Snap me one!

Languages are often boxed in in our thinking, with items belonging to one language, and with language being tacitly understood as spoken and written forms of expression only. Gesture and sign language research questions both these premises, by looking at how manual and bodily gestures are used in communication. Research on gesture, probably because it is also interested in the question of how and to what extent speech and gestures are aligned, has looked at the speech of bi- and multilinguals, taking language out of its box so to speak. What speakers do when they speak and gesture in languages that have different expressive possibilities provides insight into how integrated or separated these languages are for them.

In multilingual West Africa it makes a lot of sense to look at how people use their linguistic resources to communicate regardless of their association with one language, and how these resources can be fluid and changeable vs. associated with more conventionalised registers that can be named. Gestures are a prime example of communicative devices that can be independent of particular languages but are often shared in particular cultural spaces. An example of such a gesture, which will be familiar to many West African readers of this blog, is the “snap and point” gesture used for spatial recall and other functions described in this blog post by Chelsea Krajcik. Check out the video to see these gestures being produced.

Another example of culturally shared conventions for gesture has been documented by James Essegbey and Sotaro Kita. They report on a taboo respected all across Ghana that forbids pointing with the left hand. This practice has led to particular constraints that are widely respected, irrespective of spoken language. When people want to point to the left, they often need to contort their body or use both hands in gesturing, as this is not seen as offensive.

Examples of using the right hand or both hand when pointing left (from Kita & Essegbey 2001: 84)

Do you have examples of regionally distributed gestures? Leave a comment below the line if you do, it would be great to discover more of them together!

Read more on the left hand pointing taboo in Ghana here:

Kita, Sotaro & James Essegbey. 2001. Pointing left in Ghana. How a taboo on the use of the left hand influences gestural practice. Gesture 1:1: 73-95

Show me how you count and I tell you where you’re from

Because we’re so focussed on languages, we linguists tend to describe linguistic phenomena as if they belong to a single language (“In Urban Wolof…”, “In Gujaher…”). We know of course that features can be shared by languages – and this also means that languages are better understood as imaginary boxes drawn around a number of linguistic features, with some features possibly ending up in more than one box.

Some previous posts in this series have already shown how particular concepts can be shared widely among different languages, be they words with particular meanings, or entire counting systems. Today, I want to look at counting again, but not at the speech side of counting, as I have done when writing about counting money and describing how many speakers of Atlantic languages take the body as the semantic basis for number words, but on the gestures that accompany counting.

Every child knows that when counting on your fingers, you start with the thumb, right? Well, not so in Casamance. There, every child knows that when counting on your fingers, your pinkie finger comes first. You can watch speakers of Baïnounk Guñaamolo count in this video by Sokhna Bao Diop.

The differences in finger counting are a helpful reminder that “speaking a language” is an incomplete way of describing what it means to communicate successfully in a culturally appropriate way. Gestures and other features such as facial expression, posture, position towards interlocutors and many more are part and parcel of language, and of the manifold intricate things language users know and do, often without paying attention to them at all…

Languaging in speech and signs

My third post on African languages in the UNESCO year of indigenous languages looks at a particular type of multilingualism that is extremely rare in the West. All over Africa (and in other areas of the world where Deaf people do not receive specialized education separate from hearing learners), hearing and Deaf people form speech communities where hearing and non-hearing members share sign languages. These sign languages are often specific to particular locations and not related to the widely distributed national and international sign languages such as American Sign Language (ASL). In contrast to most Western settings, where education is focussed on acquiring spoken and written language, and where communication in sign languages is mainly limited to Deaf people and their families, Deaf people in these settings are fully integrated into their local communities. Their hearing members are often multilingual in several spoken languages but also master and pass on the sign language. The extent to which sign languages in these settings are conventionalized and in which communicative contexts they are used depends on the size and time-depth of the community. You can read an account of village sign communities in rural Mali here:

Nyst, Victoria, Sylla, Kara & Magassouba, Moustapha (2012) Deaf signers in Douentza, a rural area in Mali In: Zeshan, Ulrike and Connie de Vos eds. 2012. Sign languages in village communities: Anthropological and linguistic insights. Sign Language Typology Series 4. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 

If you want to have a look at how sign language is shared with hearers in a setting where it is not highly conventionalized (because there is only a single Deaf person), have a look at this blogpost and video situated in the village Djibonker in Senegal by Mia Weidl and Andrés Carvajal.