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You already know that certain gestures mean different things in different languages. It can get confusing. Now there’s a dictionary to help you out, François Caradec’s Dictionary of Gestures.

At the Times Literary Supplement, Thea Lenarduzzi writes, “Caradec’s Dictionary, newly translated into English by Chris Clarke, lists some 850 gestures that ‘successively address each part of the body, from top to bottom, from scalp to toe by way of the upper limbs’, and may be used as well as or instead of speech. They are numbered and ordered in a taxonomy running from 1.01 (‘to nod one’s head vertically up and down, back to front, one or several times: acquiescence’) to 37.12 (‘to kick an adversary in the rear end: aggression’), and accompanied by Philippe Cousin’s illustrations.  The majority of them are what the psychologist David McNeill has called ‘imagistic’, by which parts of the body are arranged to figure an imagined object or action. …

“Adam Kendon calls [this type of non-verbal expression] ‘visible action as utterance’ in his seminal Gesture (2004) – as a sub-category of body language more broadly, which comprises both conscious (that is, learnt) and unconscious (instinctive) movements.

“As social anthropologists have shown, though, the line between the two is sometimes fuzzy – learnt behaviour can become automatic, as a number of Caradec’s entries confirm. For example: grasping one’s throat when choking (which the American Red Cross lists as the universal gesture for choking); gritting one’s teeth (‘Vigor. Resistance.’); or yawning, hand in front of the mouth (‘bored’). We are in the realm of gesture when the movement is a deliberately crafted expression (note the Latin root, gerere, to bear or wear, which suggests that a gesture is ‘put on’, like a costume); otherwise, where the mind has wandered, body language may betray feelings you had not intended to make public. There can also be a question about sincerity. An action executed for show, in the knowledge that it will not translate to anything concrete – a politician, say, fraternizing with factory workers – is ‘merely a gesture’. …

“While certain aspects of body language may indeed overcome language barriers, the same cannot be said for many of the gestures Caradec catalogues. One culture’s gesture for something may resemble another culture’s gesture for something else: an Italian might bring her fingertips together and repeatedly move the wrist backwards and forwards to ask her interlocutor, informally, what, precisely, he thinks he is doing/saying/looking at. Do this in a busy bar in Leeds, though, and it is likely to communicate another matter entirely.” More here.

I’m thinking that fiction writers who use characters from different cultures would be wise to study this book to get the gestures right.

 

 

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