Speech-accompanying gestures and their impact on speech production and communication

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

26 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 General characteristics of gestures
2.1 Gesture types
2.1.1 Iconics and metaphorics
2.1.2 Beats
2.1.3 Cohesives
2.1.4 Deictics
2.2 Gesture and speech as a single system
2.3 Attention to speech-accompanying gestures

3 Communicative functions of gestures
3.1 Structuring speech and helping interaction
3.2 Structuring discourse in narrative situations
3.3 Distinguishing layers of discourse
3.4 Voice
3.5 Emphasis
3.6 Completion
3.7 Commenting on an utterance
3.8 Adding “realness”
3.9 Information about the speaker

4 Gestures and the speech production process
4.1 Research concerned with gesture’s role in speech production
4.2 Models of speech production including gestures
4.2.1 Krauss&Hadar’s model
4.2.2 De Ruiter’s model
4.2.3 McNeill’s growth point theory
4.2.4 Competition hypotheses

5 Gestures and mental processing

6 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Gestures are used by all of usmost of the time we talk. But what is so fascinating about them is that they are usually seen as unnecessary by-products, whereas all the necessary information is already encoded in speech. So why do we even bother gesturing? Is it just a reflex that does not serve any function at all or onlysocial functions? Do gestures convey additional information that may be helpful but is not essential? Or are gesturescrucial to conversation after all and if so, how?

After introducing some basic knowledge about gestures I would like to focus on these questions that are concerned with the communicative functions. However, communication purposes which are mostly associated with gestures are only one part of the picture. There is also a lot of relevant research about the role of gestures in speech production as well and also ontheir impact on memorising and learning. Hence, I will cover all three approaches which are subdivided into different theories and weigh them up against each other.

2 General characteristics of gestures

2.1 Gesture types

The term ‘gesticulation’ refers to “motion, that embodies a meaning relatable to the accompanying speech” (McNeill 2005: 5) as opposed to emblems (conventionalized signs like the thumbs-up), pantomimes or sign language.

Before discussing the function of gestures, it is vital to introduce the five different types: iconics, metaphorics, beats and cohesives and deictics. I will mostly use material fromHand and Mind (McNeill 1992) in which McNeill provides an excellent overview with illustrative examples and pictures.

2.1.1 Iconics and metaphorics

Iconic gestures picture the semantic content of speech, e.g. by reproducing a gesture the speaker has seen in a cartoon (gripping, pulling back, dropping etc.). Interestingly, by reproducing a gesture the speaker automatically expresses his or her point of view: Is he pushing or is he being pushed?

Iconics are not only coexpressive, but also complementary. For example if the speaker uses the word ‘defend’ it does not reveal the weapon. It is the gesture that tells us that the speaker is talking about defence with a sword (cf. McNeill 1992: 12-13).

(1) iconic gesture revealing the weapon, McNeill 1992:13

Metaphorics are pictorial as well,however, unlike iconic gestures they don’t present concrete actions or objects but abstract concepts instead. In McNeill’s example the ‘framing’ gesture is used to refer to the genre of cartoon rather than an actual scene (cf. McNeill 1992: 14):

(2) metaphoric gesture referring to the cartoon as a genre, McNeill 1992:14

Contrary to McNeill’s distinction, Krauss&Hadar argue that “iconicity is more a matter of degree rather than of kind” (Krauss&Hadar 1999: 100). According to them, some gestures are obviously related to the content of speech but others are hard to relate to anything, and still others are somewhere in between. This is why they prefer to classify gestures as more or less iconic rather than opening up a new class of gestures called metaphoric.

I agree with Krauss&Hadar because McNeill’s example is certainly problematic. It is not clear if the speaker is really referring to the abstract object of cartoon as a genre or rather to the actual TV screen, respectively the concrete act of watching TV. In many cases we simply do not know why a gesture takes the form it does, although it belongs to the group of iconic gestures, and coming up with a metaphoric meaning would be an easy but sometimes inaccurate way of dealing with that. To simplify matters, I will nevertheless stick to McNeill’s distinction, especially since I would like to present his theories thoroughly.

2.1.2 Beats

Beats are completely different from Iconics and metaphorics, because they are not concerned with the actual content and they do not picture anything. Additionally, they just have two movement phases (in/out, up/down, etc.) compared to the three movement phases of metaphorics or beats (preparation, stroke, retraction).

Like the term itself suggests, they do not add imagery to speech but rather rhythm and structure. They highlight those parts of speech which are important for their discourse-pragmatic content, e.g. introducing new aspects, summarizing etc. (cf. McNeill 1992: 15).


