Research: Iconic Gestures

 

 

Current Research Project:  Iconic Gestures

Can a gorilla create "iconic" gestures?   The use of iconic gestures--the spontaneous gestures people often use to depict their subject matter as they talk--is a universal part of human language and expression. Yet, there is currently considerable debate as to whether nonhuman apes share our cognitive ability to produce iconic gestures. This project's aim is to document and describe Koko's iconic gestures and to understand the longitudinal processes by which they become conventionalized into signs.

Koko spontaneously invites a sign to let Penny know she needs a tissu.
 

The great apes, including humans and gorillas, share a propensity to communicate through the use of manual gestures. The use of iconic gestures in particular--the spontaneous gestures people create to depict their subject matter as they talk--is a universal part of human language and expression. However, there is currently considerable debate as to whether nonhuman apes share our cognitive ability to create iconic gestures.

The research of Joanne Tanner, Honorary Research Associate at the Gorilla Foundation, has figured prominently in this debate. Tanner and her colleagues (Tanner & Byrne, 1996; Perlman, Tanner, & King, in press) studied the gestural communication of gorillas at the San Francisco Zoo). They found evidence in gorillas of the same fundamental creative processes that are involved in the use of human iconic gesture. Tanner and Byrne have also collaborated with Penny Patterson to study Koko’s iconic gestures, making use of the Foundation’s journal records of Koko’s sign development. This work suggests that Koko’s special human-fostered development has enhanced her ability to create iconic gestures.

Currently, the Iconic Gesture project is focused on making use of the video database for evidence of Koko’s iconic abilities. The project's aim is to document and describe Koko's iconic gestures and to understand the longitudinal processes by which they become conventionalized into signs.

Related Publications:

Perlman, M., Tanner, J. E., & King, B. J. (in press). A mother gorillaʼs flexible use of touch to direct her infant reveals continuity between gesture and action. In S. Pika & K. Liebal (Eds.) Current Developments in Non-Human Primate Gesture Research. John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Tanner, J. E. & Byrne, Richard W. (1996). Representation of action through iconic gesture in a captive lowland gorilla. Current Anthropology, 37(1), 162-173.

Tanner, Joanne E., Patterson, Francine G., & Byrne, Richard W. (2006). Development of spontaneous gestures in zoo-living gorillas and sign-taught gorillas: from action and location to object representation. Journal of Developmental Processes, Vol. 1, 69-103

 

Investigators:

Principal Investigator:  Dr. Marcus Perlman, Independent Researcher

Next Steps:

Continue  to explore  spontaneously created "iconic" gestures in gorillas, via detailed, longitudinal examination of the video record spanning Koko's and Michael's lives, as well as ongoing communication with Koko (and  family).

 

 


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