The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues


Certainly, there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind. --Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850)

Nonverbal sign. 1. A body movement, posture, or material artifact that encodes or influences a concept, motivation, or mood (thus, a gesture is neither matter nor energy, but information). 2. In its most generic sense, a gesture is a sign, signal, or cue used to communicate in tandem with, or apart from, words.3. Gestures include facial expressions (e.g., EYEBROW-RAISE, SMILE), clothing cues (e.g., BUSINESS SUIT, NECKWEAR), body movements (e.g., PALM-DOWN, SHOULDER-SHRUG), and postures (e.g., ANGULAR DISTANCE). Many consumer products (e.g., BIG MAC,VEHICULAR GRILLE, VEHICULAR STRIPE) contain messaging features designed to communicate as signs, and may be decoded as gestures as well. 4. Those wordless forms of communication omitted from a written transcript. (E.g., while the printed transcripts of the Nixon Tapes reported the words spoken by the former president and his White House staff, they captured few of the gestures exchanged in the Oval Office during the Nixon years.)

Anthropology. ". . . we respond to gestures with an extreme alertness and, one might almost say, in accordance with an elaborate and secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all" (Sapir 1927:556; see below, Hand gestures).

Assertion gestures. Gestures made with the forelimbs (e.g., reptilian push-ups and our own palm-down and palm-up cues) are basically "assertion displays," used to advertise (Greenberg 2002) and to assert a sender's physical presence to fellow species members. In Anolis lizards, an assertion display is a visual body movement--such as a push-up to a high-stand above the earthly plain--that is designed to attract notice toward the displayer (Fleishman and Pallus 2010). That in human beings assertion gestures often accompany speech is due in part to an ancient neural link between vocalizing (speech) and forelimb signaling (gesturing with the hands). Muscles that today move the human larynx and pectoral girdle evolved from hypobranchial muscles that originally opened the mouths and gill openings of ancient fishes. Neurocircuits that mediate our laryngeal and pectoral movements are connected in the posterior hindbrain and anterior spinal cord (Bass and Chagnaud 2012). Assertion displays can therefore be verbal and/or nonverbal, as the two are neurologically linked. Verbally, "An assertion is a speech act in which something is claimed to hold. . . . The concept of assertion has often held a central place in the philosophy of language. . ." (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for "Assertion," http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/assertion/ [accessed April 11, 2014]). The English word "assert," for example, comes from the 7,000-year-old Indo-European root word ser-, important derivatives of which are "exert" (as to exert oneself physically), "insert" (e.g., to insert oneself into a conversation), and "sermon" (to exhort or urge by strong argument) (Soukhanov 1992, p. 2124). Subsequently, in Latin, the word "serere" came to mean "attach, join (in speech), [and] discuss" (Soukhanov 1992, p. 2124).

Baby gestures. 1. "This article (Acredolo and Goodwyn 1985) presents the story of our first 'Baby Signer,' Linda's daughter Kate who began to spontaneously create symbolic gestures when she was about 12 months old. These were 'sensible' gestures (like sniffing for 'flower' and arms-up for 'big'). We then made it easy for her by modeling other simple gestures for things in which she was interested and followed her progress in terms of both gestural and verbal development" (from Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn's Baby Signs Research web page). 2. Subsequently, Acredolo, Goodwin, and others applied their findings about Baby Signs (a.k.a. symbolic gesturing), to teach and encourage the use of symbolic gestures in infancy so as to improve verbal language acquisition (see, e.g., Goodwyn, Acredolo, and Brown (2000).

Cetology. "A sequence of three gestures LEFT, FRISBEE, TAIL-TOUCH instructs the dolphin to swim with the frisbee that is to its left with its tail flukes" (Montgomery 1990:B2).

Culture. Accompanying hundreds of human-wide, universal gestures, such as the shoulder-shrug and smile (which, themselves, may be shaped by culture) are hundreds of additional gestures which must be learned to be understood (see NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION, Kind of cues). Many of the latter, culturally coded gestures--such as the hand ring (Italy), hand ring-jerk (Great Britain), hand ring-kiss (France), and hand ring pull-side (Holland)--have been identified by Desmond Morris (1994).

Hand gestures. We respond to hand gestures with an extreme alertness because dedicated nerve cells in our primate brain's lower temporal lobe respond exclusively to hand outlines, positions, and shapes (Kandel et al. 1991:458-59).

Paleontology of gesture. ". . . there is a primate (or perhaps mammalian or even vertebrate) level [of nonverbal communication] that contains the gestural primitives common to all people and in some instances all primates or all mammals. Examples are gestures implying bigness as signs of threat or intimidation [seeLOOM], and gestures implying smallness as signs of submission [see CROUCH]. Loudness and softness in vocal communication have the same import. In this context, Givens (1986) has called for a 'paleontology of gesture'" (Armstrong et al. 1995:6-7).

