A micro-analytic investigation of how iconic gestures and speech represent core semantic features in talk

Judith Holler, Geoffrey Beattie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (journal)peer-review

42 Citations (Scopus)


This study investigates the communicational role that iconic hand gestures (see McNeill 1985) play in everyday talk. When we talk about iconic gestures, we are referring to very special sorts of hand movements, which most people produce unconsciously, and which seem to convey meaning associated with the content of spontaneous speech. Iconic gestures must be distinguished from all other types of hand movements, like beats (or batonics, see Efron 1941, Ekman and Friesen 1969), which are quick, simple movements of the hand, which tend to follow the prosodic patterns of speech. Beats serve the purpose of stressing those parts of speech that a speaker considers to be important; thus beats differ from iconic gestures by being related to the pragmatic rather than the semantic content of speech. Deictics,on the other hand, are pointing gestures referring to either actually present or imagined objects or locations. In deictics, the shape of the hand does not, unlike with iconic gestures, convey semantic information itself, but together with the accompanying speech it becomes clear how a speaker is referring to his or her imagined or real surrounding. A fourth class of gestures, emblems, are gestures readily understandable in the absence of speech, as they are gestural signs with a strict, but culturally defined, verbal translation. For instance, the very common sign for ‘excellence’ in many Western European countries is represented by the index finger and the thumb forming a circular shape while the hand is swung away from the mouth accompanied by a kiss. Last of all, there are sign languages, which are different from iconic gestures, as they represent a whole gestural code, in which gestures substitute for speech and in which they are governed by conventional rules concerning meaning and grammar. In this paper, we are concerned solely with iconic gestures and their possible communicational significance in everyday conversation. Semiotica 142–1/4 (2002), 31–69 0037–1998/02/0142–0031
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-69
Number of pages39
Publication statusPublished - 2002


  • Psychology


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