The body as evidence for the nature of language

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Taking its cue from sign languages, this paper proposes that the recruitment and composition of body actions provide evidence for key properties of language and its emergence. Adopting the view that compositionality is the fundamental organizing property of language, we show first that actions of the hands, face, head, and torso in sign languages directly reflect linguistic components, and illuminate certain aspects of compositional organization among them that are relevant for all languages, signed and spoken. Studies of emerging sign languages strengthen the approach by showing that the gradual recruitment of bodily articulators for linguistic functions directly maps the way in which a new language increases in complexity and efficiency over time. While compositional communication is almost exclusively restricted to humans, it is not restricted to language. In the spontaneous, intense emotional displays of athletes, different emotional states are correlated with actions of particular face and body features and feature groupings. These findings indicate a much more ancient communicative compositional capacity, and support a paradigm that includes visible body actions in the quest for core linguistic properties and their origins.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1782
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberOCT
StatePublished - 29 Oct 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
I am especially grateful to Mark Aronoff for incisive and constructive comments, conceptual and editorial. Thanks also for useful feedback from participants at the Third GRAMBY Workshop, University of Haifa, March, 2017. I thank coinvestigators cited throughout the article and all members of the Sign Language Research Lab at the University of Haifa, especially to my close colleague and friend, Irit Meir, who passed away in February of this year, and extend my gratitude to the ISL and ABSL deaf communities. Reviewer comments prompted additions and clarifications in the article, which improved it. Thank you to Shai Davidi for video and other technical assistance, and to Shiri Barnhart for her administrative help. Illustrations were created by Debi Menashe, and 3D athlete images were created by Daniel Landau and his team.This research has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme, grant agreement No. 340140. Principal Investigator: WS. Research reviewed in this article was funded by grants from the U.S. National Institute of Health and the Israel Science Foundation.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Sandler.


  • Compositionality
  • Embodiment
  • Emotion
  • Language emergence
  • Language evolution
  • Sign language

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology (all)


Dive into the research topics of 'The body as evidence for the nature of language'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this