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How Language Began: Gesture and Speech in Human Evolution

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Human language is not the same as human speech. We use gestures and signs to communicate alongside, or instead of, speaking. Yet gestures and speech are processed in the same areas of the human brain, and the study of how both have evolved is central to research on the origins of human communication. Written by one of the pioneers of the field, this is the first book to explain how speech and gesture evolved together into a system that all humans possess. Nearly all theorizing about the origins of language either ignores gesture, views it as an add-on or supposes that language began in gesture and was later replaced by speech. David McNeill challenges the popular 'gesture-first' theory that language first emerged in a gesture-only form and proposes a groundbreaking theory of the evolution of language which explains how speech and gesture became unified.
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... Although the field of linguistics has traditionally viewed co-speech gestures and speech-linked gestures as ancillary to language, they are in fact an integral part of language (Kendon 1980(Kendon , 2004McNeill 1992McNeill , 2005McNeill , 2012 and can shed light on speakers' thinking. For example, McNeill (1992McNeill ( , 2005McNeill ( , 2012 has proposed that "together gesture and speech develop from a 'growth point' (a minimal unit of thought similar to Vygotsky's psychological predicate) that has both imagistic and verbal aspects" (Stam 2016: 289). ...
... Although the field of linguistics has traditionally viewed co-speech gestures and speech-linked gestures as ancillary to language, they are in fact an integral part of language (Kendon 1980(Kendon , 2004McNeill 1992McNeill , 2005McNeill , 2012 and can shed light on speakers' thinking. For example, McNeill (1992McNeill ( , 2005McNeill ( , 2012 has proposed that "together gesture and speech develop from a 'growth point' (a minimal unit of thought similar to Vygotsky's psychological predicate) that has both imagistic and verbal aspects" (Stam 2016: 289). This growth point model 2 for thought is "a 'language-imagery' or language-gesture dialectic" (McNeill 2005: 21) in which gesture, speech, and thought develop together over time and influence each other (Stam 2018). ...
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This paper investigates the question of whether systematically organized instruction in L2 thinking for speaking (TFS) can promote a shift from verb-framed L1 (Spanish) to satellite-framed L2 (English) TFS that encompasses the ability to appropriately express in speech and in gesture Path and Manner of Motion in the new language. A pretest narration-instruction-posttest narration design was used to evaluate whether the TFS patterns of seven L1 Spanish learners of L2 English changed as a result of Concept-Based Language Instruction. Learners’ pretest narrations showed primarily L1 patterns with some intermittent L2 TFS patterns. Following instruction, learners showed a shift to more L2 TFS patterns both linguistically and crucially gesturally, including the use of manner verbs, accumulation of path components within a single clause along with multiple path gestures, and boundary crossing gestures. These findings indicate that explicit Concept-Based Language Instruction is able to produce changes in TFS patterns that have not been possible even with extensive immersion.
... Finally, we pinpoint fruitful research avenues and hypotheses to move the field of turn-taking development forward and improve our understanding of the impact of turn-taking on language evolution. KEYWORDS language evolution, social interaction, development, learning, turn-taking, mammals, primates, infants Introduction Language has been proposed to be uniquely human (Christiansen and Kirby, 2003a;Corballis, 2009;McNeill, 2010) because it involves specific characteristics such as high variation, complexity, open-endedness, and the use of linguistic and socially learned symbols to direct the attentional and mental states of others (e.g., Christiansen and Kirby, 2003a;Pika et al., 2005). However, although the evolution of language has intrigued scientific scholars for centuries (Darwin, 1859) and across scientific disciplines (e.g., Christiansen and Kirby, 2003b;Fitch, 2010;Corballis, 2011;Hauser et al., 2014;Killin, 2017), it still remains a mystery (Knight et al., 2000). ...
... Attempts to shed light on language evolution have used different approaches and methods (e.g., comparative approach and purpose of language), focused on different research disciplines (e.g., biology, linguistics, and neuroscience), and used different model systems (e.g., songbirds, great apes; for an overview see Fitch, 2010). In addition, several hypotheses have been postulated ranging from different communicative modalities as starting points (e.g., Hewes et al., 1973;Armstrong and Sherman, 2007;Cheney and Seyfarth, 2010;McNeill, 2010), proto-languages (e.g., Wray, 1998) to the purpose of language (e.g., Shannon, 1948;Hauser et al., 2010;Seyfarth et al., 2010a). ...
