Is gesture a universal language? When lost for words, we point, wave, motion and otherwise use our hands to attempt to indicate meaning. However, much of this form of communication is intuitive and is not generally seen to be, by itself, an effective substitution for speech.
John Bulwer (1606 – 1656), an English doctor and philosopher, attempted to record the vocabulary contained in hand gestures and bodily motions and, in 1644, published Chirologia, or the Naturall Language of the Hand alongside a companion text Chironomia, or the Art of Manual Rhetoric, an illustrated collection of hand and finger gestures that were intended for an orator to memorise and perform whilst speaking.
For Bulwer, gesture was the only from of speech that was inherently natural to mankind, and he saw it as a language with expressions as definable as written words. He describes some recognisable hand gestures, such as stretching out hands as an expression of entreaty or wringing them to convey grief, alongside more unusual movements, including pretending to wash your hands as a way to protest innocence, and to clasp the right fist in the left palm as a way to insult your opponent during an argument. Although Bulwer’s theory has its roots in classical civilisation, from the works of Aristotle, he was inspired by hundreds of different works, including biblical verses, medical texts, histories, poems and orations, in order to demonstrate his conclusions.
The language of gesture proved a popular subject in the age of eloquence, and inspired many similar works. Bulwer’s work was primarily meant for the pulpit, but also had applications for the stage. Although we do not know if these hand gestures were ever used by public speakers as they were intended, there is some evidence of the book’s impact on popular culture. Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy (completed in 1767) features characters who clasp their hands together in the heat of argument, one who dramatically holds his left index finger between his right thumb and forefinger to signal a dispute, and another who folds his hands as a gesture of idleness.
This was not the end for the Chirologia, however. Some years after publishing the book, Bulwer became one of the first people in England to propose educating deaf people. Although the link to deaf studies seems evident, the Chirologia only makes passing reference to deafness, but this nevertheless may have inspired Bulwer’s further research in the area, and how fingerspelling and gesture can be used as a form of communication in themselves. The hand shapes described in the Chirologia are still used in British Sign Language today.
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