Reference in action: Links between pointing and language

by Cooperrider, Kensy Andrew, Ph.D., UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN DIEGO, 2011, 201 pages; 3481385


When referring to things in the world, speakers produce utterances that are composites of speech and action. Pointing gestures are a pervasive part of such composite utterances, but many questions remain about exactly how pointing is integrated with speech. In this dissertation I present three strands of research that investigate relations of different kinds between pointing and language.

A first strand investigates the relationship between pointing gestures and spoken demonstratives, such as this and that in English. Linguists, philosophers, and psychologists have long noted the pointing-demonstrative relationship but have not yet characterized it with any precision. At the same time, cross-disciplinary controversy about the meaning of demonstratives has intensified. I present findings from two studies using a referential communication task, which suggest that demonstrative use may hinge on pointing in previously unappreciated ways.

A second strand of research presents an exploratory investigation of a commonplace but ignored class of pointing: gestures that speakers direct toward their own bodies. An analysis was carried out of body-directed gestures in a corpus of one-on-one interviews, resulting in a typology of three types of body-directed gestures—self-points, body-points, and body-anchors. Each type is considered in turn, with a focus on basic questions about how, when, and why such gestures are produced.

The third strand considers cross-cultural differences in pointing and the question of what motivates these differences. A case study is presented of a previously undocumented facial pointing gesture—nose-pointing —used by the Yupno, an indigenous group of Papua New Guinea. Based on examples of pointing and non-pointing uses of the form, we propose that facial gesture is linked to a particular semantic theme, and discuss how this link is both iconically motivated and shaped by features of Yupno language and communicative practice.

Together these different strands of research contribute to our understanding of pointing as both a window into processes of conceptualization and a cornerstone of human social interaction. The findings presented offer new insights into the disparate forces—biomechanics, grammar, conceptual structure, and cultural practices—that give this cornerstone shape.

AdviserRafael Nunez
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsLinguistics; Behavioral psychology; Cognitive psychology
Publication Number3481385

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