togog: Subproject P5b

Simultaneous structures of gestures in non-human primates

Researchers: Katja Liebal, Cornelia Müller, Jana Bressem, Firdaous Fatfouta-Hanka, and Nicole Stein



1. To research proto-forms of gestures and linkages between form variations in non-human primates.
2. To identify proto-forms of gesture families.

The ongoing debate about the role of gesture in the evolution of human language is fuelled by an increasing body of research on gestural communication observed in our closest living relatives, the non-human great apes. However, one weakness of this comparative approach is the lack of defined parameters to compare the gestures of non-linguistic apes with the gestural communication of humans evidenced in both pre-verbal children and speaking adults. The primary aim of this subproject is therefore to develop a tool for describing and comparing ape and human gestures based on their respective structural properties rather than on functional aspects or meaning. Gestures in human primates are described on the basis of the four­parameter approach (hand shape, orientation of the hand, movement, and position in the gesture space) developed for the description of gestures (and signs in signed languages) (Bressem MS, Kendon 2004; Müller 2004; Stokoe 1960). It has been demonstrated how differences in these form features correlate with changes in the context of use (Kendon, 2004, Ladewig in prep., Müller 2004, Teßendorf in prep.).

The analysis of five tactile and five visual gestures of orangutans has just been completed. A major result is that we have been able to show that certain parameters of some gestures differ depending on the context in which they are used. In other words, apes do modify their gestures depending on the goal they want to achieve; this clearly replicates a structural pattern that we find in the variation of recurrent gestures in humans.

The fact that we find systematic form-meaning variation according to context in the gestures of orangutans suggests a proto-ability to create symbolic movements based on the variation of the form features of gestural movement. This is a highly interesting finding, since it indicates their ability to single out different facets of one movement; put differently, they seem to abstract single form features from a gesture and systematically use them in different contexts. In a next step, we will analyze gestures of other apes, namely siamangs and chimpanzees. We want to investigate whether there are any species-specific patterns of forms in gesture use and whether closely related species such as siamangs and orangutans show similar patterns as opposed to chimpanzees.


Bressem, Jana, MS. Notating gestures – Proposal for a form based notation system of coverbal gestures.

Kendon, Adam, 2004. Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ladewig, Silva, in prep. The crank gesture – systematic variation of form and context. In: Jana Bressem und Silva Ladewig (eds.) Hand made patterns – Recurrent forms and functions in gestures.

Müller, Cornelia, 2004. Forms and uses of the palm up open hand: A case of a gesture family? In: Cornelia Müller/ Roland Posner (eds.). The Semantics and Pragmatics of Everyday Gestures. Proceedings of the Berlin Conference April 1998; 233-256.

Stokoe, William, 1960. Sign Language Structure. Buffalo, NY: Buffalo Univ. Press.

Teßendorf, Sedinha, in prep. Pragmatic and metaphoric gestures – combining functional with cognitive approaches. IN: Jana Bressem und Silva Ladewig (eds.) Hand made patterns – Recurrent forms and functions in gestures.