Primatology, chimpanzees. ". . . bonobos often add so-called finger-flexing, in which the four fingers of the open hand are bent and stretched in rapid alternation, making the [outstretched-hand gestured] invitation [i.e., the request for food, support, or bodily contact] look more urgent" (Waal and Lanting 1997:29).

Salesmanship. "Rehearse the speed at which you gesture, either in a mirror or on videotape. Quick, jerky movement belies a calm interior or voice" (Delmar 1984:48).

Sea lion gestures. "Four gestures, which indicate WHITE, SMALL, FOOTBALL and TAIL tell the sea lions to find the small white football and touch it with its tail" (Montgomery 1990:B2).

Sociology. "Following Wundt, [George Herbert] Mead [in his 1934 book, Mind, Self, and Society, Chicago, U Chicago Press] took the gesture as the transitional link to language from action, and also as the phenomenon establishing the continuities of human and infrahuman social life" (Martindale 1960:355).

Word origin. From Latin gestus, from (past participle) gerere, "to behave."

RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. "Gesture includes much more than the manipulation of the hands and other visible and movable parts of the organism. Intonations of the voice may register attitudes and feelings quite as significantly as the clenched fist, the wave of the hand, the shrugging of the shoulders, or the lifting of the eyebrows" (Sapir 1931:105). 2. The term ethology was used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries for "the interpretation of character by the study of [human] gesture"; in the 20th century ethology came to mean the "comparative anatomy of [animal] gestures," to reveal the "true characters of the animals" (Thorpe 1974:147).

E-Commentary: "I am a support teacher for visually impaired children and I am currently working with a blind 8 year old girl. I am looking for information on teaching suitable gestures to replace socially unacceptable behaviours. One such behaviour is the flapping of arms when excited. This student is very bright and social. Any suggestions on other gestures or body language that may be helpful would be appreciated." --J.W., Australia (8/6/01 11:47:10 PM Pacific Daylight Time)

Neuro-notes I. Many hand gestures are produced in speech areas of the right hemisphere, which were abandoned, in early childhood, as language shifted to the left hemisphere (Carter 1998:155).

Neuro-notes II. Mirror neurons: "A communicative gesture made by an actor (the sender) retrieves in the observer (the receiver) the neural circuit encoding the motor representation of the same gesture--that is, its goal/meaning--thus enabling the receiver to understand the gesture or message of the sender (Rizzolatti & Arbib, 1998)" (Fogassi and Ferrari 2007:137). "[Mirror] neurons enable individuals to understand actions performed by others. Two subcategories of mirror neurons in monkeys activate when they listen to action sounds and when they observe communicative gestures made by others, respectively (Fogassi and Ferrari 2007:136).

Neuro-notes III. Why we gesture with our hands as we speak: I've always wondered about this. . . . Source: Bass, A. H and B. Chagnaud (2012) Shared developmental and evolutionary origins of neural basis of vocal-acoustic and pectoral-gestural signaling. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA):

"Acoustic signaling behaviors are widespread among bony vertebrates, which include the majority of living fishes and tetrapods. Developmental studies in sound-producing fishes and tetrapods indicate that central pattern generating networks dedicated to vocalization originate from the same caudal hindbrain rhombomere (rh) 8-spinal compartment. Together, the evidence suggests that vocalization and its morphophysiological basis, including mechanisms of vocal-respiratory coupling that are widespread among tetrapods, are ancestral characters for bony vertebrates. Premotor-motor circuitry for pectoral appendages that function in locomotion and acoustic signaling develops in the same rh8-spinal compartment. Hence, vocal and pectoral phenotypes in fishes share both developmental origins and roles in acoustic communication. These findings lead to the proposal that the coupling of more highly derived vocal and pectoral mechanisms among tetrapods, including those adapted for nonvocal acoustic and gestural signaling, originated in fishes. Comparative studies further show that rh8 premotor populations have distinct neurophysiological properties coding for equally distinct behavioral attributes such as call duration. We conclude that neural network innovations in the spatiotemporal patterning of vocal and pectoral mechanisms of social communication, including forelimb gestural signaling, have their evolutionary origins in the caudal hindbrain of fishes."

Neuro-notes IV. Muscles that today move the human larynx and pectoral girdle evolved from hypobranchial muscles that originally opened the mouths and gill openings of ancient fishes. Paleocircuits that mediate our laryngeal and pectoral movements are connected in the posterior hindbrain and anterior spinal cord (Bass and Chagnaud 2012). The sonic properties of these bodily regions (vocalizing and pectoral vibration, respectively) were recruited for social signaling in a watery world. The sounds were basically "assertion displays" used to announce a sender's physical presence, often in courtship, to attract mates or repel rivals. Controlled by branchial muscles, these body parts were more easily aroused to produce vibratory sounds than were parts controlled by other than branchial nerves. In primates, the pectoral movements became visual signals, which in humans are called gestures.

Photo of friendly, engaging, welcoming palm-up cue (picture credit: unknown)