Pointing, Gesture Spaces, and Mental Maps (1)

John B. Haviland
Reed College


  1. Introduction
    1. Pointing Gestures and the Problem of Reference
    2. Directional Precision in Language (and Gesture)
    3. Linguistic Support for Directional Acuity
    4. Morphological Elaboration and Viewpoint
    5. Gestural Accuracy and Linguistic Precision
    6. Puzzles of Gestural Orientation in GY
  2. Gesture, Speech, and Space
    1. Gestural Typologies and Language
      1. Convention
    2. Iconicity and Representationality
    3. Pointing Gestures
      1. Presupposing/Entailing
      2. Relatively Creative Pointing Gestures
      3. Gesture Spaces
    4. Mental Map or Externalized Mnemonic?
      1. Gesture and GY Land Rights
    5. Tzotzil Narrative and Oriented Gestures
      1. Routes and Mental Maps
  3. Transpositions and Gesture Spaces
    1. Transposition: Movement Between Spaces
    2. Lamination of Spaces
    3. Mental Maps and Local Knowledge
  4. Morals
  5. Notes
  6. References

1. Introduction

1.1 Pointing Gestures and the Problem of Reference

In what follows I will compare displays of knowledge about space on two sides of the globe. The particular displays I have in mind are rather prosaic and-- at first blush-- unremarkable: pointing gestures by which someone shows or indicates to an interlocutor a place, or a thing in a place, or perhaps a thing moving from one place to another. In previous work to which I will refer frequently here (Haviland 1993), I have shown that storytellers speaking the Australian language Guugu Yimithirr (hereafter GY) assiduously orient pointing gestures in what we can calculate to be the "correct" directions. In the GY case this means correct compass directions. What GY speakers and their interlocutors must know and "keep in mind" in order to speak, gesture, and interpret in the ways they do is thus made implicitly but startlingly plain. (2)

However, what starts out as a simple exploration of certain linguistic devices and possibly associated referential domains quickly leads outward into ethnography: local knowledge, social history, and biography, all elaborated, refashioned, and expressed in the context of quotidian interaction. The present paper is intended first to extend the ethnographic reach of the GY juxtaposition of words with gesture to another, rather different, speech tradition in southeastern Mexico, and second to elaborate a hypothesis implicit in earlier work: that the spaces in which gestures are performed both reflect and help to constitute, as a kind of interactive mnemonic medium, the representations that people construct and maintain of the spaces they inhabit, know, and talk about.

Consider three exemplary utterances. (3) Each appears to include what we might naturally call a "pointing" gesture, whose referent is evidently recoverable from some aspect of the utterance.

In the first, my compadre P, a Tzotzil-speaking Zinacantec cornfarmer from highland Chiapas, Mexico, is telling me about a roadside cantina he used to visit as a boy. He compares its size to that of the house next to which we are sitting. He extends an index finger out to his left while gazing at the object of comparison in a seemingly unproblematic act of immediate physical deixis: he appears to "point" at the house.

{1} Tzan Tzan
9 yech smuk'ul chk i na chk li'e
(It) was the same size as this house here.
11a. Right hand crosses to SW, and gaze also.
11b. and points to kitchen house, before returning to rest. {size}

Figure 1 Video 1

Next, another Zinacantec compadre, Maryan, describes the route he used to take from the hamlet of Nabenchauk, where we are talking, to the distant resort town of Cancun where he was working to pay off his debts. He has gotten his listener as far as Palenque, a town along the way.

LH dips down
| 1 (to point)
248 nopol xa li palenke
Palenque is close by.

[Figure 2] [Video 2]

Figure 2

Maryan extends his left arm in front of his body, crossing his torso slightly from left to right. His left index finger is outstretched, "pointing" slightly downwards and (as it happens) more or less north, from where he sits in a house patio in Nabenchauk. In the context of the assertion that "Palenque is close" Maryan apparently means his finger to "point" "at" "Palenque."

Shifting to another continent, here is the remarkable storyteller JB, the GY speaking Aborigine from the Cape York Peninsula in northeastern Australia whose pointing gestures I describe in detail in Haviland (1993). Reminiscing about a famous shipwreck, he mentions a man named "Woibo," apparently "pointing" to his left and back over his left shoulder as he does so.

{3}. Boat2: Woibo #1
1:....... 2:...........!............
158 nyulu thawuuy-nda Woibo-onh yarrba nhaathi
3sNOM friend-ERG Woibo-ERG this way see-PAST
Friend Woibo looked that way.
1: R: up in "baby O," points W, then N and up.
2: R: "G" curls back to SE point, with gaze and head nod, ends in E over L shoulder, 2nd nod as hand retracts to lap.

Figure 3 Video 3

Pointing seems-- in these cases if not in general-- a straightforward matter: you stick your finger out in the appropriate direction, perhaps saying some accompanying words, and your interlocutors follow the trajectory of your arrow-like digit to the intended referent. Nothing could be simpler-- and nothing could be farther from the truth, as I shall now proceed to argue.

