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Metaphor in Gesture: How We All Act like Great Artists When We Speak

We move our hands a lot when we speak—in fact, about 55% of the information in personal communication is transmitted through body language. Thus, it is no surprise that our body language conveys more information about our cognition than we realize. Through research, linguists and psychoanalysts have been set out to prove how the existence of metaphors in gestural language and their cross-cultural variations serve as strong evidence for the embodied cognition theory of metaphors, which states that people use sensorimotor experiences to better their comprehension of an abstract concept, and the Lakoff and Johnson proposal of metaphors being a linguistic processing tool (rather than simply a phenomenon of language).

David McNeill, the leading scholar in the study of gestures, proposes metaphoric as one of four general categories of gestures: the other three being beat, deictic, and iconic (McNeill). Metaphoric gestures are typically defined as hand movements that indicate the source domain of a metaphor (McNeill). Though the source domain is usually the more concrete domain in a cross-domain mapping, we also see similar gestures in intra-domain mappings such as “the foot of a mountain”.

Metaphoric gestures do not necessarily accompany verbal metaphors, and verbal metaphors can often be followed with different types of gestures (McNeill). A most often cited example of a metaphoric gesture includes when one points backward to indicate the past and forward to indicate the future: this is a classic conception of time as a linear space. A less conventional example of metaphoric gesture following a non-metaphoric speech is that of an open palm and straight fingers pointing forward to deal with matters of truth: Truth is straight.

A substantive discovery in the study of gestures and metaphor occurs during cross-cultural and cross-linguistic studies. While most English speakers conceive of time as a horizontally linear object with forward representing the future and backward representing the past with respect to the person’s own physical orientation, Rafael Núñez observed that Papua New Guinea residents always pointed toward the direction of the mouth of the local river to indicate the past and toward the source of the river to indicate the future—regardless of their own positions (Núñez et al.). The linearity persisted while the object of reference changed. This demonstrates the cultural influence upon gestural processing of language: even without verbal differentiation in speeches regarding time, people’s gestural representation changed—potentially suggesting a cognitive difference in the perception of time and supporting the theory that metaphors are modality-independent and not restricted to language.

Now, due to the novelty of the field and the highly qualitative nature of gestural data, there are scholars who disagree with such conclusions and argue that co-occurring gestures are best understood as part of the language system. There is no consensus yet on the role of gestures, let alone metaphoric ones, but I do think we tend to live a bit better knowing our little wagging fingers are truly of great importance.


Work Cited

  1. McNeill, David. Gesture and Thought. University of Chicago Press, 2007.

  2. Núñez, Rafael, et al. “Contours of Time: Topographic Construals of Past, Present, and Future in the Yupno Valley of Papua New Guinea.” Cognition, vol. 124, no. 1, July 2012, pp. 25–35, doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2012.03.007.

Last Fact Checked on September 19th, 2021.


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