Dimensions of variation and multifunctionality of speech-accompanying gestures in discourse

Sandra Debreslioska er postdoc ved Lunds Universitet i Sverige og gæsteforsker på Universitetet i Köln, Tyskland. Hun forsker i den rolle som den visuelle modalitet spiller i sprog. Hendes særlig fokus er på brugen af gestus i narrativ diskurs, men hun har også arbejdet med tysk tegnsprog. Hun interesserer sig for sproglig produktion såvel som forståelse. Sandra har en ph.d.-grad i lingvistik fra Lunds Universitet og en kandidatgrad fra Radboud University Nijmegen i Holland.


Gestures are considered to be part of language and to form a tightly integrated system together with speech. Thus, when engaging in talk, speakers use a combination of speech and gestures to get their messages across. But while speech is mostly obligatory in order to communicate information to an addressee, gestures are not. Rather, during a certain stretch of discourse, there are moments in which gestures are produced and others when they are not. For instance, in the context of narrative discourse, if speakers want to introduce a new entity into the story, they will necessarily have to mention the entity in speech by using a referential expression denoting it. If they do not, the addressee will have no representation of the entity in question. When it comes to gestures on the other hand, this obligatoriness does not apply in the same way. Speakers have the possibility to but do not necessarily always accompany each mention of a discourse entity with a gesture.

Besides a variation in terms of their presence/absence, gestures can also vary in terms of where they are produced, how they are produced and in terms of what information they express. For instance, gestures can be produced in specific locations in gesture space which the speaker can reuse anaphorically during the duration of the discourse. In addition to that, gestures can represent an entity or situation from a character versus an observer perspective. A character perspective would correspond to a speaker enacting a flapping motion of a bird by mapping the bird’s wings onto their arms. Alternatively, a speaker can draw a path through gesture space in order to represent the motion of a bird flying away, and thus look onto the scene like an outside observer. Finally, gestures can provide information about the size, shape or location of an entity (e.g., a small, round bird sitting on the window sill). Whereas at other times gestures will represent actions or movements of an entity (e.g., a bird flapping its wings).

In this talk, I present some of my work in which I examined the different dimensions along which gestures can vary (when, where, how, what) in the production and comprehension of sustained discourse. The focus is on the representation of discourse referents in introduction and maintenance contexts. I identify three different functions of gestures on the discourse level (parallel, complementary and facilitatory) and discuss what the findings can tell us about the tight relationship between gestures and speech, as well as why gestures need to be considered in linguistic studies on discourse.