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How human language evolved remains one of the most intriguing questions in science, and different approaches have been used to tackle this question. A recent hypothesis, the Interaction Engine Hypothesis, postulates that language was made possible through the special capacity for social interaction involving different social cognitive skills (e.g., joint attention, common ground) and specific characteristics such as face-to-face interaction, mutual gaze and turn-taking, the exchange of rapid communicative turns. Recently, it has been argued that this turn-taking infrastructure may be a foundational and ancient mechanism of the layered system of language because communicative turn-taking has been found in human infants and across several non-human primate species. Moreover, there is some evidence for turn-taking in different mammalian taxa, especially those capable of vocal learning. Surprisingly, however, the existing studies have mainly focused on turn-taking production of adult individuals, while little is known about its emergence and development in young individuals. Hence, the aim of the current paper was 2-fold: First, we carried out a systematic review of turn-taking development and acquisition in mammals to evaluate possible research bias and existing gaps. Second, we highlight research avenues to spur more research into this domain and investigate if distinct turn-taking elements can be found in other non-human animal species. Since mammals exhibit an extended development period, including learning and strong parental care, they represent an excellent model group in which to investigate the acquisition and development of turn-taking abilities. We performed a systematic review including a wide range of terms and found 21 studies presenting findings on turn-taking abilities in infants and juveniles. Most of these studies were from the last decade, showing an increased interest in this field over the years. Overall, we found a considerable variation in the terminologies and methodological approaches used. In addition, studies investigating turn-taking abilities across different development periods and in relation to different social partners were very rare, thereby hampering direct, systematic comparisons within and across species. Nonetheless, the results of some studies suggested that specific turn-taking elements are innate, while others are acquired during development (e.g., flexibility). Finally, we pinpoint fruitful research avenues and hypotheses to move the field of turn-taking development forward and improve our understanding of the impact of turn-taking on language evolution.
... MSH is a gestural hypothesis on the origin of language. There is an extensive literature that places gestural communication as a starting point in the evolution that led to vocal language (Hewes, 1973;Arbib, 2012;Armstrong et al., 1995;Corballis, 2002;Stokoe, 2002;Tomasello, 2008), although, as highlighted by Zywiczynski et al. (2017), in recent years the hypothesis of the original multimodality of proto-language has made its way (Kendon, 2011;McNeill, 2012;Sandler, 2013). There is therefore a vast literature in support of MSH, albeit I do not wish to deny here the possibility of a multimodal origin of human communication and language. ...
... There is therefore a vast literature in support of MSH, albeit I do not wish to deny here the possibility of a multimodal origin of human communication and language. I only emphasize that, since the two communication systems-vocal and gestural-for some researchers (McNeill, 2012), are integrated to the point of being part of a single cognitive system (Zywiczynski et al., 2017), I here support the possibility of the compatibility of MSH with the multimodal scenario. However, investigating this aspect goes beyond the scope of this article. ...
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The ostensive-inferential model is a model of communication, an alternative to the code model of communication, based on pragmatic competence: it explains human communication in terms of expression and recognition of informative and communicative intentions , founding comprehension on the distinction between literal meaning and the speaker's meaning. Through informative intentions we try to make evident the content of a message to a receiver, or to make evident what we want to communicate to him/her: communicative intentions are used to make evident the very fact that we intend to communicate. One hypothesis is that ostensive-inferential communication is what makes human language possible. Since an extensive literature has highlighted the role of the Theory of Mind in ostensive-inferential communication, this hypothesis fits with the idea that a mechanism for mentalizing underlies human communication. The aim of the present paper is to stress the role of lower-level mechanisms, specifically of motor simulation , in the recognition of informative and communicative intentions, in order to outline an embodied account of ostensive communication. Specifically, the hypothesis is that this process is involved in language acquisition during development, and that it plays a role in the associative learning process involved in language acquisition during childhood. To this aim, in future research it may be useful to test the involvement of motor simulation (specifically, phono-articulatory and semantic) in the recognition of informative and communicative intentions in toddlers. Since some models of language evolution focus on the role of motor simulation, a supplementary goal is to deepen its role in the biological evolution of language, focusing on the specific link between motor simulation and intentions in the framework of ostensive-inferential model.
