Eve Sweetser

The embodiment of the non-literal: Viewpoint and the bases of meaning in gesture.

University of California, Berkeley

Although all thought (and thus all metaphor) is necessarily embodied – it resides in physical neural systems – this embodiment is particularly visible and inescapable in multimodal communication including gesture. In gesture, mental spaces are metaphorically represented by physical spaces; reasoning and causal action sequence are physical motion, and temporal relationships are physical ones. One important added feature of this gestural data is that it is necessarily viewpointed: physical motion of gesture is always relative to the viewpointed body. Gestural meaning is thus systematically rooted in the meaningful relationship of the gesturing body to its deictic field.

The results of this viewpointed structure are even more pervasive than might appear. Metaphoric structures are, like other cognitive structures, generally viewpointed. Some, like many metaphors for time, are obviously about front-back, up-down and other physically viewpointed structures. But even when the source frame is less obviously related to physical viewpoint, it still imposes viewpoint on the target frame. Once again, it is particularly noticeable in gestural data. Not only is there viewpoint in every gesture, that viewpoint relates to meaningful embodied metaphoric construal of the body as a whole, which contributes to the meaning of the multimodal discourse.

Recent work on gesture has extended to an active interest in multimodal constructions – as, for instance, in my own work on English conditional constructions and gesture. Grammarians have not really thought of conditional constructions as semantically viewpointed (though Dancygier and Sweetser 2005 presents evidence of viewpointed semantics). But the gestural structures accompanying them show that this area of abstract grammatical meaning is also manifested in viewpointed metaphoric gesture – as we should expect from our understanding of bodily meaning.

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Sotaro Kita

Gesture, language and thought

University of Warwick

I will present a theory on how gesture serves as a bridge between language and spatio-motoric thought. I will focus on speech-accompanying “representational gestures”, which include iconic and metaphorical gestures in McNeill’s (1992) sense. I will discuss evidence regarding how language production processes and gesture production processes are inter-related with each other and how gestures reflect spatio-motoric thinking for the purpose of speaking. I will present evidence based on, among other things, iconic gestures depicting motion events, gestures metaphorically representing abstract concepts, iconic gestures during solving spatial problems, and the relationship between iconic gestures and sound symbolic words.

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Olga Capirci

Visible bodily action in the emergence and development of speakers’ and signers’ languaging

Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technology
CNR, Rome

What is linguistic communication and what is not? Even if we often convey meanings through visible bodily actions, these are rarely considered part of human language.
I will present a review of studies on the continuity from actions to gestures to words and signs extending beyond childhood and across cultures, which has been the central research focus of our lab over the past 40 years. This has been a long, and at times troublesome, journey. Especially when, going against more traditional approaches to language, we pioneered the idea that human communication transcends the spoken medium, often exploiting embodied forms such as signs and gestures. Given the presence of gestures across cultures and the existence of languages that are strongly based on overt actions (sign languages), the embodied nature of human communication is hardly questionable.

Initial studies on sign languages (SLs) tended to focus on the discrete, arbitrary and categorical nature of signs, which makes them more like spoken languages, thereby overlooking the pervasive iconic nature of many SL structures and evident similarities between co-speech gestures, silent gestures and signs.
Only in the following years several researchers studying different SL’s started focusing on highly iconic structures and began considering signs as visible actions or dedicated gestures with linguistic properties. Recently, various studies on SLs highlighted the presence of gestural components, while conversely studies on gestures in children and adults have adopted many strategies for analysis borrowed from SLs.

Research reviewed shows a progression from motor actions to symbolic communication, which is also highlighted in representational strategies used by children from different cultures and using different vocal and signed languages.
I want to stress the role of sign language and multimodal communication in the study of language as a form of action. To this scope I will present recent research on how co-verbal gestures have compositional structure and semantic significance and on how highly iconic structures are essential in sign languages.
Studying the visible actions of speakers and signers leads to a revision of the traditional dichotomy between linguistic (categorical, invariable, arbitrary) and enacted (gradient, variable, iconic), and to the development of a new approach to embodied language.

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Yolanda Covington-Ward

Gesture and Power: Religion, Nationalism, and Everyday Performance in Congo.

University of Pittsburgh

In her new book, Gesture and Power, Yolanda Covington-Ward examines the everyday embodied practices and performances of the BisiKongo people of the Lower Congo to show how their gestures, dances, and spirituality are critical in mobilizing social and political action. Going beyond seeing gesture as a complement to spoken language, Covington-Ward explores the role of gesture in achieving larger social transformations. Conceiving of the body as the center of analysis, a catalyst for social action, and as a conduit for the social construction of reality, Covington-Ward focuses on specific flash points in the last ninety years of Congo’s troubled history, when embodied performance was used to stake political claims, foster dissent, and enforce power. This talk will focus on two separate yet related instances in which embodiment related to spirituality was at the center of struggles for political and social power. In the 1920s Simon Kimbangu started a Christian prophetic movement based on spirit induced trembling, which swept through the Lower Congo, subverting and challenging Belgian colonial authority. More recently, embodied performance has again stoked reform, as nationalist groups such as Bundu dia Kongo advocate for a return to precolonial religious practices and non-Western gestures such as traditional greetings as a basis for re-creating the former Kongo Kingdom in the present. In exploring these embodied expressions of Congolese agency, Covington-Ward provides a framework for understanding how embodied practices transmit social values, identities, and cultural history throughout Africa and the diaspora.

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Judith Holler

Coordinating minds and social interaction with the body.

Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
Donders Centre for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University

The natural home of human language is face-to-face social interaction. In such an environment language is multimodal, meaning we do not just converse by speech but by using a host of visual articulators also. In this talk, I will present a series of studies that provide insight into the role of these visual articulators in the process of coordination during conversation. Using language in social interaction requires coordination on at least two levels: interlocutors need to tailor utterances to their interlocutors’ needs and signal mutual understanding and problems therewith, and they need to make their conversational contributions in such a way that allows them to fit in with the normative practices of the conversational turn-taking system. I will present both experimental and corpus studies to shed light on these issues from a perspective that brings together psycholinguistics and the analysis of social interaction. The argument I will make is that the body plays a core role in achieving coordination at both levels—mind and interaction—and that in order to appreciate the full potential of the body in this domain we need to consider manual and non-manual signals (even the most subtle ones), speakers and addressees, and the conversational embedding of multimodal communicative acts. Socializing psycholinguistics in this way may allow us to go further in discovering why the human communication system has evolved as the multimodal system that it is.

Click here to download Judith Holler bio.