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Gesture, verb aspect, and the nature of iconic imagery in natural discourse

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Linguistic analyses of Mandarin Chinese and English have detailed the differences between the two languages in terms of the devices each makes available for expressing distinctions in the temporal contouring of events — verb aspect and Aktionsart. In this study, adult native speakers of each language were shown a cartoon, a movie, or a series of short action sequences and then videotaped talking about what they had seen. Comparisons revealed systematic within-language covariation of choice of aspect and/or Aktionsart in speech with features of co-occurring iconic gestures. In both languages, the gestures that speakers produced in imperfective aspect-marked speech contexts were more likely to take longer to produce and were more complex than those in perfective aspect speech contexts. Further, imperfective-progressive aspect-marked spoken utterances regularly accompanied iconic gestures in which the speaker’s hands engaged in some kind of temporally-extended, repeating, or ‘agitated’ movements. Gestures sometimes incorporated this type of motion even when there was nothing corresponding to it in the visual stimulus; for example, when speakers described events of stasis. These facts suggest that such gestural agitation may derive from an abstract level of representation, perhaps linked to aspectual view itself. No significant between-language differences in aspect- or Aktionsart-related gesturing were observed.

We conclude that gestural representations of witnessed events, when performed in conjunction with speech, are not simply derived from visual images, stored as perceived in the stimulus, and transposed as faithfully as possible to the hands and body of the speaker (cf. Hadar & Butterworth, 1997). Rather, such gestures are part of a linguistic-conceptual representation (McNeill & Duncan, 2000) in which verb aspect has a role. We further conclude that the noted differences between the systems for marking aspectual distinctions in spoken Mandarin and English are at a level of patterning that has little or no influence on speech-co-occurring imagistic thinking.
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Keywords: Aktionsart; Mandarin Chinese; aspect; gesture; iconicity; imagery in language

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Chicago

Publication date: 01 January 2002

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