By Susie Allen
Photo by Robert Kozloff

Everybody thinks signers gesture, but it’s just not clear where sign stops and gesture begins. This may give us a way to address that question.”
—Susan Goldin-Meadow
The Bearsdley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and Comparative Human Development

Look around any coffee shop, and you’ll see how much talking our hands do for us.

Colleagues underscore their conversational points with a wave of the hand or a slap of the forehead, while friends swapping stories from the weekend subtly mime crucial moments in the narrative (“so I’m digging through my purse looking for my keys…”). Customers at the pastry case point at items to indicate their orders.

These everyday gestures are so spontaneous and ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget how essential they are to our communication and how much they reveal about us.

This year, linguists Diane Brentari and Anastasia Giannakidou and psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow created the new Center for Gesture, Sign, and Language with the hope of deepening our understanding of the relationship between word, hand, and mind.

The founders of the Center want to spur more research into gesture, formal sign language and the deep linguistic, psychological, and cultural questions these forms of communication raise. The team believes that collaborative research into gesture and sign—long-standing areas of strength at the University—can unlock new knowledge about everything from deaf culture to the evolution of language to questions about the divide between mind and body.

Their ambitious efforts are among the 18 inaugural projects funded by the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society. The Collegium, founded in June 2012, supports research into complex questions in the humanities and humanistic social sciences that can be tackled through cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Building on a long tradition of research         

UChicago has a long tradition of studying both gesture and more formalized sign languages, according to Goldin-Meadow, the Bearsdley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and Comparative Human Development.

UChicago scholars John Goldsmith and David McNeill contributed pioneering work in the study of sign language and gesture.

Goldsmith’s early work helped scholars understand that all languages might have similar phonological architecture—signed and spoken languages alike. McNeill’s work showed that speech and gesture are both integral to communication and share a common mental origin.

Even prior to Brentari’s arrival, Giannakidou and Goldin-Meadow had already begun to collaborate on linguistic studies of homesign, informal sign systems developed in families where deaf children aren’t exposed to codified sign languages. Because children develop homesigns spontaneously and independently, many scholars think homesign systems provide a good model for studying language emergence and evolution.

Giannakidou and Goldin-Meadow found that young homesigners organically develop predictable ways of expressing questions and negation, suggesting that structures like questions and negation might be fundamental aspects of all language.

Their discoveries created “an ongoing discussion in the field that has been very novel and quite exciting,” says Giannakidou, professor in Linguistics and the College.

For Giannakidou, whose background is in semantics, the study of meaning, the most exciting part of the collaboration was “uncovering the ‘ingredients’ of language that you can find in the absence of conventional linguistic input.”

Or as fellow sign language linguistics researcher Jason Riggle has described it, studying sign languages “allows us to pull apart what is an accidental property of having a mouth, and what is a deep property of language.”

Brentari’s arrival spurred the creation of the new Center for Gesture, Sign, and Language. “We realized that it was a great opportunity for the kinds of research that had been going on at Chicago for a very long time to crystallize into an identifiable entity,” says Brentari, professor in Linguistics. Her work has uncovered some of the central properties of sign languages, which she has used to test claims about the universal features of language, more generally, as well as to study the specific properties of many different and unrelated sign languages.

New frontiers in gesture research

Now, with support from the Neubauer Collegium, Brentari, Giannakidou, and Goldin-Meadow are preparing to venture into new territory in gesture and sign research.

As part of the Center for Gesture, Sign, and Language’s Collegium-supported project, “The Body’s Role in Thinking, Performing, and Referencing,” they plan to probe native signers’ use of gesture.

Studies have shown that signers use gesture when they communicate, just as non-signers do while they speak. But because both gesture and sign language are expressed with the hands, it is more difficult to researchers to tease apart the differences between these two kinds of communication.

One of the Center’s first major projects will build on Sian Beilock’s studies of expert and novice golfers’ swings. Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues at the Center will use motion-capture technology to discover whether expert and novice golfers have distinct motion “signatures” when they talk and gesture about their swings.

From there, the researchers plan to find native signers of American Sign Languages who are both expert and novice golfers, and determine whether similar gestural patterns emerge when they sign about their golf swings.

“Everybody thinks signers gesture, but it’s just not clear where sign stops and gesture begins,” Goldin-Meadow explains. “This may give us a way to address that question.”

They will continue to explore that question with the help of Peter Cook, a well-known deaf storyteller, who performed at the Center’s inaugural conference in March. The team will study Cook’s delivery of his stories under different conditions—in performance and in a more neutral, conversational setting—with the hypothesis that performance might heighten the gestural aspects of his signing.

The researchers also hope to enlist colleagues in the humanities to study the literary and theatrical aspects of deaf storytelling. “I’m excited to open up the forum to new ideas, and to enlarge the forum and talk to people I don’t usually talk to,” Goldin-Meadow says.

Brentari has high hopes that such cross-disciplinary collaboration will allow the Center for Gesture, Sign, and Language to thrive. “We want to build a foundation here at Chicago for this kind of knowledge about sign language and gesture that will persist and go on for decades,” she says.