The concept of gesture suffers to some extent from insufficiently defined and imprecisely drawn outlines of what we understand by this term. The Oxford English Dictionary defines gesture as any "significant movement of limb or body"; Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines it as "any movement of the body, or part of the body, that expresses or emphasizes an idea, sentiment or attitude." However varied the definitions may be, they always contain the same element: a gesture is a combination of a body movement (or a bodily posture) and a meaning. It is generally assumed (and borne out by social practice) that this combination is understood by the outside spectator, and hence functions as a means of communication.
Taking the concept in its broadest sense, gestures can be roughly divided into two major types. One type consists of conventionalized body movements or limited actions, such as pointing with the hand and the outstretched index finger, or shaking hands. These movements have a firmly established, "timeless" meaning. They are consciously performed, and since their meaning is instantly and clearly understood, they play a significant part in everyday communication, and have a role in the arts.
The other group of gestures consists of body movements made without conscious intention, often even without a person's being aware of performing them. Nevertheless, they can clearly convey some meaning, and are thus understood as communicating some message. Blushing is interpreted as a sign of shame; going pale is understood as a sign of sudden fear. Though in fact it is sometimes hard to tell such gestures from symptoms in medicine, the study of gestures must also consider such "natural" occurrences.
Conventionalized body movements in particular play an important and often highly visible part in many domains of social life. Both their shapes and meanings have been preserved for many ages. One thinks, for example, of the religious sphere. The gestures of kneeling and folding the hands in prayer are in no need of explanation in the Western world, nor are the movements of the priest officiating at Mass, especially in the elevation of the host and in other religious rituals. In different parts of the world, with various religions and rituals, equivalent gestures, even if somewhat dissimilar in their execution, have been developed for worship and are instantly understood.
The military is another domain in which the shape of at least some body movements is given much attention. Of individual military gestures, gait and the salute instantly come to mind. Military education explicitly cultivates certain modes of body movement, seeing such performance as expressing an overall spirit.
Highly conventionalized gestures are not found only in special fields; they abound in all domains of established social life. When a witness stands up in court and raises his hand to take an oath, or when a man lifts his hat to greet an acquaintance on the street, he is performing a highly conventional gesture that has a long history.
Some conventional gestures have become so fully crystallized in themselves, and what they convey has become so deeply engraved in our minds, that they could be detached from the figure performing them. One example of such an independent gesture, detached, as it were, from the person making it, is the movement of making the sign of the cross; another is a hand with outstretched index finger pointing in a direction.
Conventional gestures have often been defined as a universal language, and the question of whether gesture language has, or does not have, a grammar, has occupied scholars. The most developed codification of gestures is found in the sign language of the deaf. Other attempts at linguistic codification of gestures are known from history, a well-known example being that of the Cistercian monks who, abstaining from speech as part of their ascetic life, developed a sign language and even prepared a dictionary of the most frequently performed body movements that replaced spoken words.
The Study of Gestures
The interpretation of gestures, their origin, and the long history of gesticulation, has attracted the attention of students whose discussions, even if intermittent, have shed interesting light on the problems that emerge in the study of gestures. In recent decades, concern with the human body and its manifold manifestations has attracted increasing attention to gestures, both conventional and spontaneous.
Reflections on gestures, however fragmentary, are found in the literature of early history. In the Bible, prayer gestures are described as self-evident: "And when ye spread forth your hands, … when ye make many prayers" (Isaiah 1:15). Reflections on specific gestures are scattered throughout the literature of classical antiquity, especially in texts on physiognomics and rhetorics, but references to gesticulation are also found in other writings. Homer abounds in allusions to gestures and expressive movements, as may be seen for instance in his reference to mourning (The Iliad, 18:23–27).
