The origins of language in manual gestures

Michael C. Corballis

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

The origins of language in manual gestures


This article explores the origins of language in manual gestures. Humans have the capacity to produce complex intentional gestures either vocally or manually and either system can serve as the medium for language. Vocal learning is especially critical to speech, and few non-human primate species appear capable of more than limited vocal learning. Studies suggest that primate calls show limited modifiability, but its basis remains unclear, and it is apparent in subtle changes within call types rather than the generation of new call types. The discovery of mirror neurons in area F5 of primate prefrontal cortex further supports the evolutionary priority of manual gesture. The hands and arms would lend themselves naturally to mimed representation of events in bipedal hominins. Mime is fundamentally imitative, in that there is a mapping between the mimed action and what it represents. Modern signed languages retain a strong mimetic, or iconic, component such as in Italian sign language some 50% of hand signs and 67% of the bodily locations of signs stem from iconic representations. The addition of phonation, perhaps through selection for a FOXP2 mutation, would allow non-visible gestures within the mouth, including movements of the larynx, velum and tongue, to be recovered from the acoustic signal, as proposed by the motor theory of speech perception.

Keywords: manual gestures; sign languages; FOXP2 mutation; phonation; non-visible gestures

Article.  1623 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution

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