togog: Subproject P4

Structures of meaning and reference: Referential gestures: how the concrete becomes abstract

Researchers: Cornelia Müller, Silva Ladewig, Sedinha Teßendorf, and Benjamin Marienfeld



The major goal of this subproject is a form-based distinction between gestures of the concrete and gestures of the abstract. Our hypothesis is that gestures of the concrete differ from gestures of the abstract with regard to their form. To test this hypothesis, we have designed experiments to see whether formal differences are discernable with respect to:
1. The four form parameters for describing gestures: hand shape, orientation of the hand, movement, and position in the gesture space (cf. Bressem MS, in prep., Kendon 2004; Ladewig in prep., Müller 2004; Stokoe 1960);
2. The gestural modes of representation (cf. Müller 1998, Müller et al. in prep);
3. The quality of effort and shape (cf. Laban/Bartenieff system of movement analysis, Bender 2007; Hutchinson Guest 2005).

So far, one set of experiments has been conducted. In cooperation with the Neurology research group, Ladewig and Teßendorf developed a stimulus set of 40 stories each including a target item or phrase (20 words, having both a concrete and an abstract sense, e.g. ‘eine runde Bank’ vs. ‘eine runde Geschichte’; e.g. “a round bench” vs. “a complete story”, literal: “a round story”). In order to assure the intelligibility of the stimulus, it was tested three times:

Condition I: subjects retold the stories in two different settings:
– subjects talked to a recipient;
– subjects talked to the camera.
In both cases, the nine subjects only rarely accompanied the target items with gestures.

Condition II: subjects were asked to listen to the stories, repeat the target sentences, and perform a gesture. 10 further subjects were tested in this condition.

Our first results were presented at the “Seventh International Conference on Researching and Applying Metaphor” held in Cáceres, Spain, in spring 2008. Our data indicate differences in form between concrete and abstract referential gestures at least for some cases. For example, gestures referring to the abstract concept of ‘round’ ('Es war eine runde Geschichte’ “a complete story”; literal: “a round story”) versus gestures referring to a concrete instantiation of this concept (‘Es war eine runde Bank’ “a round bench”) differed with regard to what we tentatively have termed the 'iconic density' of a gesture. Thus, in concrete referential gestures all the parameters (hand shape, orientation of the hand, movement, and position in the gesture space) were semantically loaded, i.e., they iconically depicted specific semantic information. In contrast, some parameters of the abstract referential gestures observed were not semantically loaded. For instance, in the above case, the parameter 'position in the gesture space' did not carry any semantic information. Thus, the abstract 'round' gesture did not embody specific spatial information, rather it was produced in the unmarked or ‘default gesture space’, i.e. right in front of the body. We also found that people use gestures to accompany different aspects of the utterance. These results were not expected, but are very interesting. They are in line with Müller’s theory of a dynamic focus of attention which triggers foregrounding of particular aspects of meaning in a conversation and more general with her dynamic view of language. (Müller 2008) These are, of course, only preliminary results requiring evaluation on a broader empirical basis. For this reason we will collect more data and conduct further experiments (condition II) in spring 2009.