1.2 Directional Precision in Language (and Gesture)

One serious complication to a simple notion of pointing is the demand in GY for directional or compass accuracy.

People in many different societies, speaking languages ranging from Warlpiri (Laughren 1978) or GY (Haviland 1979b) in Aboriginal Australia, Austronesian languages like Malagasy (Ozanne-Rivierre 1987), to American Indian languages like Wintu (Pitkin 1984), Assiniboine (Farnell 1988), or Tzeltal (Brown and Levinson 1993) are reported to keep careful track of cardinal directions, which are, in turn, recorded in locational expressions in speech. The linguistic details vary, but there are frequently lexical roots for cardinal directions (denotationally similar to English North/South/East/West) which produce forms that help describe things and events as points or vectors in the appropriate divisions of the horizontal plane.

There are, unfortunately, rather few descriptions of usage of the spoken reflexes of these terminological systems (4), still fewer of the visible constituents of linguistic interactions in these languages. My own work on GY narrative provides one example of how gestures too can be precisely oriented in terms of compass directions. Brenda Farnell (1988) has given another for the Assiniboine or Nakota case. (5)

1.3 Linguistic Support for Directional Acuity

A common experience for ethnographers working in Australia is to find that their pointing gestures-- "I was fishing by the creek [pointing somewhere]"-- are either rejected as "wrong" or, perhaps worse, not understood or met with confusion-- "But the creek isn't over there [where you pointed]." (6) (We might think of this as a case of attaching a star to a gesture!) However, the problems usually start with words alone.

In GY, as in many Australian Aboriginal languages, elaborate linguistic devices for specifying location and orientation complement detailed and highly cultivated spatial knowledge and a "sense of direction," further evident in "oriented gestures" during talk about land and landscape. Rather than calculating horizontal angles by reference to a body-centered left/right asymmetry, GY (7) uses four roots--denoting roughly the same directions as the English words north, south, east and west -- insistently and with extraordinary frequency in ordinary talk about all sorts of space, from where you left your teacup and how we sit around a campfire to how the tides are flowing, the direction of winds, and the location of New Guinea. The roots denote quadrants of the horizontal plane, rather than idealized "cardinal points," and the whole scheme is rotated slightly clockwise by the Western compass. Figure 4 diagrams the relationship between the GY roots.

1.4 Morphological Elaboration and Viewpoint

The set of four cardinal direction roots forms a special morphologically hypertrophied subclass of nominals. Whereas ordinary nouns have only one LOC/ALL (Haviland 1979b) and one ABL form, the directional roots produce three different LOC/ALL forms and four different ABL forms. I have described the morphology elsewhere (see Haviland 1993). In brief, the various forms encode differences in perspective. Starting with a reference point or origo, centered by default on the deictic origo of the speech event, to select the correct form often requires calculating a second reference point, which I have called a "focus."

The least marked LOC/ALL form, for example, indicates an unmarked vector originating in the origo. Especially by contrast with the other two LOC/ALL forms, it can appropriately be used to implicate setting out in some direction, a vector originating at the origo. The more highly marked 'arrival form,' by contrast, presupposes a "focus"-- an endpoint or goal in the appropriate quadrant towards which some vector is heading. Finally, the 'remote form' suggests that the directional vector passes through an intermediate focus point. The ABL forms record comparable differences in perspectival presupposition, which I will not explain here. There are also a range of further morphological elaborations, denoting the sides of oriented objects, as well as derived verbal forms.

A GY speaker must calculate several distinct variables when using directionals. Figure 5 shows some of the elements potentially involved in assigning a form.


Figure 5: Directional Elements

First, once a reference point or origo (i), and an appropriate directional quadrant (ii), have been selected, the orientation (iii) towards or from the indicated quadrant governs the selection of LOC/ALL or ABL forms. Furthermore, a presupposed focus point (iv) lying in the appropriate quadrant may also be involved.

GY cardinal terms depend on the same sort of contextual fixing, and the same default choices as other indexicals (for instance, ordinary demonstratives) to provide the reference points and perspectives demanded by their semantics. The foremost anchor is the origo given by the speech situation, which is in turn susceptible to characteristic transpositions (see Buhler 1982, Hanks 1990, Haviland 1991a)-- it can, that is, be shifted to, e.g., narrated reference points.

Inflected forms of theses four roots appear with quite extraordinary frequency in ordinary talk, especially in the speech of older GY speakers. In a corpus of transcribed conversation, (8) nearly one word in fifty is a cardinal direction term. Daily speech is peppered with compass terms, and it is simply impossible to speak normally without keeping track of directions and incorporating them into one's utterances.

1.5 Gestural Accuracy and Linguistic Precision

In Haviland (1993) I compared two narrative performances, separated by several years, in which the Hopevale storyteller JB recounts how he and an older companion once had to swim three and a half miles to shore through shark infested waters after their Mission boat capsized. I showed that the careful spoken discrimination of cardinal directions in GY was matched in these narratives by a parallel directional precision in gesture. Here are a few background details, repeated from that earlier study. The narratives were filmed, the first in 1980 and the second a couple of years later by Stephen Levinson-- who I think had not quite believed what I had been claiming about the first film. In 1980, as part of a socio-historical study of the former mission community, I had filmed JB and his interlocutors as they reminisced about early days at the Hopevale Aboriginal Community. Map 1 shows the position of the interlocutors on a stylized diagram of this part of modern Hopevale. JB is facing west (guwa). North is thus to his right, and south to his left.

