Gesture as language: why we point with a finger

Pointing at an object… in one sense you might say that this simple gesture doesn’t just replace a word, but that it is a word—perhaps the first word. We know that it and other such gestures play a fundamental role in human language, but until now, we have not known where these gestures come from. To find out more, my colleagues and I investigated the hypothesis that pointing originates from touch.

I was interested in understanding why a pointing gesture picks out one object and not another, because I am also interested in how demonstrative words—words like this and that – pick out their objects. Demonstratives and pointing gestures are some of the simplest and earliest ways we have of “referring” to things, so that understanding these words and gestures gets us close to understanding the foundations of linguistic communication in general.

One evening at the Café Waikiki in Paris, Brent Strickland and I hyphothesized that we were pointing at objects not by creating arrows with our fingers, but as if we were “virtually touching” them in the distance. Brent, who works on gestural communication, had thought a lot about the angle the finger makes when it points, and how precisely it should be directed toward the objects to designate them. Another colleague, Gregor Kachel, had also worked on infants’ understanding of others’ pointing gestures. We decided to put our heads together and come up with some studies investigating the possibility that pointing originates in touch.

In our new paper, we discovered three things. First, that when people point at objects, they are inclined to orient their finger-tip as if they are aiming to touch the object they point at. The angle of their finger does not predict which object they point at—as we might be inclined to assume. Pointing gestures do not work like arrows, as street-signs do. Instead the line that connects the producer’s eye and finger-tip is the best predictor of what they are pointing at. This suggests that pointing is somehow rooted in touch.

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