An Online Journal of Modern Philology ISSN 1214-5505

Observing Gestures


Lenka Sedlářová


This article makes an attempt at describing the methods of observation of nonverbal elements, particularly gestures.

This article makes an attempt at describing the methods of observation of nonverbal elements, particularly gestures. Adam Kendon defines gesture as

actions such as waving goodbye, the pointings and pantomimes that people sometimes engage in when communication by talk is impossible or the head waggings and arm wavings that accompany talk (Kendon, 2004: 8)

On the contrary, what does not belong to gesturing are the movements used to change positions of the speakers themselves, of objects, and those that unintentionally express inner feelings and emotions. These are all nonverbal features which are not primarily and consciously intended to contribute to developing communication between speaker and addressee.

The principal objectives of my research were focused on the relationship and interaction between bodily movements, particularly gestures, and speech within the theory of functional sentence perspective.

The material used for the gesture-speech analysis was a feature film, American Beauty(1999). Therefore the gestures analysed were posed. Correspondingly, the spoken text of the film had been written by a screenwriter. Such material thus cannot be viewed as a sample of authentic communication. Precisely, I observed American actors in posed communicative situations. I was interested in the analysis of the way the American actors, influenced by the British movie director Sam Mendes and his team, employed nonverbal elements to express meanings which more or less contributed to development of communication between the film and the audience (represented by myself).

Moreover, the analysis of such a material has contributed to developing the method of gesture-speech analysis within the theory of functional sentence perspective. The diverse character of the situations and the actors’ performances proved useful during the pragmatic analysis. And it also might provide us with many useful stimuli and ideas for future research into spontaneous discourse.

However, this article does not aim at describing the results of the research itself. It rather focuses on the by-product of the analysis, and aims to explain discrepancies between two different ways of observation of nonverbal features to a potential beginning observer.

Within the research in the theory of functional sentence perspective (e.g. Svoboda 1981, 1989) I was concerned with what was happening nonverbally at the level of particular words, and whether and how such nonverbal activities were linked with the semantic content of the particular word, or communicative unit, the distributional field of communicative dynamism or any pragmatic meanings within the utterance. Therefore nonverbal elements at the level of words, not smaller segments, were to be annotated.

The following section of the movie has been selected to illustrate the issue which is the topic of the present article: Lester Burnham, a 42-year-old hero in the movie, is sitting in front of the quality manager (named Brad) of the company he is employed by. The manager wants Lester to write his job description which should serve as basis for firing someone and saving the company money. Lester resents having to become involved in this humiliating procedure which, as he expects, is to lead to the only result, firing Lester Burnham. He responds to Brad’s justification of the staff quality evaluation with the words which include the following distributional field of communicative dynamism:

Lester: “You gotta free up some cash.”

Firstly, the actor’s bodily movements in the film American Beauty(1999) were recorded by means of casual observation. The yellow section of the table below refers to what was annotated after watching the film with the naked eye. The actor accompanies the verb, Transition ‘free up’ with a symbolic gesture. The gesture seems to coincide with the Transition in terms of linearity. Moreover, it seems to relate to the Transition even semantically. The hand movements symbolize some sort of change, making changes in the company to free up the money.

A Table
Table: Comparison of the annotations made by means of a simple method and professional software.

Secondly, the professional software Elan(online) was used in order to provide functions for observing the movie at very slow pace, by frames, playing the selected sections, and aligning the picture and sound played with particular annotated data in the annotation board displayed by it. The microanalytic observations by means of Elanare displayed in the blue section of the table. Such annotations contain data about the segments of the gesture (McNeill, 2005: 29-34; Kendon, 2004: 111-113). The segments of the above-mentioned gesture involve:

  • the preparation phase, which is made on the word “gotta”, Transition Proper,
  • the stroke, which is on the words “free up”, Transition,
  • and the recovery, which is on the word “some”, belonging to Rheme Proper.

After comparing the discrepancies between the two ways of observations, I came to these conclusions:

  • The casual, naked eye observations only seem to capture the stroke phase of the gesture, which a layman observer regards as the gesture itself.
  • The Elan microanalytic observations revealed the segments of the gesture, its phases. This proved the finding that
    the preparation of the gesture phrase begins in advance of the parts of the spoken expressions to which it is to be linked semantically. This means that, when using gesture, the speaker must already have organized it at the same time as the plan for the spoken phrase with which it is to co-occur is organized. (Kendon, 2004: 125).

My conclusion is that it is necessary to take into account both the ways of making observations of nonverbal elements as the professional one enables us to distinguish details and minute movements as well as exact shapes of complicated gestures made fast while the one with the naked eye uncovers the dynamic aspect of the gesture phases. It enables us to decide on the stroke phase of a complex gesture, which is made with greater force.


Elan for Windows 3.5.0 [online]. In Tools. Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen. [Downloaded 5 May 2008]. Available at:

Kendon, A. 2004. Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance. CUP.

McNeill, D. 2005. Gesture and Thought. London: The University of Chicago Press. pp. 29-34

Svoboda, A. 1981. Diatheme. (A study in thematic elements, their contextual ties, thematic progressions and scene progressions based on a text from Ælfric). Brno: Filozofická fakulta Masarykovy univerzity.

Svoboda, A. 1989. Kapitoly z funkční syntaxe. Praha: Státní pedagogické nakladatelství.

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