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Moving beyond ‘meaning’: Gorillas combine gestures into sequences for creative display

Tanner, J. E., & Perlman, M. (2016). Moving beyond ‘meaning’: Gorillas combine gestures into sequences for creative display. Language & Communication. Advance online publication. doi:10.1016/j.langcom.2016.10.006.
The great apes produce gestures intentionally and flexibly, and sometimes they combine their gestures into sequences, producing two or more gestures in close succession. We reevaluate previous findings related to ape gesture sequences and present qualitative analysis of videotaped gorilla interaction. We present evidence that gorillas produce at least two different kinds of gesture sequences: some sequences are largely composed of gestures that depict motion in an iconic manner, typically requesting particular action by the partner; others are multimodal and contain gestures – often percussive in nature – that are performed in situations of play or display. Display sequences seem to primarily exhibit the performer’s emotional state and physical fitness but have no immediate functional goal. Analysis reveals that some gorilla play and display sequences can be 1) organized hierarchically into longer bouts and repetitions; 2) innovative and individualized, incorporating objects and environmental features; and 3) highly interactive between partners. It is illuminating to look beyond ‘meaning’ in the conventional linguistic sense and look at the possibility that characteristics of music and dance, as well as those of language, are included in the gesturing of apes.
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