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Photo: Kensy Cooperrider
A man in the village of Gua, Papua New Guinea, points while describing a representation of Yupno history. Recent research confirms the long-held hunch that every culture uses hands in communicating.

Esperanto was meant to be a bridge between native languages, and I still believe in its potential. But three cheers for languages that don’t need bridges at all.

Blogger KerryCan mentioned one universal yesterday: music. Today’s post is about the nearly universal language of gestures — “nearly” because some gestures have wildly different meanings depending upon the culture.

Kensy Cooperrider writes at Aeon, “In the spring of 1528, the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca made landfall on what is now the gulf coast of Florida. Over the next eight years, as he and a small party traversed thousands of miles, they found themselves in a new-world Babel, moving from ‘one strange tongue to another’. In their many encounters with native peoples, their own tongue, Spanish, proved of little use. But their hands served them well. ‘You would have thought, from the questions and answers in signs,’ de Vaca later recounted, ‘that they spoke our language and we theirs.’

“De Vaca is not the first or last explorer to claim successful communication with indigenous peoples through gesture. Similar reports abound. … Sometimes, the messages conveyed were surprisingly sophisticated. If you stay until morning, we will feed you. In that direction, there are goats and pigs of all sizes. The people in that direction eat human flesh. 

“The parties in these exchanges could not have known it at the time, but they were following the advice of Joseph Marie Degérando, a French philosopher with an anthropological bent. In 1800, he wrote a treatise offering practical advice for would-be explorers and ‘philosophical travellers’. …

“Degérando’s proposals swam with the tide of much of Western thinking. The notion that gesture is a natural mode of expression – one that transcends the contrivances of culture – is a very old one. In 95 CE, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian wrote that ‘though the peoples and nations of the earth speak a multitude of tongues, they share in common the universal language of the hands’. …

“[When] Europeans were impressed by the universality of gesture, they were mostly impressed by the strength of their own intuitions. They had not actually been to ‘all regions of the habitable world’. They had no photographs, videos or other visual documents to consult. …

“In the past 50 years, however, much has changed. Technical limitations have evaporated. Video-recording technologies are now cheap, portable and easy to use; video files can be readily stored, swapped and posted online in massive databases. …

“In every group yet studied, the hands at least occasionally stir and take flight as people talk. We are certainly capable of communicating without these aerialist accompaniments, but our hands tend toward motion.

“A second preliminary point is that evidently not all gestures are universal. Most, perhaps all, human communities harbour a storehouse of hand gestures with fixed meanings, which are often called ‘emblems’. Examples of emblems in the English-speaking world include the shhh gesture (an index finger held vertical across the mouth), the peace sign (an outward-facing V made with the index and middle fingers), and the thumbs up. Notoriously, such gestures can lead to confusion or worse. Another emblem, the okay gesture, made by forming a ring with the thumb and index finger, is perfectly benign in the US but a provocation elsewhere.

“Emblems might be what many think of when they first think of gestures, but in the United States and perhaps most other places they are only rarely put to use. (Try to recall the last time you shhh-ed someone, or gave a thumbs up.) What people produce much more often are gestures for ‘yes’ and ‘no’; points to people, places and things; gestures that sketch objects, actions and represent abstract ideas through visual metaphors. These are the real workhorses of gestural expression. And, as it turns out, a case can be made that these workhorses are broadly similar the world over.”

More here. It’s a thoughtful article, and I will only add that if you help immigrants learn English, as I do, the shhh gesture and the thumbs up appear frequently. In fact, teachers and students pantomime pretty much anything that is not easily accessible using Google Translate.

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I remember my mother’s story about driving home to Boston with a friend and trying to cross the Connecticut River on September 21, 1938. I wish I remembered the details: where they were coming from, who was driving, whether they got across or the bridge was closed, where they spent the night.

But I will never forget the awe with which people of a previous generation spoke about the Hurricane of ’38, its unexpectedness, its devastation — and little Edrie Dodge crawling on hands and knee across her yard as the winds destroyed the farming and fishing industries of her island.

That hurricane has always held a kind of fascination for me. I was riveted reading A Wind to Shake the World, an excellent book describing places I knew and emphasizing that lack of good communication in 1938. While people in Long Island were fighting the storm, people in Rhode Island had no idea they were next.

Nevertheless, good things came of tragedy, lessons were learned. Forecasting and communication improved exponentially.

The Globe had a retrospective on the 75th anniversary.

Jeremy C. Fox wrote, “On that September afternoon 75 years ago today, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 tore into New York’s Long Island and then Milford, Conn., and raged through Massachusetts and Vermont, leaving a path of flooded towns, flattened homes, and fires caused by downed power lines. …

“Coming before televisions, computers, or weather satellites, the storm’s speed and fury took both meteorologists and residents by surprise, according to forecasters.

“Meteorology professor Lourdes B. Avilés said the storm remains “the one to which all other New England hurricanes are sooner or later compared.”

More here.

Photo: The Boston Globe
”This enormous tree in our backyard came completely uprooted and came crashing down,” said Irene Goodwin Kane, who was 14 when the storm hit. “That was when I realized that this was really bad.”

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