... jolanta Antas (2013, 14), która wykazuje, że gesty niezwykle często wyprzedzają odpowiadające im wyrażenie lub słowo, z czym zresztą zgadzają się Cornelia Müller i Alan Cienki (2008). Zsynchronizowanie w czasie, opisywane przez Mcneilla, występuje w późniejszych publikacjach jako "synchroniczność" (Mcneill i Duncan 2000), "wyrównanie czasowe" (Mcneill 2012) czy "synchronia" (Mcneill 2016) -niezmiennie jednak badacz opisuje "mowę i gest występujące w tym samym czasie" (Mcneill 2016, 20). jednocześnie samo współwystępowanie w czasie gestu i słowa nie musi świadczyć o tym, że odnoszą się one do tego samego pojęcia. ...
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This paper investigates the types of relationships occurring between spontaneous gestures and speech, aiming to answer the question: how do we know the meaning of gestures that co-occur with speech. Out of the four types of gestures accompanying speech (metaphorical, iconic, beats, and deictic gestures, after McNeill 1992), we focused on iconic and metaphoric referential gestures. The relationship between co-speech gestures (or gesticulation in McNeill’s terminology) and speech happens on several levels, linking the two semiotic modes that create meaning. Temporal synchrony, proposed by McNeill (2016), is one such type of relationship: we assume that the gesture refers to a word or phrase with which it co-occurs in time. However, other researchers point out that a gesture can precede the concept to which it refers (Antas 2013). Grazino (2019) proposes that gesture-speech alignment can be studied at the level of prosody and semantics. Hence, this article proposes three types of gesture-speech alignment: full temporal and semantic alignment (when gesture and speech occur at the same time and refer to the same concept); temporal alignment (gesture and speech co-occur in time but have different referents); and semantic alignment, which does not require the word and gesture to occur at the same time. We used the micronarrative (see Fabiszak, Jelec 2019) as the unit of analysis to study gesture and speech alignment in spontaneous dialogues. The qualitative analysis of the research material (recordings of TV interviews with politicians and other public figures), allowed us to illustrate the relationship between the concept and the gesture. We propose that the nature of this relationship can be iconic, metonymic, or metaphorical, thus showing that the metaphoricity of a gesture can have several different dimensions.
... jolanta Antas (2013, 14), która wykazuje, że gesty niezwykle często wyprzedzają odpowiadające im wyrażenie lub słowo, z czym zresztą zgadzają się Cornelia Müller i Alan Cienki (2008). Zsynchronizowanie w czasie, opisywane przez Mcneilla, występuje w późniejszych publikacjach jako "synchroniczność" (Mcneill i Duncan 2000), "wyrównanie czasowe" (Mcneill 2012) czy "synchronia" (Mcneill 2016) -niezmiennie jednak badacz opisuje "mowę i gest występujące w tym samym czasie" (Mcneill 2016, 20). jednocześnie samo współwystępowanie w czasie gestu i słowa nie musi świadczyć o tym, że odnoszą się one do tego samego pojęcia. ...
... 2. Cadre théorique -2.3. Le sourire : une ressource de l'interaction importantes tant pour l'interlocuteur que pour le locuteur (ALIBALI, KITA & YOUNG, 2000 ;KENDON, 2004 ;MCNEILL, 2012). La multitude d'études dans ce domaine témoigne de l'importance des gestes des mains dans la conversation et de l'intérêt grandissant pour cet objet d'étude. ...
