Pointing left in Ghana: How a taboo on the use of the left hand influences gestural practice

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In Ghana, many peolple consider pointing by the left hand to be a taboo. We investigated consequences of this taboo on the Ghanaian gestural practice by observing gestures produced during naturalistic situations of giving route directions. First, there is a politeness convention to place the left hand on the lower back, as if to hide it from the interlocutor. Second, as a consequence of left-hand suppression, right-handed pointing may involve an anatomically staining position when indicating a leftward direction across the body. Third, pointing is sometimes performed with both hands together, which does not violate the taboo. Despite the taboo, left-handed pointing is not suppressed fully. Left-handed pointing gestures occur in association with the verbalization of the concept LEFT, suggesting the embodied nature of the concept. In addition, it is noteworthy that there is a class of left-handed gestures, which are so reduced in form that Ghanaians do not consider them as pointing for the purpose of the taboo.

Keywords: Ghana; gesture taboo; left hand; pointing

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1075/gest.1.1.06kit

Affiliations: 1: Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen 2: Leiden University

Publication date: June 1, 2001

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