Juana Salas Poblete (CoR-Lab Universität Bielefeld) und Katharina J. Rohlfing (Universität Bielefeld):

Manipulative gestures or actions?

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“.



What is the nature of the information conveyed by maternal gestures in a task-oriented dialogue? Does it function as an attentional cue or can semantic information be expressed via nonverbal behavior? In this study, German mothers instructed their children aged 1;10 to 2;0 to put two objects together. In the procedure, we varied the canonicality of the requested spatial relationships as a form of material dimension of semiosis. Analyzing the nonverbal behavior of mothers, we not only identified deictic (pointing) and iconic gestures but also manipulative gestures. We compare this type of gesture to a pre-stage of what Zukow-Goldring (2006) calls ‘embodying gestures’. She describes that this gesture takes place when a caregiver puts an infant through the motions of some activity; for example when a child tries to peel an orange, a caregiver might help and put control over the child’s hand using her or his hand. In contrast to the study presented in Zukow-Goldring (2006), in the present study, mothers were asked to instruct their child to perform a spatial action (e.g., put the boy under the umbrella) but not to perform the action themselves. Therefore, we could only observe how the caregivers set up the objects (e.g., a boy and an umbrella), so the child can do it by her- / himself. This was the case when a mother, for example, took an umbrella and put it upright, so its proper orientation was already set up for the child. Another case of manipulative gestures occurred when the mother handed one object (e.g. the train) to her child and instructed to put this particular object on another one (the tunnel). In this example, she set up the relational role of the train as an active object by giving it to the hand of her child and suggesting an activity, and therefore, the trajector-role. We propose therefore that this type of gesture includes manipulation of objects in order to highlight their orientation or their role as trajector or landmark object.

We discuss the function of this gesture as attentional on the one hand, since it directs the child’s attention to the objects; on the other hand, however, it displays characteristics of social information by showing how to handle and manipulate the objects. This way, social knowledge about objects is transported (Sinha, 1983; Nelson, 1996; Rohlfing, 2008).

It might be questioned whether the category of manipulative gesture is a gesture at all and if so whether it should be regarded along the same lines as deictic and iconic gestures. Another possibility is to consider the manipulative gesture as glue between attentional device and communicative gestures. We assessed the similarity between the manipulative gestures and other communicative gestures by means of correlation coefficients. The resulting positive correlation with deictics suggests that manipulative gestures seem to be a part of mothers’ gestural repertoire. Related to this, in some cases, we observed that immediately after a mother prepared the orientation of the objects, she pointed to them. We therefore want to argue that instead of being only an attentional device, manipulative gestures might rather express a planned motor action with the attentional function included highlighting specific characteristics of an object.

We argue that objects and their relationships function not only as signifieds but co-shape to the emergence of signifiers as they influence gestural behavior. They should therefore be included to the meaningful interpretation of human behavior.



Nelson, K. (1996). Language in cognitive development. Emergence of the mediated mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rohlfing, K.J. (2008): Meaning in the objects? Paper presented at the 30. Jahrestagung der DGfS, Bamberg, 26. – 29. Februar.

Sinha, C. (1983). Background knowledge, presupposition and canonicality. In T. Seiler & W. Wannenmacher (Eds.), Concept development and the development of word meaning (pp. 269-296). Berlin: Springer.

Zukow-Goldring, P. (2006). Assisted Imitation: Affordances, Effectivities, and the Mirror System in Early Language Development. In M. A. Arbib (Ed.), From action to language (pp. 469–500). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.