Amangama amathathu ‘The three letters’: The emergence of a quotable gesture (emblem)
This paper describes the emergence of a quotable gesture for HIV/AIDS in South Africa. The gesture has its origin in the Zulu phrase amangama amathathu ‘the three letters’, an expression South Africans began to use from the mid-1990s to refer to the acronym HIV. This
phrase generated a plethora of words and phrases for HIV using the concept of ‘three’. With these spoken references, speakers would sometimes use a manual expression for ‘three’ by showing three extended fingers. With repeated use, the manual expression by itself came
to be established as a quotable gesture for HIV. The gesture became independent of speech as a noticeable increase in the number of deaths from HIV occurred. From observations of use in every day situations, speakers use the gesture primarily to mitigate the crude or indelicate effect of directly
saying a person has HIV in speech. Use of the gesture also demonstrates sensitivity and empathy on the part of the speaker and lessens the speaker’s commitment to, and consequently their responsibility for suggesting a person has the disease. Whether for secret communication or openly
displayed for dramatic effect, speakers use this gesture in conjunction with speech in nuanced ways to avoid breaking the spoken taboo and flouting social norms. The emergence of this gesture suggests that speech taboos are a key reason for gestures becoming quotable; hence the large number
of quotable gestures that represent socially awkward and potentially offensive words and speech acts. The adaptation of a counting gesture demonstrates that one source for new quotable gestures may be the re-semanticization of an existing gesture through spoken semantic links. In the case
of the HIV gesture, spoken language played a key role in disseminating the metonym of ‘three’ and establishing a common ground for a quotable gesture to emerge across many communities in South Africa.