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Across cultures and languages speech is frequently accompanied by movements of the arms and hands, termed gestures (McNeill, 1985). The naturalness of gesturing is revealed by the fact that blind people gesture as they speak just as much as sighted individuals do, even when they know their listener is also blind (Iverson & Goldin-Meadow, 1998).

The intricate connection between gesture and speech has led some theorists to argue that the evolutionary roots of language might have evolved in the visual-gestural modylity (e.g., Condillac, 1971; Hewes, 1976; Armstrong et al., 1995; Dunbar, 1996; Arbib, 2002).


Gestures, like speech, serve a variety of functions, for instance, they

  1. can convey substantive information to listeners (see, Goldin-Meadow, 2000; Kendon, 1994),
  2. can facilitate smoothness of interactions and the increase of liking between interaction partners (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999),
  3. are used to communicate attitudes and emotions voluntarily and involuntarily (Graham, et al, 1975; Morris, et al., 1979),
  4. can facilitate some aspects of memory (Butterworth & Beattie, 1978; e.g., Freedman, 1977; Krauss, et al., 1991),
  5. have been implicated in conceptual packaging of messages (Kita, 2000), and
  6. can therefore provide insight into a speaker's mental representations (e.g., Goldin-Meadow, et al., 2001; Iverson and Goldin-Meadow, 1998; McNeill, 1992).


Gesture classification

Following the taxonomy by McNeill (1992), gestures can be classified into the following four categories:

  1. Beat gestures consist of short rhythmic movements and do not represent speech content.
  2. Conventional gestures, whose form and meaning are established by the conventions of specific communities and can usually be understood without speech. For example, the so called ‘thumb-up gesture’ which is used in different cultures to signal ‘okay’.
  3. Deictic gestures, which create locations in gesture space for abstract concepts or relationships, for example, an index finger pointing to an object hanging on the wall or even indicating an abstract location.
  4. Iconic gestures, which resemble the semantic content of speech in some form and manner, such as an imaginative steering wheel to indicate driving.



  • Future projects will focus on the use of gestures in hunter-gatherer societies, adjustment to audience effects and differences in language proficiency.