In Roman civilization the "eloquence of the body" (eloquentia corporis ) commanded a great deal of attention. Two categories of professionals in particular, orators and actors, studied gesture intensively. Bodily gestures follow movements of the soul. Cicero compared man's body, face, and voice to the strings of a harp: "They sound just as the soul's motion strikes them" (De oratore 3.216). And Quintilian says simply: "Gesticulation obeys our mind" (Institutio oratoria XI, chap. 3, 65). The most detailed and careful description of gestures that survives from ancient literature is found in Quintilian (XI, chap. 3). Since he saw gesticulation as part of the delivery of a speech, he included a discussion of gestures in his teaching of oratory. The Roman stage was another place for the formalization of gestures. As stock types were preferred on the stage, gestures were basic and strictly codified. Broad gestures, such as shaking the head or slapping the thigh in anger, were typical of slaves.
In antiquity, another field of knowledge pertaining to our subject was defined and flourished: physiognomics, the reading of character from the structure and movement of body and face. The literary legacy of ancient physiognomics influenced thought in modern times. The works of the Renaissance scholar Giambattista della Porta, the great French artist Charles Le Brun (around 1700), and the Swiss scholar Johann Lavater in the eighteenth century are ample testimony to this influence in the culture of Europe.
In the Middle Ages, especially in the earlier part of the period, codified gestures seem to have played a particularly important part in legal transactions. Since most people could not read or write, documents were frequented validated through the use of prescribed gestures. A richly illuminated late medieval manuscript, the Sachsenspiegel, gives us some inkling of the variety and role of conventional gestures in the legal and political life of the time.
In Renaissance culture, which gave so much thought and attention to the comportment of people (especially the nobility) and to their education, the problem of gesture was approached from a new point of view. The concern was with how the educated should behave in their bodily presentation, and how the child and young person should be taught so that, as an adult, he or she would behave in a proper manner. Some of the central figures in Renaissance culture, such as Baldassare Castiglione, author of The Courtier, and Desiderius Erasmus, devoted much attention to proper gesticulation. Erasmus wrote a little book on the education of children (Institutio principis Christiani [1516; Education of a Christian Prince ]) which in the sixteenth century alone went through eighty editions in Latin, and was certainly a factor in forming habits of movement and views of gesture.
In spite of this long history, however, it is safe to say that the critical, scientific study of gestures is a product of the nineteenth century. It was also then that the major approaches to the interpretation of gesture crystallized. Reduced to basic distinctions, two lines of thought emerge. One of them may be called universal language (or universalizing), the other particularistic (or particularizing).
The notion of gesture as a universal language is based upon the assumption that all people and societies in all ages make essentially the same gestures under similar conditions and as a response to similar situations. This interpretation was put forward in explicit and systematic form for the first time by Charles Darwin in his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). In this work Darwin devoted a great deal of attention, both in particular observations and in comprehensive classification, to gestures of the body and the face. Summing up his ideas, he says that he has "endeavored to show in considerable detail that all the chief expressions exhibited by man are the same throughout the world."
When we consider Darwin's work within the earlier prevailing tradition of interpreting human gestures, two features stand out. First, Darwin's observations are exclusively observations of nature, that is, observations of the behavior of living creatures; he excludes literary texts or pictorial representations. The cultural artifact is beyond the scope of his study. In the introduction he even explicitly states that the artistic representation of figures dominated by an emotion (suffering) follows principles differing from those of nature, and are therefore misleading as materials for the student of natural reality. Second, an idea permeating Darwin's study is that there is a continuity from the bodily behavior and gesticulation of some kinds of beasts to the gestures commonly performed by human beings. While there are some gestures that are characteristic only of man, most of the expressive movements are found, to some degree, in certain classes of animals.
One of the many examples that Darwin adduces is the facial expression of rage. The physiognomic changes undergone by a human in the grip of rage, and the typical gestures he or she performs in this condition, have occupied the human mind in all ages; already in antiquity books were being written on the subject—for example, Seneca's De ira. In art the features of an angry man's face have been firmly established. Darwin finds the physiognomic contortions of the angry human face also in beasts, in such expressions as snarling and prominently exhibiting the teeth. "Considering how seldom the teeth are used by men in fighting," he says, the "retraction of the lips and the uncovering of the teeth during paroxysms of rage, as if to bite" are remarkable. In this facial gesture the memory survives of our ancestors, the higher primates, that still really fight with their teeth. This theory further supports the doctrine of the universality of gesture language.
