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On the potential universality of gestures

I realise this is the second time I am about to discuss gestures in this blog but please do not take this as a lack of originality on my part, I am always ready to be vocal about anything new. My origin is probably ‘to blame’ for my fascination with the human body and its manifold manifestations (Greeks just cannot speak without gesticulating like mad people!), as well as a study on the universality of gestures which came to my attention the other day.

It turns out that the interpretation and origin of gestures have attracted the attention of scholars over the centuries, from early history to more recent times. It was during the nineteenth century that this study became more critical and scientific, resulting in two major approaches. One of them may be called universal language (or universalising), the other particularistic (or particularising).

The notion of gestures as a universal language is based upon the assumption that all people and societies of all ages make the same gestures in similar circumstances. This interpretation was put forward in an explicit and systematic form by Charles Darwin in his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Summing up his ideas, it is suggested that individuals throughout the world exhibit the same chief expressions as a response to similar situations. In effect, Darwin goes as far as to suggest that there is “a continuity from the bodily behaviour and gesticulation of some kinds of beasts to the gestures commonly performed by human beings”. In order to strengthen his argument, he employs the example of the facial expression of rage, comparing the contortions of the angry human face to the uncovering of the teeth in animals with the intention to bite.

However, it appears that Darwin’s theory was not unanimously accepted, as in the middle of the twentieth century the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss introduces the concept of ‘descriptive ethnology’ and focuses on the specific forms of gesticulation in specific societies. His main argument is that gestures in the form we inherited from former generations are permeated by education and experience, thereby emphasising on social and cultural differences rather than a supposed common, universal origin. This approach is also supported by the anthropologist Mary Douglas, who perceives the body as a symbol of social relations. As social relations change, the body and its movements—the gestures we make—manifest these changes.

Coming back to recent times, the other day I was reading about a fascinating study on whether the recognisable nonverbal expressions associated with pride and shame could be biologically innate behavioural responses to success and failure. As ‘guinea pigs’ here, sighted, blind and congenitally blind athletes across cultures had their responses to victory and defeat during the 2004 Olympic or Paralympic Games studied. It appears that congenitally blind athletes who have never seen how a team reacts to a win or loss make almost the same nonverbal gestures as their sighted counterparts, thus driving scientists to consider the possibility of biological innateness of such responses. Moreover, no cultural differences were observed among competitors from different countries. The researchers suggest that expressions of shame and pride could have had an evolutionary purpose that drove their adoption across the species. For example, “the expanded posture and outstretched arms associated with pride” could have served the dual purpose of appearing larger and highlighting the risk associated with the gesture. Similarly, shame’s nonverbal cues of slumped shoulders and chest narrowing, the authors say, “likely originated as a way of conveying acceptance of an aggressor’s power, thereby removing the need for conflict and sparing resources.”

My own humble contribution to the argument would take the form of a question, which is basically the reason why I started this blog in the first place but, on second thoughts, it does not appear to be gesture-related: how would you define acts like coughing to attract other individuals’ attention or to denote presence? Is this universal?

For information about verbal languages, you can always browse our website.

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About Sharon Stephens

Sharon Stephens is Operations Director of Lingua Translation. With a First Class Honours Degree in Translation and a University Lecturer in Translation (Masters), she is a self confessed language geek! Bringing the academic principles of translation and business together Sharon offers a quality-driven and needs centric translation and interpreting service - like no other.

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