Thesis
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Cette thèse porte sur les sourires dans les transitions thématiques de conversations. Ces moments charnières entre deux thèmes font particulièrement intervenir la collaboration des participants. Ainsi, nous avons étudié le rôle du sourire en tant que ressource mobilisée dans cette collaboration : les sourires étant des expressions faciales très fréquentes mais peu étudiées dans leur rapport avec l’organisation del’interaction. Parallèlement, nous avons étudié l’effet de la relation des interactants sur cette collaboration. Pour explorer ces questions, 40 interactions des corpus (CHEESE! et PACO) ont été étudiées. Dans le premier corpus, les participants se connaissent bien alors que dans le second ils se rencontrent pour la première fois le jour de l’enregistrement. Les sourires des interactants ont été annotés selon l’échelle du Smiling Intensity Scale. Grâce à l’outil de détection automatique des sourires SMAD, développé pour les besoins de cette thèse, nous avons mené une analyse fine du déploiement des trois intensités de sourires. Nos analyses ont consisté à articuler deux approches complémentaires : celles de l’Analyse Conversationnelle et de la Linguistique Interactionnelle via des analyses séquentielles ainsi que l’approche de la Linguistique de Corpus qui a consisté à interroger quantitativement nos données. Cette méthodologie a permis de dégager trois résultats principaux concernant les transitions par rapport à des moments aléatoires des conversations étudiées. (1) Les phases des transitions sont caractérisées par des procédés spécifiques, pour certains invariants quelle que soit la relation des participants. (2) Lorsque le locuteur propose un nouveau thème, une suppression du sourire est plus fréquemment observée. (3) Lorsque l’interlocuteur accepte la proposition thématique il est plus enclin à augmenter l’intensité de son sourire. Cette thèse montre que le sourire est une ressource mobilisée par les interactants lorsqu’ils effectuent des transitions thématiques. A ce titre, cette thèse s’inscrit dans la lignée des travaux plaidant pour une prise de compte du sourire comme ressource à prendre en compte dans l’analyse multimodale des interactions.
... Whereas spoken language can enact explicit attitudes of different kinds (emotional reactions, judgements of character or appreciation of things), paralanguage can only explicitly enact emotion (AFFECT). Furthermore, as suggested by Cléirigh, excepting through the use of emblems (Kendon 2004;McNeill 2012), semovergent paralanguage does not function to distinguish move types in dialogic exchanges (although sonovergent paralanguage can support toNe choice in relation to these moves). ...
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The last decades have seen major advances in the study of gestures both in humans and non-human primates. In this paper, we seriously examine the idea that there may be gestural form types that are shared across great ape species, including humans, which may underlie gestural universals, both in form and meaning. We focus on one case study, the hand fling gesture common to chimpanzees and humans, and provide a semantic analysis of this gesture.
Article
This proposal presents an evolutionary analysis of three types of co-speech gestures: symbolic emblems, indexical pointing gestures and iconic representational gesticulations. Synthesizing insights from a range of published sources in gestural studies, general linguistics and sign language linguistics, primate studies and analyses of biological evolution, these gestures are analyzed as evolved traits adapted to particular niches or roles within broader systems. Niche boundaries are comprised of an element’s distinct properties and functions, routes of learning and transmission and degrees of innateness and evolvability within populations. Rather than elements distributed along a flat productive-analytical continuum or as stages along diachronic pathways, these gestural traits are analyzed in terms of adaptive peaks and valleys with a landscape representing the broader system comprising human gesture and language. The same evolutionary processes are used to analyze gestures in speaking populations and the linguistic traits derived from gestures in signing populations. This approach offers new ways of approaching proposed linguistic universals and long-standing issues such as listability in sign languages, while offering a formal approach to gestures.
Chapter
The realisation that signed languages are true languages is one of the great discoveries of linguistic research. The work of many sign language researchers has revealed deep similarities between signed and spoken languages in their structure, acquisition and processing, as well as differences, arising from the differing articulatory and perceptual constraints under which signed languages are used and learned. This book provides a cross-linguistic examination of the properties of many signed languages, including detailed case studies of Hong Kong, British, Mexican and German sign languages. The contributions to this volume, by some of the most prominent researchers in the field, focus on a single question: to what extent is linguistic structure influenced by the modality of language? Their answers offer particular insights into the factors that shape the nature of language and contribute to our understanding of why languages are organised as they are.
Chapter
This landmark study examines the role of gestures in relation to speech and thought. Leading scholars, including psychologists, linguists and anthropologists, offer state-of-the-art analyses to demonstrate that gestures are not merely an embellishment of speech but are integral parts of language itself. Language and Gesture offers a wide range of theoretical approaches, with emphasis not simply on behavioural descriptions but also on the underlying processes. The book has strong cross-linguistic and cross-cultural components, examining gestures by speakers of Mayan, Australian, East Asian as well as English and other European languages. The content is diverse including chapters on gestures during aphasia and severe stuttering, the first emergence of speech-gesture combinations of children, and a section on sign language. In a rapidly growing field of study this volume opens up the agenda for research into a new approach to understanding language, thought and society.