The communicative roles of gestures during talk in interaction are partly a function of their placement within unfolding turns and action sequences. Gestures occur both as free-standing unit-acts and as components of multimodal turns.
A facial gesture, usually enacted with eyebrows and/or the mouth, can occur in the role of operator on a concurrent or imminent unit of talk when it is performed by the speaker, and qualify its deontic and pragmatic status (e.g., serious or ironic, assertion or tease) and the stance that the speaker adopts toward it (eyebrow raises occur as components or minimal versions of shrugs and can display the speaker’s distancing from a proposition), as well as the type of uptake it should preferably receive. When performed by listeners, facial gestures (e.g., a brief raising of the brows) may mark the status of an ongoing or just completed utterance as new or old information, as surprising, amusing, or depressing: recipients’ facial gestures often convey affective messages in addition to their discourse organizational roles. Providing the speaker with ongoing feedback about the reception and effects of talk, facial gestures also contribute to its further course. While there has been a considerable amount of research on listeners’ facial actions, we still know relatively little about the communicative work of the speaker’s face.
Head gestures such as nods, shakes, and tosses are common conventional listener responses as well, notably in the roles of affirmation and negation, but also as “continuers” or acknowledgment tokens during ongoing turns at talk. There has been a considerable amount of research on these gestures, but we know less about other, more subtle motions of the head, e.g., tilts and turns that do not amount to signs of affirmation or negation.
Vocal gestures, also called interjections and “response cries” are conventional vocal acts that are quite diverse in their functions; they can serve to beckon, to display an attitude toward what is being said or done, to comment upon one’s own mishap as speaker, or to regulate the actions of another. Vocal gestures typically show phonological features otherwise uncommon in the producer’s language; many are formed by ingressives (or clicks) – sounds that occur as phonemes only in a single language family of Southern Africa.
One might also consider certain linguistic units as gestures, for example, tokens that are commonly placed at turn-beginnings, e.g., “well” or “okay”; agreement and disagreement tokens; and turn-completers and re-completers, e.g., tags such as “right?” “no?” “know-what-I’m-sayin’,” because they foreshadow illocutionary roles or regulate uptake – functions that they share with various types of bodily gestures.
The most important and, by far, most diverse kind of gestures in discourse are hand gestures, i.e., acts performed by movements of the hands. A number of different basic genres of communicative activities are carried out by motions of the hand, which can be distinguished in terms of the ways in which these motions figure in situated ecologies of action, cognition, and perception. Thus,
1 pragmatic gestures display the speaker’s imminent or ongoing communicative act (its illocutionary force) or aspects of its structure and relation to prior discourse or the topic at hand;
2 interaction-management gestures mediate and regulate transactions, by allocating turns, displaying intended speakership, or establishing or marking relations between (the talk of ) participants;
3 conceptual gestures or cepts manually construe ideational content that the speaker seeks to convey, without, however, showing how something looks;
4 depictive gestures depict phenomena in the real or some possible world; and
5 indexical gestures direct attention to and provide or reveal structures of objects and settings at hand, or of the world within sight, for example by various forms of pointing, tracing, and discerning.
Types 1 and 2 are about the processes of interaction and communication, 3 and 4 about the world that is thematized in the discourse, and 5 and 6 are about the proximal and distal setting within which the interaction takes place. Gestures of types 1, 2, and 3 are often metaphorical in that they construe abstract content or the process of communication according to models of manual action and experience in the physical world: they bring embodied knowledge – “haptic” knowledge of the world and manual know-how – to bear on communication and linguistic action.
It is important to realize that the term “gesture” refers to various orders of phenomena: to the practice of gesturing (when used as a mass-noun) or to individual instance of gesturing (when used as a count-noun). The latter, however, can be either a token of a type – when a conventional gesture is instantiated – or a creative, impromptu act of symbolic invention – this is often the case when speakers ceive or depict real-world or abstract phenomena. The fact that these distinctions are covert can lead one to falsely believe that all gesture is conventional, drawing from cultural repertoires (lexicons) of stable form–meaning pairs. But the improvisational character of much gesticulation – which does not seem to impede its intelligibility – is a feature that makes it particularly interesting for communication theory. It demonstrates, among other things, the importance of context and sequence to the ways in which bodily acts contribute to talk in interaction.
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