In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gestures

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • 20th-Century Developments
  • Gesture Conventionalization
  • Language Origins

Linguistics Gestures
Adam Kendon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0018


This article, after listing recent general works and surveys, is organized first to reflect the historical development of interest in gesture up to the middle of the 20th century. Thereafter it is organized according to the principal topics that currently occupy gesture researchers. In the West interest in gesture began with its role in rhetorical technique. Philosophical interest emerged in the 18th century, when discussion of the problem of the natural origin of language first began. This continued in the 19th century, when discussion broadened with the rise of ideas on biological evolution and the accumulation of ethnographic information. Although there was a decline of interest during the first half of the 20th century, after World War II, as interest in human communication expanded along with interest in the psychological, cognitive, and biological foundations of language, scholarly attention returned to gesture and has greatly expanded since 1980. Study of the elaboration of gesture into sign languages, as found in communities of deaf persons (or in communities where there is a high proportion of them), has developed as a separate field and is not covered here, although references are included to selected works that throw light on the overlaps between gesture used by speakers and modes of expression in sign languages. However, works on gesture systems and so-called alternate sign languages, used by speaker-hearers when the use of speech is restricted for environmental or ritual reasons, have been included.

General Overviews

Kendon 2004 provides broad coverage of most aspects of gesture study. McNeill 1992 set the direction of much modern gesture research from the perspective of cognitive psychology. Streeck 2009 surveys many aspects of gesture use and offers an important perspective on gesture and the embodiment of thought. McNeill 2000; Duncan, et al. 2007; and Stam and Ishino 2011 are edited collections offering wide samples of current work on gesture with cognitive psychological, semiotic or linguistic, and ethnographic perspectives. Bremmer and Roodenburg 1993 and Braddick 2009 are edited collections of papers on gesture approached from historical, cultural, and anthropological perspectives.

  • Braddick, Michael J., ed. 2009. The politics of gesture: Historical perspectives. Past and Present Supplements 4. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This collection contains some useful papers on gesture and society in India, China, and Africa as well as western Europe.

  • Bremmer, Jan, and Hermann Roodenburg, eds. 1993. A cultural history of gesture: From antiquity to the present day. Papers presented at a colloquium held in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in the autumn of 1989. Cambridge, MA: Polity.

    A well-regarded collection of papers on gestures and related phenomena in ancient Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages in Europe, the early modern and Renaissance periods, and the 18th century in France from a cultural-historical point of view.

  • Duncan, Susan D., Justine Cassell, and Elena T. Levy, eds. 2007. Gesture and the dynamic dimension of language. Gesture Studies 1. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    This collection includes discussions of gesture and thought, relationships between gesture and sign, interrelationships between forms of gesture and lexical expression, and relationships between gesturing and the environment, among other subjects.

  • Kendon, Adam. 2004. Gesture: Visible action as utterance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive treatment of gesture, including an extended survey of the history of its study, discussions of the influence of cultural and linguistic differences on gesture use, the relationship between speakers’ gestures and signing in sign languages, detailed descriptions of gesture use in everyday conversation, and analyses of the role of gesture in utterance construction.

  • McNeill, David. 1992. Hand and mind: What gestures reveal about thought. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A key work that has been highly influential in the development of gesture studies from a cognitive perspective.

  • McNeill, David, ed. 2000. Language and gesture. Language, Culture, and Cognition 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511620850

    A collection of important studies by many of the leading figures in contemporary gesture studies, covering a wide range of approaches and theoretical positions.

  • Stam, Gale, and Mika Ishino. 2011. Integrating gesture: The interdisciplinary nature of gesture. Papers presented at the Third Congress of the International Society for Gesture Studies, Evanston, Illinois, 2007. Gesture Studies 4. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    A selection of papers providing an up-to-date survey of many themes important in gesture studies, including the nature and functions of gesture, first-language development and gesture, second-language effects on gesture, gesture in the classroom and in problem solving, gesture in relation to discourse and interaction, and gestural analysis of music and dance.

  • Streeck, Jürgen. 2009. Gesturecraft: The manu-facture of meaning. Gesture Studies 2. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/gs.2

    Based on studies of gesture use in everyday circumstances; the emphasis is on how the hand, in the way it engages with our environment, develops forms of symbolic action often derived from patterns of practical actions of various kinds and plays a role in the development of how humans conceive of the inhabited world.

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