Language includes gestures

We are attending a dance or fitness class. The instructor first shows us the wrong and then the right steps to highlight the difference. Interaction occurs as we interpret the instructor’s speech and movements. While words and clauses are examples of traditional linguistic units, interaction may also encompass gestures.

According to Ritva Laury, Professor of Finnish at the University of Helsinki, the units of speech do not necessarily correspond to centuries of linguists’ assumptions.

Because traditional linguistic concepts cannot be straightforwardly applied to spoken language, researchers are having to review their understanding of the elements that make up normal conversation.

Written language can be divided into sentences, because it is structured by rules and punctuation. Clauses are identifiable by finite verbs. However, discerning where a spoken sentence ends is more difficult. Clause-like speech structures may not even include a verb. Moreover, gestures – which are not present in written language – also constitute a significant element of interaction.

“…mut se että mitä siellä tekis kaiket päivät.”

Ritva Laury, doctoral student Karita Suomalainen from the University of Turku and postdoctoral researcher Anna Vatanen from the University of Helsinki have joined forces to study the use of the Finnish expression se että, where speech and gestures are combined to generate meaning.

“The expression se että forms a clear unit and is often pronounced as a single word, seettä,” says Ritva Laury.

The se että structure has a clear meaning in conversation: it is used to introduce a subject matter that is important to the speaker, such as a conflicting opinion after agreement. When the perspective becomes critical, the speaker may also use gestures or shift his or her position, as if to highlight the change.

– Lifting one’s hand was the most commonly used gesture in conjunction with se että. It is an iconic gesture that echoes a meaning.

We can delve even deeper into the connection of speech and gestures:

– To be precise, even spoken language constitutes gesturing, because we gesture with our mouth and tongue when we speak, says Laury.

The wide range of our gestures also includes gaze direction, voice volume and tone, pauses, pitch variation, and the context of each gesture. All these elements are significant in conversation. The listener uses them to read the speaker. Even the slightest movement of the lips may add tone to a discussion.

– We are able to hear a smile without actually having to see it, says Laury.

Research expands conceptions of language

Laury, Suomalainen and Vatanen's study is part of the Question of Units in Language and Interaction (Kielen ja vuorovaikutuksen yksiköt) project funded by the Academy of Finland and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. The project includes both Finnish and Japanese researchers and partners from universities around the world. The researchers are interested in, for example, gestures (e.g., Leelo Keevallik’s study of interaction during a dance class), Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, and two small minority languages, Nuuchahnulth and Miyako.

Our conceptions of language and related structures are often based on languages we know well, i.e., usually dominant European languages. Ritva Laury would like to encourage people to examine a wider range of languages.

– The diversity of languages may surprise many. Some languages have longer words than Finnish, and some have no morphology at all. The Nuuchahnulth language, spoken on the West Coast of the United States, does not really distinguish between verbs and nouns, and the meaning of a single Nuuchahnulth word may correspond to a full clause.

Both Nuuchahnulth and Miyako, which is spoken on Okinawa Island in Japan, are endangered languages. They are primarily spoken by the elderly. A grammar and lexicon of Miyako are being compiled in a hurry, and Nuuchahnulth is also being revived.

The possibility to perform analysis and reasoning across language boundaries was what originally appealed to Ritva Laury about linguistics. Participation in the project has also offered researchers the opportunity to highlight the Finnish language in an international context. Laury stresses the importance of the academic community.

– I find it terrific that researchers from different places are able and allowed to cooperate – it is important that they do. Finnish language researchers have established a foothold in the international community.

As the two years of funding granted to the Question of Units in Language and Interaction project are drawing to an end, the Helsinki, Turku and Tokyo research groups are in the process of actively seeking additional funding.