (Okrent 2002).

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Michael Lempert

The Total Gestural Fact?
Gesture in Anthropology and the Anthropology of Gesture

For gesture researchers outside anthropology, the promise--and challenge--of anthropological method stems from one or more of its core commitments: its pursuit of human variation, both diachronic and synchronic; its insistence on naturalistic rather than experimental research design; and its integrative sensibility that studies human behavior in an expansive sociocultural “context.”

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Olivier Le Guen

Yucatec Maya multimodal interaction as a proto Yucatec Maya Sign Language

This paper aims at showing, through qualitative examples, that Yucatec Maya communication is systematical (with numerous formal non-verbal strategies in everyday interactions) and semantically rich, through the use of many iconic and quotable gestures and of character perspective and, that all these strategies come to complement oral communication.

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Simeon Floyd

Spoken and visual negation in two languages of Ecuador

The method of ‘multimodal typology’ (Floyd and DeVos 2015), which compares ‘composite’ utterances (Enfield 2009) across spoken and/or sign languages as part of a single spectrum of human expression, and similar approaches related to the emerging field of ‘gesture typology’ bring an explicitly cross-cultural and cross-linguistic perspective to studies of visual bodily communication.

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Victoria Nyst

On ethnic sign languages and shared gesture repertoires in Africa

The African continent hosts a multitude of sign language (SL) types. In addition to SLs that evolved around deaf schools (locally -as e.g. in Guinee Bissau [Martini & Morgado 2008] and Mauritius [Gébert & Adone 2006] or abroad) and in so-called ‘deaf villages’, we find a third category of SLs that evolved outside the context of deaf education or of a local peak in the incidence of deafness.

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