The hand gestures that last longer than spoken languages

Our hands are a useful tool for adding meaning to our speech. They might help us to recall words and shape our thoughts – they can even change the sounds our audience hears.

Even people who have been blind from birth gesture as they speak, so you might be led to believe that there is something universally understood about the gestures we make – but that is not the case.

The “thumbs up” might be a common way to show your appreciation on social media, but in some parts of Europe and the Middle East the gesture can be offensive. Just because a gesture is common, it is not necessarily universal, warns Lauren Gawne, a linguist at La Trobe University in Australia.

And its meaning can change over time. News stories from 2003 reported that US troops travelling through Iraq were greeted by Iraqis with their thumbs up. Were the locals offering their support to the foreign forces or being rude? According to the US Defense Language Institute, a body that provides foreign language training for US forces, Middle Easterners had adopted the Western use of the thumbs up after the first Gulf War as a symbol of their support.

Perhaps they weren’t being as rude as some thought. More recent diplomatic trips to the Middle East also suggest that the Western use is widespread. But even in the West, a thumbs up does not universally mean the same thing. Scuba divers, for example, use thumbs up to mean “I’m going up to the surface“.

The origins of the thumbs up are contentious. Some attribute it to the climax of gladiatorial battles, in which the fate of the losing fighter was decided. Whether a thumbs up or down meant life or death, or whether any thumb at all was a good thing, is disputed. That the gesture of showing someone your thumb has survived longer than the spoken Latin language is mightily impressive, says Gawne. It shows the power of a gesture to cross cultures and time. But, the fact that its origins are mysterious and its use has changed from being an indication of life or death to “everything is OK” or something obscene, demonstrates that hand gestures might not have the same meaning forever.

Read more: BBC

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