Staff at the University of Birmingham have been investigating humans’ capacity to communicate without speech and relying only in their gestures, and how comprehensible these body movements are to an interlocutor.
Dr Gerardo Ortega at the Department of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Birmingham and Professor Asli Özyürek at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands created a database of gestures by investigating how people represent certain concepts with their hands and body. Different people were presented with words like ‘spoon’, ‘eating’, ‘pyramid’, ‘deer’ and they had to produce a spontaneous gesture to represent the same word.
The study found that instead of producing different gestures, people were surprisingly systematic and for some concepts, they made the same gesture. For example, for ‘spoon’ most people produced the action of bringing a spoon to the mouth. For ‘pyramid’, most people traced a triangular shape. An interesting finding is that most of the times, people used actions to represent all concepts. Instead of tracing shapes in the air there was a high prevalence of gestures showing how the body interacts with the concept they are referring to.
Dr Gerardo Ortega said: "When we think of language we immediately think of a spoken or written word whose orthography and meaning can be searched in a dictionary. But the reality is that humans developed the capacity of language during face-to-face interactions where the body is a fundamental tool to express a message. If you are in a noisy bar, you’d probably produce a gesture recreating the action of bringing a glass to the mouth to tell your friend that you’d like a pint.
This example shows that we have the capacity to communicate without relying on speech and using our bodies. Gestures have this communicative power because they have the property of iconicity: they recreate the form of the concept people are talking about."
Note: One gesture they could include equally valid... do they actually pay people to state the obvious?