The Loh Down On Science

Man Bites Dog

The universality of hand gestures.

Travelling abroad? Let your fingers do the talking!

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with The Loh Down on Science

And the poetry of motion. Hand motion, that is.

Different spoken languages often have different sentence constructions. Some, like English and Spanish, use subject-verb-object-Dog Bites Man. Others --say, Turkish--use subject-object-verb--Dog Man Bites.

Psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues at University of Chicago wondered whether hand gestures followed the same patterns.

They asked forty volunteers to describe an event using just their hands. The subjects spoke one of four languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, or Turkish. And. . .

Surprise! No matter what their native tongue, volunteers gestured in the same order--Subject, Object, Verb.

When asked to tell the same tale with words, speakers reverted back to their own grammar.

The study suggests that humans have a natural order for expressing nonverbal ideas. Language does NOT shape how we think.

In fact, newly emerging sign languages tend to revert to subject-object-verb order--even when their speakers use a different one.

Interestingly, test subjects confused by the psychologists ALL ended up using the finger! In their own unique cultural manners, of course.


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