3 minute read


The Study Of Gestures, Gestures In The Arts, Bibliography

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.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow discharge