Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The universal language of hand gestures

Research at Chicago University and reported here in The Telegraph seems to suggest that a "universal language" of gesture might exist regardless of the grammar of spoken language used by people around the world.

To help settle a long-running dispute about whether language influences the way we think, psychologists tested 40 speakers of four different languages: 10 English, 10 Mandarin Chinese, 10 Spanish and 10 Turkish speakers, first asking them to describe an action in a video in speech, then only with gestures.

What was remarkable was that, when asked to describe the same scenes using only their hands, all of the adults, no matter what language they spoke, produced the same order - subject, object, verb (woman knob twists, for example). Meanwhile, when asked to describe the scenes in speech, the speakers used the word orders typical of their respective languages.

What the research seems to be pointing towards is that certain conceptual frameworks exist beyond speech and language and that it's these frameworks that we see the world through, rather than language. Linguistic determinists and relativists such as Sapir and Whorf argued that it is language that controls our perception of the world.

So why - if people use a universal gesture "language" regardless of their actual spoken language - do different world languages have varying surface structures? In other words, why do some languages have Subject - Verb - Object word order, while others have Subject - Object - Verb? Is there, as Noam Chomsky famously suggested, a deep structure underneath all human languages?

If you know the answers, please tell me...

Edited to add: Language Log runs this story with a degree more scepticism here and refers to the original article in New Scientist here.

And no one has mentioned the fact that I've got to the end of this post without guffawing childishly about the words woman , knob and twist being in the same sentence. Ha ha.

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