This may be a little weird, but...
How can we describe words or phrases that have a specific accompanying movement? What sort of topics do they cover? To what degree has research been done on this? Are there examples in English?

I'm thinking of situations in which the meaning of the utterance would be fundamentally changed without the motion. Obviously, this would apply only to spoken (not signed) languages.

  • 1
    Hello Adele, your question is basically asking for any example of such expressions, making this eligible to be closed as not constructive. Can you try narrowing it down? As long as you get to ask for a specific answer, any change you wish to apply is OK.
    – Alenanno
    Mar 8 '12 at 19:40
  • I will do my best.
    – Adele C
    Mar 8 '12 at 22:16


Some languages have whole systems of them. I've been told by a field worker in Guatemala that Ixil has a whole gestural paradigm of numeral classifiers -- hand gestures that indicate whether you're counting animals, people, things of different kinds, undifferentiated "stuff", etc -- gestures that accompany the numeric counters, in speech, as they're used.

On the other hand, some languages don't even have numbers.

English does have at least one word, pronounced /ye/, usually spelled "yea" or "yay" when it has to be spelled, that functions only as a gestural quantifier, as in

  • The stick is about /ye/ long.

where the speaker's hand motions and coordinated listeners' eye motions are expected to accompany stressed /e/. This is a gestural version of deixis.

In fact, this is part of Chuck Fillmore's example of a deictically unanchored sentence

  • Meet me here tomorrow at the same time, with a stick about yea long.

This is a grammatical sentence, but if you found it on a note in a bottle in the middle of the Pacific Ocean it would be a little hard to understand properly.

(Parenthetically, Deixis is the general category for words, grammar, idioms, and other linguistic phenomena that depend on the particular spatial (here, this), temporal (now, soon), social or personal (yours, mine) parameters of one particular speech act.)

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    I don't know about Ixil but as for ye, I'm not really convinced. By the same token, you'd probably have to say this has to be accompanied by a gesture in a phrase about this long. Isn't it the same ye as in ye olde pub? I'd say it's just a specific use, not a general feature of the word.
    – kamil-s
    Mar 8 '12 at 20:14
  • It's not pronounced the same. Ye is a misspelling of the word the, it's consciously archaic, like thou, and it's pronounced /yi/, not /ye/. Also, you asked for obligatory associations of lexical items with movements, and deictic elements may be but aren't required to be associated with gestures, or any other part of the communicational spectrum, like intonation, cocked eyebrows, ironic stress, or lip pursing.
    – jlawler
    Mar 8 '12 at 20:58
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    i.e., "yea" doesn't mean "this" unless there is also a gesture. Mar 8 '12 at 21:13
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    Well, it wouldn't be in a dictionary, would it? It's not a written word.
    – jlawler
    Mar 9 '12 at 0:21
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    @Actually wiktionary has it, and mentions the gesture. Mar 9 '12 at 4:13

I've never heard of any specific movement that would obligatorily accompany a specific word or phrase.

However, especially if you count facial expression as movement, certain rhetoric strategies are, I believe, accompanied at least very often by movement. Sarcasm, mockery and such typically involve a specific intonation and facial expression. In that sense I can see how a certain phrase could begin to usually cooccur with a specific expression through being used primarily in an ironic sense. I suppose that this also accounts to a certain degree for the popularity of emoticons: without them it's often diffucult to decide if what one's reading is a joke or serious.

I suppose yes and no might often come together with head movement but it's surely not a rule.

On a theoretical ground, I can say this would be a relatively unlikely thing to happen, as being obviously redundant. The only scenario that comes to my mind that could lead to an obligatory cooccurrence, is with 'holy' or taboo words, where e.g. a certain movement could perhaps possibly be required in some culture when mentioning the name of a god, demon or something of the kind.


"Forgive me, father" usually means something different and quite specific when genuflecting and/or crossing oneself.

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