The influential German scholar Wilhelm Wundt, who in 1900 published the first volume of his Völkerpsychologie, which contains an extensive discussion of gesture, claimed that primordial speech was a kind of gesticulation that "mirrored the soul."
In modern kinesics, the systematic study of the relationship between nonlinguistic body motions and communication, and related fields of study (especially some branches of linguistics), communicating gestures are regarded as a kind of language, possibly even the predecessor of spoken language in general. Students have compiled dictionaries of expressive body movements. Of particular interest are collections of such movements performed by aboriginals. In the background of these scientific studies one finds the idea of gesture as a universal language.
The other, altogether different interpretation of the origin of gestures sees individual modes of behavior, as they developed in small groups living under specific conditions, as the true origin of, and the force shaping, our expressive movements. The first text of modern gesture study presented this view. La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano, written by Andrea de Jorio, a cleric from Naples with wide intellectual interests, was published in 1832. In this work, which may be considered the birth certificate of the modern discussion of gestures, the author devotes his main efforts to the observation and description of the actual gestural behavior of Neapolitans of his day. The northern nations, de Jorio believes, are restrained in gesture; southerners, especially people living in and around Naples, have rich gesticulation. His motive, however (as he explicitly states it), was not to study the habits of contemporary Neapolitans. He wanted to contribute to a better understanding of the plays of antiquity. De Jorio believed that there was a long and continuous tradition leading directly from some of the ancient communities to people in the Naples area in the early nineteenth century. In this tradition gestures were transmitted through the ages, and if we look at people in Naples we can, therefore, grasp what ancient poets meant when in their plays they alluded to body movements. Gestures, then, do not have a universal origin, but emerge from specific conditions prevailing in individual societies. Gestures are inherited from such particular traditions and remain in use for ages.
In the middle of the twentieth century this trend of thought received a classic formulation from the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss. His most influential study of the subject, "Les techniques du corps," reverberates in the study of gesture to this day. Mauss describes his approach as "descriptive ethnology" and focuses on the specific forms of gesticulation in specific societies. Based on heritage and tradition, we continue to perform gestures in the form we inherited from former generations and as they were shaped by education and experience. He focuses on social and cultural differences rather than a supposed common origin and universal validity. Mauss believed that he could identify a girl educated in a convent by her comportment and way of walking: she will walk with her hands closed into fists.
Another view of the particular interpretation of gestures is the influential concept of the body and its manifestations as formulated by the anthropologist Mary Douglas in which she perceives the body as a symbol of social relations. As social relations change, the body and its movements—the gestures we make—manifest these changes.
Gestures in the Arts
Gestures play a significant part in the arts, particularly in the performing and visual arts, as the history of these arts makes clear. In antiquity, especially in the Roman period, a particular category of theater play emerged, the pantomime. (Pantomimus meant both the play and the actor performing it.) The main characteristic of the pantomime was that it replaced the spoken text with a wide range of gestures, including dance. We know that whole tragedies were performed without the actor uttering even a single word, using instead a highly developed system of postures and gestures. In the sixth century c.e. Cassiodorus still characterizes the activity of the pantomime actor by describing his "speaking hands," his fingers that are similar to tongues, and his "loud sounding silence."
The origin of the pantomime is believed to have been the Dionysian feast in Egypt inaugurated during the rule of the Ptolemies. The multinational, and hence also multilingual, composition of society and army in the Roman Empire probably favored an art form that did not rely on a specific language and thus evaded linguistic limitations. The pantomime reached a peak of popularity in the imperial period in Rome. Pantomime actors, quite a few of whom are known to us by name, seem to have been idols of Roman society. When the emperor Augustus exiled a famous pantomime player, Pylades, from Italy, the reaction of popular audiences in the capital was so powerful that the ruler had to cancel his edict and bring the banished actor back to Rome. The pantomime as a particular genre had a long life, and in the course of centuries many fathers of the church, among them Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Minucius Felix, violently condemned such performances. In the year 305 the Church Council of Elvira decided that a pantomime actor who wanted to convert to Christianity had to give up his profession.
