Co-expressivity of Speech and Gesture: Manner of Motion in Spanish, English, and Chinese

Susan Duncan


Languages such as Spanish and English differ in how each lexically packages and syntactically distributes semantic content related to motion event expression (Talmy 1985, 1991). Comparisons of spoken Spanish and English (Slobin 1996, 1998) reveal less expression of manner of motion in Spanish. This leads to the conclusion that ‘thinking for speaking’ in Spanish involves less conceptualization of manner. Here we assess speech-associated thinking about manner on a broader basis by examining not only speech but also the speech-synchronous gestures of Spanish, English, and Chinese speakers for content related to manner of motion. Speakers of all three languages produce manner-expressive gestures similar in type and frequency. Thus, motion event description may in fact involve conceptualization of manner to roughly the same extent in all three languages. Examination of gesture-speech temporal synchrony shows that Spanish manner gestures associate with expression of the ground component of motion in speech.

We consider these findings in relation to two assertions: (1) gesture compensates for content speech lacks, (2) gesture and speech ‘jointly highlight’ shared or congruent semantic content. A compensation interpretation of the Spanish manner gestures raises questions about the role of gesture data in studies of thinking-for-speaking, generally. Further evidence from a follow-up study, in which narrators had no visual exposure to the cartoon, lead us to interpret Spanish speakers’ manner-expressive gestures as an instance of joint highlighting. This interpretation accords with McNeill’s (1992) “rule of semantic synchrony†between speech and gesture, one of the foundations of his ‘growth point’ theory of language production (McNeill 1992; McNeill and Duncan 2000). We discuss some implications of a joint highlighting interpretation for analyses of thinking for speaking and for lexical semantic theory.

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