Non-referential gestures in adult and child speech: Are they prosodic?

Author(s): Stefanie Shattuck-Hufnagel, Ada Ren, Mili Mathew, Ivan Yuen and Katherine Demuth


The manual gestures that accompany speaking have been analysed in terms of their form, their meaning, their role in the communicative act, and their timing with respect to the speech they accompany. Several schemes for categorizing these co-speech movements have been proposed, among them McNeill's (1992) iconic, metaphoric, deictic and beat gestures, and Kendon's (1994) distinction between substantive and pragmatic gestures, the latter including both illocutionary and discourse structure markers. Among McNeill's gesture categories, beats are described as less (or non-)referential: simple flicks of the hand or finger, often performed repetitively, and lacking the complex phasing structure of other gesture types. This complex phasing can include (along with the core stroke phase) optional phases such as preparation, pre- or post-stroke hold and recovery (Kendon 1980). Analysis of academic-style adult speech has revealed a set of gestures which are timed to occur with phrase-level prosodic accents (Loehr 2004, 2012, Yasinnik et al. 2004), appear to be non-referential, like beats, yet have complex phasal structure, like referential gestures. We present evidence for this type of non-referential yet complexly structured co-speech gesture in adults, and results showing that children as young as 6 have such gestures in their repertoire, although less skillfully produced.