Look around any coffee shop, and you’ll see how much talking our hands do for us.
Colleagues underscore their conversational points with a wave of the hand or a slap of the forehead, while friends swapping stories from the weekend subtly mime crucial moments in the narrative (“so I’m digging through my purse looking for my keys…”). Customers at the pastry case point at items to indicate their orders.
These everyday gestures are so spontaneous and ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget how essential they are to our communication and how much they reveal about us.
This year, linguists Diane Brentari and Anastasia Giannakidou and psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow created the new Center for Gesture, Sign, and Language with the hope of deepening our understanding of the relationship between word, hand, and mind.
The founders of the Center want to spur more research into gesture, formal sign language and the deep linguistic, psychological, and cultural questions these forms of communication raise. The team believes that collaborative research into gesture and sign—long-standing areas of strength at the University—can unlock new knowledge about everything from deaf culture to the evolution of language to questions about the divide between mind and body.
Their ambitious efforts are among the 18 inaugural projects funded by the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society. The Collegium, founded in June 2012, supports research into complex questions in the humanities and humanistic social sciences that can be tackled through cross-disciplinary collaboration.
Building on a long tradition of research
UChicago has a long tradition of studying both gesture and more formalized sign languages, according to Goldin-Meadow, the Bearsdley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and Comparative Human Development.
UChicago scholars John Goldsmith and David McNeill contributed pioneering work in the study of sign language and gesture.
Goldsmith’s early work helped scholars understand that all languages might have similar phonological architecture—signed and spoken languages alike. McNeill’s work showed that speech and gesture are both integral to communication and share a common mental origin.
Even prior to Brentari’s arrival, Giannakidou and Goldin-Meadow had already begun to collaborate on linguistic studies of homesign, informal sign systems developed in families where deaf children aren’t exposed to codified sign languages. Because children develop homesigns spontaneously and independently, many scholars think homesign systems provide a good model for studying language emergence and evolution.
Giannakidou and Goldin-Meadow found that young homesigners organically develop predictable ways of expressing questions and negation, suggesting that structures like questions and negation might be fundamental aspects of all language.
Their discoveries created “an ongoing discussion in the field that has been very novel and quite exciting,” says Giannakidou, professor in Linguistics and the College.
For Giannakidou, whose background is in semantics, the study of meaning, the most exciting part of the collaboration was “uncovering the ‘ingredients’ of language that you can find in the absence of conventional linguistic input.”
Or as fellow sign language linguistics researcher Jason Riggle has described it, studying sign languages “allows us to pull apart what is an accidental property of having a mouth, and what is a deep property of language.”
Brentari’s arrival spurred the creation of the new Center for Gesture, Sign, and Language. “We realized that it was a great opportunity for the kinds of research that had been going on at Chicago for a very long time to crystallize into an identifiable entity,” says Brentari, professor in Linguistics. Her work has uncovered some of the central properties of sign languages, which she has used to test claims about the universal features of language, more generally, as well as to study the specific properties of many different and unrelated sign languages.
New frontiers in gesture research
Now, with support from the Neubauer Collegium, Brentari, Giannakidou, and Goldin-Meadow are preparing to venture into new territory in gesture and sign research.