In the Middle Ages the pantomime did not persist as an independent genre, but the gesticulation of the actors in a medieval performance (which took place in a church or town square) was pronounced and exaggerated, often even grotesque. A good deal of the effect these plays had on their audiences was achieved by means of expressive body movement. Grotesque gesticulation plays a major part from medieval plays to performances of the commedia dell'arte. In modern times the performance based largely on body movements has had a long and eventful history. The recent inheritors of this tradition are the modern ballet and, more rarely, actual pantomime performances.
Since the time of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures, the representation of gestures in painting and sculpture has been a central means of conveying moods, ideas, and even more conceptual messages. The great artists of all centuries, especially since the Renaissance—among them Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Rembrandt, and up to some works by Picasso—created classic formulations of gestural motifs that have impressed themselves profoundly on the modern cultural memory.
See also Anthropology ; Body, The ; Cultural Studies ; Theater and Performance .
Barasch, Moshe. Giotto and the Language of Gesture. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Bremmer, Jan, and Herman Roodenburg, eds. A Cultural History of Gesture. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. Includes a useful bibliography.
Brilliant, Richard. Gesture and Rank in Roman Art: The Use of Gestures to Denote Status in Roman Sculpture and Coinage. New Haven, Conn.: Academy, 1963.
Darwin, Charles. The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. London: F. Pinter, 1983. First published in 1872.
Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York: Pantheon, 1970.
Jorio, Andrea de. La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano. Naples, 1832. English translation published as Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity, edited by Adam Kendon. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.
Kendon, Adam, ed. Nonverbal Communication, Interaction, and Gesture. The Hague: Mouton, 1981.
Mauss, Marcel. "Les techniques du corps." Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique 39 (1935): 271–293. English translation appears in Mauss, Sociology and Psychology, 97–123. London: Routledge, 1979.
Schmitt, Jean-Claude. La raison des gestes dans l'Occident médiéval. Paris: Gallimard, 1990.
Sittl, Karl. Die Gebärden der Griechen und Römer. Leipzig: Teubner, 1890.
ges·ture / ˈjeschər/ • n. a movement of part of the body, esp. a hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning: Alex made a gesture of apology | so much is conveyed by gesture. ∎ an action performed to convey one's feelings or intentions: Maggie was touched by the kind gesture. ∎ an action performed for show in the knowledge that it will have no effect: I hope the amendment will not be just a gesture. • v. [intr.] make a gesture: she gestured meaningfully with the pistol. ∎ [tr.] express (something) with a gesture or gestures: he gestured his dissent at this. ∎ [tr.] direct or invite (someone) to move somewhere specified: he gestured her to a chair. DERIVATIVES: ges·tur·al adj.
In Hinduism, the mudras of ritual worship (pūjā) are an outward and visible sign of spiritual reality which they bring into being. Thus mudras frequently appear in Hindu sculpture (as they do in Jain and Buddhist), especially dhyāna (meditation, hands linked in front of body with palms upward), abhaya, cf. abhaya-vacana (fear-repelling, hand lifted, palm outward), and varada (hand held out, palm upward, bestowing bounty). The añjali mudra is the best-known to the outsider, since it is the ‘palms together’, at the level of the chest, greeting in India. As a mudra, it expresses the truth underlying all appearance.
In Buddhism (Chin., yin-hsiang; Jap., in-zō; Korean, insang), a mudra is a particular configuration of the hands accompanying a mantra and associated with a visualization or other mental act.
- chironomy, cheironomy
- 1 . the science of gesture.
- 2 . the art of conducting singers of Gregorian chant through hand gestures to mark the rise or fall of the melody. —chironomic, cheironomic, adj.
- the science of manual sign language, as for use in communicating with the deaf. —dactylotogist, n. —dactylologic, dactylological, adj.
- Linguistics. the study of units of gestural expression.
- Linguistics. a systematic study of nonverbal body gestures, as smiles, hand motions, or other movements, in their relation to human communication; body language. Also called pasimology. —kinesic, adj.
- the study of the signs that reveal human passions. —pathognomonic, adj.