Chapter 7 – Natural laboratories for language evolution: Pidgins, Creoles, and Sign Language

Wikis > Chapter 7 - Natural laboratories for language evolution: Pidgins, Creoles, and Sign Language

2015: Esther Wong Rui Li, Low Lin Yi, Lyn
2014: Jessica Chua, Lee Mui Wei, Lew Xu Hong


Hi there! Welcome to Gestures, Speech and Sign Language in Language Evolution. In this chapter, you will learn more about gestures and its role in the evolution of language.

1. Introduction to Gestures

Gestures are a type of non-verbal communication used by a speaker to aid communication. McNeill (1985) interprets gestures as the second channel of communication, in which the first channel of communication is actual speech, thus implying that gestures add on to speech production. Alibali et al. (2001) conducted a series of experiments to see whether speakers would use gestures differently depending on the need to see gestures when communicating. The results revealed that speakers would continue to use gestures when communicating regardless of the listener’s visibility of their gestures.

In this chapter, we will discuss the role of gestures in language evolution by focusing on the Gestural Theory and how gestures have contributed to an emergence of a new sign language today.

1.1 Representational Gestures

Representational gestures are gestures that carry some form of speech content. This form of gestures is reliant on the visibility of the gestures, in other words, the listener has to be in the line of sight of the speaker for the message to be conveyed successfully. There is also a higher frequency of use of representational gestures if the speakers are able to see their listeners during communication (Alibabi et al., 2001).
What was interesting was that speakers still produced representational gestures when communicating even when they could not physically see their listeners, suggesting that representational gestures are a part of speech production. The visibility of the listener merely varies the frequency of gesture production, but does not affect gesture production. Hence, this form of gesturing has become a subconscious form of communicating ideas.

Iconic gestures are a form of representational gesture that refer to a concrete referent. For example, a kicking motion with the foot conveys the meaning of the action “to kick”. Speakers use iconic gestures to emphasize what they are talking about, as iconic gestures refers specifically to an action or object that the speaker intends to communicate.

1.2 Beat Gestures

Beat gestures are gestures that do not carry any speech content. They convey non-narrative content and are more in tune with the rhythm of speech. According to Alibali et al. (2001), beat gestures are used regardless of whether the speaker could see the listener or not. Therefore, beat gestures accentuate the topic that is being conveyed without directly referring to the topic, emphasizing certain words and phrases during speech.

Still unsure about what beat gestures are? Here’s a video to show an example of beat gestures!

Interactive Gestures

Interactive gestures are gestures that are a combination of both representational and beat gestures. This form of gestures is commonly seen in dialogues that consists of a back and forth communication flow between speakers.