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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 2016, Issue 210


Reading palm-up signs: Neurosemiotic overview of a common hand gesture

David B. Givens
Published Online: 2016-03-15 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/sem-2016-0053


This article explores ways in which the human nervous system encodes and decodes palm-up gestural signs, signals, and cues. Palm-up gestures and their accompanying speech acts evolved from an ancient neurological system that gave rise to both gestural (pectoral) communication and vocal (laryngeal) language (Bass and Chagnaud 2013, Shared developmental and evolutionary origins for neural basis of vocal–acoustic and pectoral–gestural signaling. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109. 10677–10684.). Meanings of palm-up cues are multifaceted and nuanced, and express degrees of emotional helplessness, cognitive uncertainty, prosodic emphasis, and social deference. By themselves or in combination with other hand movements – such as reaching, showing, and pointing – palm-up cues are used to begin speaking turns, ask questions, request favors, and share personal opinions, feelings, and moods. The palm-up hand movement is a possibly universal signal of deference, in Erving Goffman’s (1956, The nature of deference and demeanor. American Anthropologist 58(3). 473–502.) sense of the term, not unlike other deferential body-motion cues such as the anjai mudra, bow, curtsy, genuflection, kowtow, namaste, poussi-poussi, pranama, sampeah, and wai.

Keywords: deference; gesture; neurology; nonverbal; palm-up; uncertainty


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About the article

Published Online: 2016-03-15

Published in Print: 2016-05-01

Citation Information: Semiotica, Volume 2016, Issue 210, Pages 235–250, ISSN (Online) 1613-3692, ISSN (Print) 0037-1998, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/sem-2016-0053.

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