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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

Is body language universal?

Our bodies constantly communicate in various ways. One form of bodily communication is what we traditionally consider as “body-language”. In the context of social interactions, our body expresses attitudes and emotions influenced by the dynamics of the interaction, interpersonal relations and personality (see also answer to the question "What is body language?"). These bodily messages are often considered to be transmitted unwittingly. Because of this, it would be difficult to teach a universal shorthand suitable for expressing the kind of things considered to be body language; however, at least within one culture, there seems to be a great deal of commonality in how individuals express attitudes and emotions through their body.


Another form of bodily communication is the use of co-speech gesture. Co-speech gestures are movements of the hands, arms, and occasionally other body parts that interlocutors produce while talking. Importantly, co-speech gestures express meaning that is closely tied to the meaning communicated by the speech that they accompany, thus contrasting crucially with the kind of signals that constitute ‘body language’. Because speech and gesture are so tightly intertwined, co-speech gestures are only very rarely fully interpretable in the absence of speech. As such, co-speech gestures do not help communication much if interlocutors do not speak the same language. Further, co-speech gestures are shaped by the culture in which they are embedded (and therefore differ between cultures, at least to some extent), and there is no standard of form that applies to these gestures even within one culture; they are each person’s idiosyncratic creation at the moment of speaking (although there is overlap in how different people use gesture to represent meaning, there are also substantial differences). As such, co-speech gestures are the opposite of a universal nonverbal ‘code’ that could be used when interlocutors do not share a spoken language.

What people often tend to resort to when trying to communicate without a shared language are pantomimic gestures, or pantomimes. These gestures are highly iconic in nature (like some iconic co-speech gestures are), meaning that they map onto structures in the world around us. Even when produced while speaking, these gestures are designed to be understandable in the absence of speech. Without a shared spoken language, they are therefore more informative than co-speech gestures. As long as we share knowledge about the world around us - for instance about actions, objects, and their spatial relations - these gestures tend to be communicative, even if we don’t share the same language.

An important distinction has to be made between these pantomimic gestures that can communicate information in the absence of speech and sign languages. In contrast to pantomimes, sign languages of deaf communities are fully-fledged languages consisting of conventionalised meanings of individual manual forms and movements which equate to the components that constitute spoken language. There is not one universal sign language: different communities have different sign languages (Dutch, German, British, French or Turkish sign languages being a small number of examples).  

 by Judith Holler & David Peeters

Further reading:

Kendon, A. (2004). Gesture: Visible action as utterance. Cambridge University Press.(link)

McNeill, D. (1992). Hand and mind: What gestures reveal about thought. Chicago University press. (link book review)

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.


Questions and Answers

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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos