Simon Harrison (Université Bordeaux 3):

No, not nothing: what gesture reveals about negation, concretization, and abstraction

Vortrag im Rahmen von „Das Konkrete als Zeichen“, 12. Internationaler Kongress der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Semiotik (DGS), Stuttgart, 9. bis 12. Oktober 2008; Sektion „Gesten in der Kommunikation: Prozesse der Konkretisierung und Abstraktion“.



As symbols, linguistic expressions are all concrete and abstract to some degree. In English, negative expressions whose content is highly abstract do not adopt different linguistic forms than those whose content is more concrete. From the perspective of grammar, for example, (i) “I’m not going to Paris” and (ii) “I’m not going to cry” are identical. Meanwhile, the particle NOT negates concrete motion in (i) and abstract or ‘fictive’ motion in (ii). Similarly, a speaker can say “no” to refuse money (a physical object) as equally well as to refuse an idea (an abstract object). “Nothing” can be used to describe the content of a box (concrete), or to describe the content of a person’s mind (abstract). While grammatical form remains identical across contexts, it would be difficult to maintain that concrete and abstract expressions do not diverge to some extent in the conceptualizations they symbolize.

If we follow dominant trends and focus on morphology, lexis, and syntax, we restrict our analysis to one type of thinking that goes on during speech. But human thought is multidimensional and therefore communicative expression is multimodal. To negate, speakers combine grammatical negation with gestural negation to create an elaborate assembly of symbolic structure. This combination provides the speaker with different semiotic resources through which to simultaneously code the conceptualization driving her utterance. Taking into account differences between modalities, particular construals or perspectives of a conceived situation might be more appropriate for coding in grammar than in gesture, and vice-versa.

In this paper we will first clarify the term ‘gestural negation’ and provide examples of how speakers co-deploy grammar and gesture to negate multimodally. We will then analyse multimodal negative utterances whose contents range from concrete in nature to more abstract, and argue that grammar-gesture usage reveals modality-specific construals of the same scene. Finally, examining the specific conceptualizations that speakers code in gesture should contribute insights to how speakers conceive of negative speech acts, as well as the ‘objects’ they negate.