I love constructed languages, especially in fiction where I get a taste of constructed culture to go with it. One interesting idea that has popped up a few times in what I've been reading is the idea of a spoken language that has some kind of body language to accompany it. Every language, as a cultural phenomenon, does, but what is interesting about these languages is that the visual/physical cues are essential, not optional.

Take a look at this recent question about simultaneous articulation of sounds, and this question at the Science Fiction & Fantasy SE, which I'm basically pulling over into the Linguistics SE with some clarification. (The one at SciFi SE is talking about body language and language in general; this is a little more specific. Also, there's a different group of people answering it :)

Here are two examples:

"Tempi," I asked. "Is all of this?" I made a gesture to my face, then smiled, frowned, rolled my eyes. "Does all this happen with hands in Ademic?"

  • In The Wise Man's Fear (Book 2 of the Kingkiller Chronicles) by Patrick Rothfuss, the Adem people have a spoken language and a kind of signing with the left hand. The Adem people are seen by outsiders as fidgety, silent people because the signed language can be used alone for brief exchanges, but it is also used while speaking. It adds nuance to meaning, intention, intensity and emotion. There is a man in the town that lost three of his fingers as a mercenary, and he is basically seen as being mute. The Ademic spoken language is said to be more "open" (a small lexicon of broadly defined words?) than other languages, and one can only be understood clearly when pairing the hand language with it.

  • In The Amber Spyglass (Book 3 in His Dark Materials) by Philip Pullman, there is another world populated by animals called mulefa (pl; sg: zalif) which have prehensile trunks like elephants. Their language is a combination of sounds and a swinging movement of their trunks in a particular direction, ie the same sound can mean something different if the trunk flicks a different direction. I always drew the parallel to tonal languages. The human who visits this world has to swing her arm to mimic their trunks because the movement is essential to the language.

There are, of course, many instances where body language plays a role in communication, but I think the idea of it being part of the language is unique. Besides sign languages, I don't think that there are real languages that operate like this, but I've been trying to think of examples where signs or physical cues inject new (non-redundant, ha), concrete information into a conversation. Here's what I've come up with:

  • Nodding or shaking one's head (without language to accompany it)
  • Pointing (without deictic phrases like "over there")
  • The "shh" finger without the "shh"
  • Greeting and parting gestures like waving, offering a handshake, bowing, etc (Usually would not occur without some language, but could?)
  • Making "typing hands" while saying something like "So then I said..." automatically puts the conversation being referred to on a computer

This last one, although kind of a silly example, is more what I'm thinking of. The other examples here are all part of the mechanics of a conversation: things that are really common or culturally part of the routine of talking. But "typing hands" adds entirely new content to the conversation: where and how they conversation took place. Neat!

I'm steering away from "body language" type cues like eye rolling, shrugging, or crossed arms which will more often reference the conversation itself, not what the conversation is about.

Anything come to mind?

  • 1
    To me this question looks rather open-ended. If you would need to make one question, what would it be?
    – Alenanno
    Sep 28, 2011 at 20:42
  • 1
    It's essentially "What are other examples of this phenomenon?" It just took a lot of explaining what that phenomenon is. =]
    – mollyocr
    Sep 28, 2011 at 21:12
  • 3
    In American English, the adverb "yay" preceding a size adjective requires co-articulation of a size-indicating gesture: "The outflow pipe is about yay big." [Speaker holds his hands a foot apart.]
    – librik
    Sep 29, 2011 at 9:56
  • Don't forget winking (cue scene from "I, Robot").
    – Nate Glenn
    Jul 23, 2017 at 8:49

3 Answers 3


co-speech gesture is an area that has received lots of attention only in the last 20 years or so. You'll find lots of work being done on the importance of gestural information contributing to meaning. Adam Kendon and David McNeill have both done a lot of work on this. To summarise two of the more interesting pieces of work in relation to your question:

Susan Golden-Meadows found that if the gestures accompanying the description of how to solve a maths puzzle contributed to the explanation of how to solve it then children were more likely to be able to solve to problem (see her 2003 book).

By far my farvourite recent work on this is Jenny Green's 2010 thesis (University of Melbourne) on Arrandic story telling . In Arrandic languages of Australia story telling is always performed with speech, gesture and sand drawing. All three contribute meaning to the story. Although it's only one genre of speech some of this does carry over to general discourse.


I'd add in "air quotes". They're an interesting example of a signed component to a predominantly spoken language, but rather than being borrowed from signing, they're borrowed from writing.

A few months ago I was having a conversation over the phone when suddenly I felt like I couldn't say what I was trying to say -- all because they wouldn't be able to see me doing air quotes.

  • Yes, great example! There is often a "tone" that accompanies the air quotes too, but I definitely make them even when I'm on the phone.
    – mollyocr
    Sep 29, 2011 at 13:53
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    Air quotes aren't the only example of this kind of gesture that contributes to meaning. In Iran speakers use what is known as a 'pistol hand' gesture to emphasise their speech - see Seyfeddinipur, M. (2004). Meta-discursive gestures from Iran; Some uses of the 'Pistol Hand'. The semantics and pragmatics of everyday gestures. C. Müller and R. Posner. Weidler, Buchverlag: 205-216.
    – LaurenG
    Sep 30, 2011 at 2:16
  • Even in signed languages there are gestures that aren't normally considered part of the language signal. This can include things as simple as body posture, but can also include things like mouth shape. Sometimes these things are required components of a sign and sometimes they aren't.
    – mmoosman
    Oct 1, 2011 at 17:54
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    @mmoosman, I'd treat things like that as suprasegmentals in signed language.
    – Joe
    Oct 1, 2011 at 22:14

In the Sinosphere they often mime the writing of characters during a conversation (or even while talking to themselves). This is commonly used to explain characters and spelling, but speakers will often write things while talking even if the speaker cannot see what is being written. Paula Cibulka gives a nice summary of the phenomenon as seen in Japan.

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