Symbiotic symbolization by hand and mouth in sign language

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Current conceptions of human language include a gestural component in the communicative event. However, determining how the linguistic and gestural signals are distinguished, how each is structured, and how they interact still poses a challenge for the construction of a comprehensive model of language. This study attempts to advance our understanding of these issues with evidence from sign language. The study adopts McNeill's criteria for distinguishing gestures from the linguistically organized signal, and provides a brief description of the linguistic organization of sign languages. Focusing on the subcategory of iconic gestures, the paper shows that signers create iconic gestures with the mouth, an articulator that acts symbiotically with the hands to complement the linguistic description of objects and events. A new distinction between the mimetic replica and the iconic symbol accounts for the nature and distribution of iconic mouth gestures and distinguishes them from mimetic uses of the mouth. Symbiotic symbolization by hand and mouth is a salient feature of human language, regardless of whether the primary linguistic modality is oral or manual. Speakers gesture with their hands, and signers gesture with their mouths.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)241-275
Number of pages35
Issue number174
StatePublished - 2009

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
* I am grateful to Peter MacNeilage, Asher Koriat, and Satoro Kita for comments on earlier stages of this work, and to Irit Meir for helpful comments on this paper. Thanks to Michael Tomasello for discussion of nonhuman primate gestures. I also wish to thank audiences at the International Conference on Gesture Studies 2007 and at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics for thought provoking comments and dis-cussion of this study. This research was supported in part by grants from the Israel Science Foundation, the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation, and the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health.

Funding Information:
10. Thanks very much to Diane Brentari for generously sharing her Tweety data (collected with the support of NSF grant BCS 0112391).


  • Gesture
  • Hand and mouth
  • Iconic
  • Mouth gesture
  • Sign language
  • Symbolization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Literature and Literary Theory
  • Linguistics and Language


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