According to McNeill, the function of cohesives, as he calls them, is “to tie together thematically related but temporally separated parts of the discourse” (McNeill 1992: 16). They emphasizecontinuities and can consist of all the above mentioned gesture types, even beats, as long as the gesture is used repeatedly.

McNeill points out that cohesives are what we often see in political speeches since politicians tend to name individual points that all belong to their bigger plan for the country, the economy etc. They often use cohesive beats throughout their speeches. In a cartoon re-telling a situation,cohesives could be used, for example, to resume the storyline after an explanatory interruption.

(3) cohesive gesture: (a) is interrupted for (b) and resumed by (c), McNeill 1992:17


Deictics are pointing gestures used to indicate objects and events in the real environment, although they are also used in an abstract way, e.g. referring to the city the addressee just came from.

2.2 Gesture and speech as a single system

Although there is a huge discussion about how gestures and speech interact in the speech production process, there is a mutual understanding of some basic rules.

To begin with, gestures and utterances have the same or a very close semantic meaning and pragmatic meaning. Moreover, those parts of the utterance that have the same/similar meaning are cotemporal. The most meaningful part of the gesture, the stroke, and the equivalent part of the utterance are produced during the same interval of time. Fourthly, we know that gesture and speech are closely linked together because they develop at the same time amongst children. A recent study about Dutch children’s use of placement verbs Gullberg&Narasimhan (2010) showed that children’s gestures reveal their current knowledge of verb semantics. If the children used the inappropriate placement verb they also used gestures that lacked important features connected with the correct verb (e.g. horizontal/vertical placement, objects, path) Parallel to the simultaneous development gesture and speech also decline together in aphasia (cf. McNeill 1992: 24).

2.3 Attention to speech-accompanying gestures

Gullberg&Kita (2009) conducted a study that focused on the question whether addressees attend to and integrate gestural information. They found that the speaker’s fixation of his or her own gestures or gestural holds increase both overt attention to gestures and the information uptake. However, attention to gestures is mostly covert; the eye-tracker did not show many overtly fixated gestures.

3 Communicative functions of gestures

I would now like to address the question of what value gestures are in conversation. Why do we need something other than speech to mediate our inner world?

3.1 Structuring speech and helping interaction

Gestures allow what was said to be structured, e.g. beats can function like bullet points in a listing. Gestures can also be used to mark the end of an utterance. Therefore, gestures help a great deal with interacting. They facilitate turn-taking but also prevent others from interrupting. A good example for this is the freezing of a gesture to mark the starting point for a word search (cf. Müller 1996: 15).

Gestures can also structure longer sequences of speech. According to Müller, longer utterance units are linked together by changes in the position of the whole body; shorter units are indicated by the repositioning of single body parts (head, arms, hands). Lastly, prosodic units belong to one single gesture (cf. Müller 1996: 73-74).

3.2 Structuring discourse in narrative situations

According to McNeill (1992), gestures make up for the fact that English only has few systems that can mark the structure of discourse. McNeill focuses on narration. In a narrative situation, gestures tell us something about the process of narration that speech cannot (Mc Neill 1992: 183). They can also reveal what kind of level the speaker is on.

On the narrative level, speakers refer to events from the story. Gestures mark this level by simulating what happened, so speakers tend to use iconics which follow the story line, e.g. a character pulling something, falling down etc.

The metanarrative level, meaning clauses presenting the story about the story, is usually marked by metaphorics or deictics.Metaphoric gestures depict abstract objects like the genre of the story or are used as “process metaphorics” like “we get into the film proper” (McNeill 1992: 199). Deictic gestures can be used to spatialize, namely to contrast characters, events or themes in the speaker’s body space.

On the third level, paranarration, the speaker refers to the storytelling itself, often by ceasing to gesture: “The striking characteristic of gesture use at the paranarrative level is how reduced it is” (McNeill 1992: 199). An explanation for this could be that speakers are not involved bodily anymore, they are speaking as themselves.

Shifts from one level to another are usually accomplished by beats. They indicate that the narrator exits the narrative plot and enters the metanarrative level, e.g. by repairing a lexical item or introducing a new character (cf. McNeill 1992: 195).


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Speech-accompanying gestures and their impact on speech production and communication
University of Freiburg  (Englisches Seminar)
Hauptseminar: Language, Cognition and Interaction
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ISBN (Book)
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Cognitive linguistics, Körpersprache, Gestik, gestures
Quote paper
Sonja Kaupp (Author), 2011, Speech-accompanying gestures and their impact on speech production and communication, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/180007


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