Map 1

As he talks about swimming from a capsized boat to the beach, JB gestures slightly to his left-- southwest, or jibaarr. But the point to which he was swimming actually lies well north (and slightly east) of where they are sitting at modern Hopevale as JB talks. These relative positions can be seen on Map 2.

(Double Size)

Map 2

Instead of relating to the immediate moment and place of speech JB's "precisely oriented" gestures must frequently be transposed to a discursively established or narrated origo. When he gestures south as he describes their swim to safety, he is referring to (that is, "gesturing at") a point south, not from where he sits at modern Hopevale as he tells the story, but south from the boat he is describing.

Levinson asked JB to tell the same shipwreck story for his 1982 film. The storyteller and his interlocutor RH were seated side by side, facing north. See Map 3.

Map 3

Now to talk about swimming south to the beach JB's gestures, according to the same principles, must point behind him, over his shoulder.

My main interest in this paper is how speakers "point at" referents. However, a particularly dramatic case of "oriented" gestures in JB's narratives involves no explicit pointing. It is an example of what Sotaro Kita has dubbed "motion direction blends"-- gestures that portray the manner (9) of a motion, but combine it with a specific orientation or direction.

JB describes how the boat he and his companion were sailing was caught in rough seas and strong winds and simply flipped over in the water, spilling its cargo and leaving the two men to swim three miles to shore through shark-infested waters. Here is what he says in 1980:

{4} Boat 2
21 j; dagu gulnguy nhayun .. miidaarr-in yarrba gurra-y
thing boat that+ABS lift-PAST this=way say-PAST
Well, the boat was lifted up; it went like this.

Figure 6: "The boat was lifted this way."

As he pronounces the word yarrba, 'this way,' JB brings both hands up from his lap, out in front of his face, and down again in a kind of rolling motion. Since he is facing west, this motion appears to depict the boat flipping over from east to west. (See Figure 6.) JB's hands finish up extended in front of him (to the west). One might argue that it is only natural to use the interactional space given by the front of one's body to portray in gesture the motion of the boat. How else could JB have done so?

In the second telling, two years later, JB again uses an iconic gesture to illustrate how the boat flipped over.

17 j; miidaarr-in yarrba th-
lift-PAST this=way
It lifted it up like that--
18 thambarr-in
--and threw it.

Figure 7 Video 5

But this time he uses his body quite differently. He lifts his left arm, while dropping his right. Then he lifts the right arm with an outward circling movement, at the same time circling down and in with the left arm. (See figure 7.) Once again he portrays the boat as flipping from east (now at JB's right) to west (his left)-- exactly the effect the prevailing storm winds of the season, which blow strongly from the (south)east, must have produced.

1.6 Puzzles of Gestural Orientation in GY

Tracking the compass directions of JB's gestures as he tells his story leaves no doubt that, just as he keeps himself "correctly" oriented in words, so does he point in the "correct" directions. In Haviland (1993) I argue in detail for this gestural precision, and I describe some of the relevant semiotic complexities in JB's gestures. Here I allow myself merely to assert without further demonstration that there is a striking correspondence between "cardinal directions" as calculated from JB's speech, the directions that can be extracted from reconstructing the actual geography, and his gestures.

Several points and obvious puzzles immediately arise:

  1. To say that GY gestures are "correctly" oriented by the local compass, is to make a systematic rather than merely a statistical claim about the semiotic properties of a class of gestures. GY speakers do not, that is, simply tend to gesture this way if they happen to think about orientation and direction as they speak. Keeping oneself oriented by the cardinal direction system is instead what we might term a communicative convention, a rule of proper GY with (among others) a gestural expression, a "default setting" for gestural morphology. When, on this view, a gesture fails to be "correctly" oriented, we must seek a principled rather than merely a statistical explanation.
  2. If cardinal directions can be recovered from discourse, they must figure in some sort of "mental representations" of the spatial configurations that are played out in word and gesture. Moreover, the narrative transpositions to which I turn at the end of the essay suggest that these representations-- these putative "mental maps" of what "interlocutors know" about spatial arrangements-- must be dynamic and shiftable. How are such transpositions managed and successfully communicated (if they are)? (10)
  3. In some Australian languages there is considerable linguistic support for directional precision, as evidenced by the virtually obligatory and ubiquitous use of morphologically hypertrophied cardinal direction terms in all kinds of GY talk. Thus the orderly gestural practices I have described for JB are mutually reinforced by the insistent use of spoken compass terms. This linguistic situation is in marked contrast to that of many other languages, among them Zinacantec Tzotzil. Do oriented gestures occur within such a different kind of linguistic tradition?

I will touch on all these issues in what follows.