The Nature of Gesture and
David F. Armstrong, William C.
Stokoe, Sherman E. Wilcox
Sherman Wilcox
• Professor of Linguistics
• Chair of Department of Linguistics at the
University of New Mexico
• Studies Signed languages (mostly ASL)
• Author of books and scholarly articles on
linguistics, evolution of language, gesture, Deaf
culture, and signed language interpreting
• Learning to See , American Deaf Culture , The
Gestural Origin of Language , The Nature of
Gesture and Language
What is Speech?
• “to speak is to make finely controlled movements in certain parts of
your body, with the result that information about these movements is
broadcast to the environment” – cognitive psychologist Ulrich
• “the movements of speech are called articulatory gestures. A
person who perceives speech, then, is picking up information about
a certain class of real, physical, tangible… events.”
• “several articulators move in a
coordinated way to accomplish
a task” (sound like bodily
• The “invisible” form of gesture
Can “gesture” be considered
independent of speech?
• some linguists think there is no relationship
• Manual gestures serve referential functions:
McNeill (1985)
• Gestural primitives common to all people (and in some
cases all primates/mammals)
bigness = sign of threat/intimidation = loudness
smallness = signs of submission = softness
What are the different forms of
• Salient gestures that are universally
• Gestural pool unique to but universal
within a social group
• Spoken/signed gestures unique to spoken
and signed communities respectively
(mutually unintelligible)
Defining what is “linguistic”
“We tend to consider ‘linguistic’ what we can write down, and
‘nonlinguistic’ everything else; but this division is a cultural artifact, an
arbitrary limitation derived from historical evolution” --McNeill, 1985
• How is written communication different from gestural
communication (spoken or signed)?
• words are “complexes of muscular gestures which are temporally
ordered, but not in the serial segmental fashion familiar from
classical [linguistic] theory” --- Mowrey and Pagliuca (1988)
• Wilcox & co. argue against the assumption
that grammar is independent of meaning…
grammar is based on body schema!
Connecting our mouths to our
• “The human vocal apparatus is capable of producing a vast array of
sounds, just as the body as a whole is capable of producing an
enormous number of visible movements.” --- Armstrong (1986)
• Gesture and speech function as an “inseparable unit” --- McNeill
• Evidence from children’s language acquisition supports this theory
(especially from studies between a mother infant)
• The study of both spoken and signed language production  the
search for the “neural basis of human communication in general”
• Telling us something about the evolution of language… looking at
the “importance of hands, the visual system, and upright posture in
the development of language”
The Evolution of Language
• The theory of the organic evolution of language says that language
evolved from purely manually gesture-based  more focused on
gestures in the mouth
• “a critical function of the early conceptual abilities of hominids was to
categorize an essentially unlabeled world of objects and events”
• We were able to categorize and conceptualize, visible (primarily
manual) gestures
• These “were themselves categorized as prototypical objects and
actions in the world.” This led to the development of language 
marshalling these concepts and articulators as linguistic symbols
The Formalist Approach to
1. Language is a separate module of the
mind/brain, not part of “general cognition”
2. Structuralism in the analysis of language;
language structure can be analyzed
independently of its communicative function
3. The sign-relation between the linguistic code
and its mental designatum is arbitrary
If we take this approach…
• We assume that the mental and the physical and
independent of one another (linguistic units are
therefore only mental things)
• One linguist named Kendon
(1991) asks “ “if language
began as gesture, why did it
not stay that way?”
 Wilcox & co. answer: “It did stay that way!”
Is the organization of signed and
spoken language the same?
• Over the years there have been
assumptions that language cannot
be separated from speech.
• However that’s NOT True
• “…by looking to vision as the
major primate and human
perceptual system, we may
escape the error of mistaking the
acoustic manifestation of
language for language itself”.
Linguistic research has established
that ASL is a natural human
• It has its own rules of
grammar and syntax.
• “Signed languages have
been demonstrated to be
highly constrained, following
general restrictions on
structure and organization
comparable to those
proposed for spoken
language” H. Poizner, E.S.
Klima, and U. Bellugi
This also goes for other signed
• There are many different kinds of signed languages and
each are distinct and independent.
• Each language has their own linguistic cultures.
• If one wanted to be truly
proficient in signed language
then they should be immersed
in a community of deaf people
much in the same way
other foreign languages
are learned.
Deaf Culture
• There are people who prefer to refer to themselves as
Deaf as opposed to hearing impaired
• The bond between Deaf people does not arise from
the same cultural norms as those in surrounding
communities who hear
• Deaf people from all over the world are also divided by
language barriers as there is no universal sign
language. (Though there is Gestuno…)
Gaulldet University
• University for the education of the deaf
and heard of hearing that is located in
Washington, D.C.
• Bilingual community in which ASL and
English co-exist
• Deaf President Now
There are different kinds of “signed”
• Primary sign language which is a real and
separate language all on its own.
• Coded languages (to go along with the
native language)
• Ex: Manually Coded English, Signed Exact
• Understanding of signed languages can
lead to better knowledge of how language
• Physiological
• Structural
• Symbolic nature
Language in general shares a
general cognitive substrate.
• “Alphabetical writing, invented
long after language began to
be spoken, produces the
illusion that vocal gestures…
can reveal whole structure of
• This is counter to the
widespread belief that the
words of languages must be
composed of vocal material,
the material composing words
in the primary sign languages
of deaf populations is visual.
• Primary sign language was not intended to
replace a spoken language, it is intended to be
used as a means of communication for those
who cannot hear and may not be able to speak
• “Visible actions...can stand in the reinforce and
duplicate and even substitute for vocal
messages; they can stand in the absence of
speech for the means of unspoken words… they
can accompany speech and help to mark its
prosody and regulate its flow”
• We should remember that
sound is an abstract
• Ex: For instance the
example given in the book
states that we as humans
ask for eyewitness and not
• “Different organization of
spoken languages and
signed languages is
inevitable, given the
differences in the two
perceptual systems.”
Facts about ASL
• Dominant sign language used by the Deaf
Community in the U.S.
• It shares NO RELATION to British Sign
• It has its own grammar structure including
phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax,
and pragmatics
• It’s a visual language thus uses complex
visual-spatial orientation
• Also contains gestures, classifiers,
fingerspelling, etc.
• More related to FSL
Baby Sign Language
• Developed by professors Linda
Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn
• Joseph Garcia found that
babies exposed to signs
regularly at 6 to 7 months can
begin using them as early as 8
• Belief that young children have
desire to communicated but
vocal ability and coordination
lags behind cognitive ability
• Learn words such as eat,
sleep, hug, play, etc.
• Home based and ASL based
Emotes: An example of Gesture
• =)
• =(
• T___T
• ^^;;;
• :0
• :p
To conclude…
“The key to understanding the general model encompassing both spoken
and signed languages lies in the vocabulary of neuromuscular activity, ie
Application to cultural understanding… our conceptual understanding of our
bodies and our environment differs around the world:
Like spoken and signed languages, manual/bodily gestures are often not
universally understood, as they vary from culture to culture
» ** real world example of attempting to use gesture in
written language: “emotes”
"For more things affect our eyes than our ears."
--Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Essay on the Origin of Languages”
• Wilcox, Sherman; Armstrong, David;
Stokoe, William. Gesture and the Nature
of Language. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1995
• by Karen

The Nature of Gesture and Language