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Journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies / Revue de l'Association Internationale de Sémiotique

Editor-in-Chief: Danesi, Marcel

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Volume 2014, Issue 202


Do speakers really unconsciously and imagistically gesture about what is important when they are telling a story?

Geoffrey Beattie / Kate A. Webster / Jamie A. D. Ross
Published Online: 2014-10-01 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/sem-2014-0033


This study explores the fundamental nature of the iconic gestures that speakers produce alongside speech in story-telling by analyzing whether these gestures are sensitive to the judged importance of individual elements in a story. The study focused on two individual semantic features, namely “size” and “relative position” and identified each and every instance of these in 180 narrations and analyzed whether these were encoded in speech, in gesture, or in speech and gesture. ‘Importance’ was assessed by asking ten judges (per story) to identify the five most important instances of “size” and the five most important instances of “relative position” and this was used, employing various statistical algorithms, to calibrate the significance of each element of the story. The study found that overall gestures were significantly more likely to encode high importance information than medium or low importance information. This was also found with the semantic feature “size” considered on its own but there was a reversal of this trend when “relative position” information was considered separately. An explanation is offered for this reversal in terms of the way that gestures encode position information in the first place.

Keywords: iconic gesture; semantic feature; gestural encoding; size; relative position; scale of importance

About the article

Geoffrey Beattie

Geoffrey Beattie is Professor at Edge Hill University and a Masters Supervisor at the University of Cambridge 〈beattieg@edgehill.ac.uk〉. His research interests include the relationship between gesture and speech, implicit attitudes towards the environment and the role of implicit processes connected to ethnicity in everyday social life. His publications include “Possible unconscious bias in recruitment and the need to promote equality” (with P. Johnson, 2011); “Making an action film. Do films such as Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth really make any difference to how we think and feel about climate change?” (2011); and Our racist heart? An exploration of unconscious prejudice in everyday life (2013).

Kate A. Webster

Kate Webster was research assistant at the University of Manchester.

Jamie A. D. Ross

Jamie Ross was research assistant at the University of Manchester. Jamie is currently a research assistant at University College London.

Published Online: 2014-10-01

Published in Print: 2014-10-01

Citation Information: Semiotica, Volume 2014, Issue 202, Pages 41–79, ISSN (Online) 1613-3692, ISSN (Print) 0037-1998, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/sem-2014-0033.

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©2014 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin/Munich/Boston.Get Permission

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