The Treasure Chest

Signal Books on Gesture

By Paul Bouissac

Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance

By Adam Kendon. Cambridge University Press. 2004.

Adam Kendon has been arguably the most consistent authority on the topic of gesture for the last three decades. His early research on dyadic communication addressed a comprehensive range of bodily communicative behaviors from the function of gaze direction in social interaction (e.g., 1967) to various kinds of gestural languages, among which is his celebrated description of the deaf-mute sign language from the Enga Province in Papua New Guinea (1980) and Warlpiri (Australia) alternate sign languages used by people who are normally speakers-hearers but rely on gestural signs in place of speech when speech is tabooed for ritual reasons (1988). Few researchers in nonverbal communication have so exclusively focused their lifelong inquiry on the empirical and theoretical investigation of gesture with a view to developing a workable methodology in a semiotic framework. His recent translating and editing of Andrea de Jorio's 1832 book on the gestural expression of the ancients in the light of Neapolitan gesturing (2000) added a historical dimension to his passionate inquiry.

Gesture: Visible Action in Utterance is a most welcome publication. All semioticians, whether or not they have devoted some of their own research to gesture, will benefit from reading this 400 page volume. The book is not a collection of previously published articles but has been written as a coherent whole that covers the history of gestural study, the theoretical issues involved in defining the object of the inquiry, the wide array of domains relevant to the topic, numerous significant applications and precious considerations concerning the methods of investigation. Kendon is undoubtedly the best informed and most reliable gesture scholar. The last chapter, "The Status of Gesture", summarizes the author's endeavor and defines the basis from which the perennial problem of the origine and nature of language itself should be addressed.


Jorio, A. de (2000) [1832] Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity. Translated and edited by Adam Kendon. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kendon, A. (1967) Some functions of gaze direction in social interaction. Acta Psychologia 26: 22-63.

Kendon, A. (1980) A description of deaf-mute sign language from the Enga Province of Papua New Guinea with some comparative discussion. Part I: The formal properties of Enga signs. Semiotica 31, 1/2: 1-34.

Kendon, A. (1988) Sign Languages of Aboriginal Australia: Semiotic, Cultural and Communicative Perspectives. Cambridge University Press.

Gestures. Meaning and Use.

Edited by Monica Rector, Isabella Poggi and Nadine Trigo. Fernando Pesoa University Press (Oporto). 2003.

The first international conference on gestures was held in Portugal (Oporto) in April 2000. It had been prepared by an international symposium on the semantics and pragmatics of everyday gestures that had taken place in Berlin, two years earlier. The Oporto congress decided the founding of the International Society of Gesture Studies and the creation of a journal, GESTURE, to be published by Benjamins (The Netherlands) under the joint editorship of Adam Kendon and Cornelia Mueller. GESTURE is now in its third year of existence.

A selection of the papers presented in the conference have been published in two volumes. The first volume, published also in 2003, collected the papers which were given in Portuguese (Gestos: Uso e Significado. Eds. Monica Rector and Isabella Poggi. Porto: Edições Universidade Fernado Pessoa). In Gestures. Meaning and Use the editors have gathered most of the articles that had been presented in English. The contributions have been thematically organized into 8 sections:

  1. Evolution of gesture in phylogenesis, ontogenesis and history;
  2. Gesture dictionaries;
  3. Gesture and thought;
  4. Gesture and speech;
  5. Everyday gestures;
  6. Gesture and culture;
  7. Gesture and theater;
  8. Gestures and computer human interaction.

As can be expected from proceedings, the section headings form a loose classification but their contents offer many informative and stimulating pieces. This volume provides a unique vista on the range of disciplines that have a vested interest in gesture research from biology to computer science, with strong representations from linguistics, sociology anthropology and, naturally, semiotics and communication studies. Most articles are complemented by diagrams and some are illustrated with color photos. Each paper is followed by its own bibliography, a user-friendly feature. The only drawback is the lack of a comprehensive index at the end of the volume.

L'expression gestuelle de la pensée d'un homme politique

By Geneviève Calbris. CNRS Editions. 2003.

Those semioticians who read French will learn from, and enjoy, Geneviève Calbris's latest monograph on gesture analysis. The title can be literally translated as The gestural expression of a politician's thought. It is a case study, and the politician under scrutiny is Lionel Jospin, a former Prime Minister of France. The corpus is formed by six televised interviews held in 1997 and 1998. But the book offers at the same time a broader methodological perspective and could have been titled: How to analyze the gestures of a politician being interviewed on television. The author has a strong background in gesture studies. She published in 1990 The Semiotics of French Gestures at Indiana University Press, but most of her excellent work on gesture is available only in French. She received in 1981 the "Mouton d'or", a yearly prize honoring the author of the best article published in Semiotica.

Abundantly illustrated with diagrams and drawings, this new volume endeavors to achieve an exhaustive analysis of the movements of the upper body as they appear within the frame of the television screen with special attention paid to the hands in relation to speech. This micro analysis uses the descriptive metalanguage developed by what could be broadly defined as the American school of nonverbal communication. The references mentioned in the introduction include indeed, among others, Edward Sapir, Gregory Bateson, Dell Hymes, Erving Goffman, Paul Ekman, W.V. Friesen, Adam Kendon and David McNeill. The overall communication model is derived from the diagram of the six linguistic functions that Roman Jakobson proposed in 1960. The main interest of this work is therefore in the exquisite precision and clarity of the application of well established methods of inquiry. However, as she is confronted with the actual audio-visual flow of the interviews, Calbris adjusts and finetunes the descriptive categories which form her initial theoretical framework. In this process, not only does she exquisitely refine the analytic grid but she also explores new ways of integrating gesture and speech as the multimedial, comprehensive expression of an ideology.

More about the author

G. Calbris (en français) Licence en Psychologie, Master en Phonétique, Doctorat en Sciences du Langage (1983), GC a fait sa thèse sur la sémiologie de la gestuelle coverbale française (4 vol. 1478 p.):

Articles dans Semiotica 29-3/4, 35-1/2, 55-1/2, 65-1/2, 118-1/2. Sa recherche actuelle porte sur la kinogenèse du langage: xxx

In English
(1998) 'Gestures' in Concise Encyclopedia of Pragmatics. Pergamon Press.

(2002) The Semantic Structure of Gestures (Plenary lecture abstract)

(2003) From cutting an object to a clear cut analysis, Gesture 3.1 (19-46).